MRC Data, the music data provider formerly known as Nielsen Music, has crunched the numbers and issued its “US 2021 Year-End Report,” chockfull of factoids and trends about the year in music. Presented in collaboration with sister company Billboard, the 52-page report looks at every angle from sales to streaming to airplay across multiple genres.
Among the top takeaways: Adele’s “Easy on Me” set radio records by entering the Oct. 30-dated Radio Songs chart at No. 4, marking the highest debut since the tally became an all-format ranking in December 1998. The song scored a first week airplay audience of 65 million. Though “Easy On Me” didn’t set any records for streaming debuts, it did become the fifth song released in 2021 to accumulate more than 50 million U.S. streams in a single week with a total of 54.0 million streams. Adele’s “30” arrived Nov. 19 and saw the highest album sales debut in four years, with first-week sales of 839,000 equivalent units during the week ending Nov. 25. That figure includes album sales of 692,000 copies, which MRC says makes it the biggest-selling album debut since Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” in 2017. Its predecessor, 2015’s 25, still holds the record for most albums sold in a single week, with 3.38 million copies.
Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album” closed 2021 as both the top country album of the year and the most popular album across all genres, with 3.2 million equivalent album units earned during the year. The sprawling 30-track album marked Wallen’s first No. 1 on the all-genre weekly Billboard 200 chart in January 2021, and spent 10 weeks atop the tally — the most weeks at No. 1 for a country album since Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in 2008-09.
Beyond gargantuan chart achievements like those of Adele and Wallen, the report looks at how consumers accessed music in the preceding year. Audio on-demand streaming reached a new single-year high of 988.1 billion streams in 2021. In a year when many were looking to familiar music as comfort food against the crush of COVID, MRC reports “a notable decline” in yearly audio streams of current music, which fell 19.4%. For the first time since MRC Data began measuring streaming data, music fans spent more time with catalog titles, which shot up 29.4% this year.
MRC’s year-end report also takes a look at radio in the pandemic era. The big headline: total radio listenership for music remained steady, despite the initial impact of the pandemic on in-car radio listening. “Satellite radio and streaming live broadcast radio have compensated for the loss of AM/FM radio listeners for music engagement,” the report says. While the percentage of U.S. music listeners tuning into satellite radio in a typical month for music engagement inched up to 21% in 2021 from 19% in 2020, it was streaming live radio that enjoyed the great increase, rising from 21% to 24% year over year. AM/FM radio continued to dominate with 59% using it in a typical month for music engagement, down from 61% in 2020.
Meanwhile, the rate of people listening to podcasts in the U.S. continued to balloon over the past year. In fact, podcast listenership grew at a rate on par with both music listenership and engagement with sports, as millions of U.S. consumers picked up the habit as commutes started to resume following the 2020 lockdowns. Listening to music had the great year-over-year growth rate, up 75% for a 3% rise over 2020’s growth rate. Engaging with sports was second, up 43% over 2020 while listening to podcasts came in third with a 33% year-over-year growth rate. The growth rates for sports and podcasts were 2% higher than in 2020.
Physical music sales also saw a notable changing of the guard in 2021, with vinyl surpassing CDs as the most-sold physical format for the first time since MRC Data started measuring music sales in 1991.