A year ago, looking at 2020's biggest songs at radio begged the question, where were the hits of 2020 that were actually released in 2020? Integr8 Research President Matt Bailey, who this time each year analyzes the prior year's most-played, most-streamed and most-downloaded songs based on Billboard's year-end charts, asked that question, noting that all of radio's ten most-played songs had come out in 2019.
Based on Integr8's just-released report on 2021's music trends, there's better news on that front: four of last year's top 10 at radio were actually released in calendar 2021, while others, such as Dua Lipa's “Levitating,” were essentially 2021 hits given their cross-format appeal. One major exception was The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” released late in 2019, which ruled at pop radio for most of 2020 and continued its run in 2021 as it crossed to adult contemporary.
“[While] the songs listeners heard most on the radio in 2020 certainly re-enforced the idea of falling demand for the newest music...the lesson for radio [is], new music is not dead,” Bailey says.
Also very much alive, and certainly becoming a greater driver of music at radio in 2021, is streaming, according to Intergr8's analysis. “While hip-hop titles remained prominent among the year’s biggest songs on streaming, 2021 marked the first year the 10 biggest streaming hits were pop and pop-oriented hip-hop sounds typical of CHR airplay,” Bailey says, noting that for the first time ever, seven of 2021's 10 most-streamed songs were pop titles, with “Levitating” leading and hits from The Weeknd and Olivia Rodrigo right behind.
“The combination of more mass appeal titles among the most played songs on streaming services, coupled with growth for genres such as country, indicate that the usage base for streaming music has grown beyond the most youthful and tech-savvy music consumers towards a user base that increasingly includes everyone,” Bailey says. “The lesson for radio? Streaming is no longer a niche audience. It’s your audience.”
Also notable for radio: while hip-hop and pop dominated streaming in 2021, digital track buyers, what of them remain, were more likely to lean toward pop and country and less toward hip-hop. Standing out among the year's biggest paid digital downloads: six titles from K-Pop boy band BTS, only one of which, the CHR hit “Butter,” was among radio's or streaming's biggest; and two different “Let’s Go Brandon” songs, neither of which made streaming’s year-end chart.
“The shift[s] likely stemmed from an aging consumer base for paid digital downloads, as younger music fans had already migrated to streaming,” Bailey says. “However, strong sales of BTS and 'Brandon' may also suggest that certain fans with a strong affinity for an artist or a song still wish to pay money to show their passion, loyalty or support. While music sales is already largely irrelevant to radio, purchasing music in the future may become a way of signaling passion for an artist, a song, or a cause.”
Integr8's report for the past year may again show hip-hop's overall dominance and pop and country still driving radio, yet there are still key differences, Bailey says. “While the styles of music U.S. consumers enjoy most saw little change in 2021, beneath the surface of last year’s most popular songs are emerging trends that have a significant impact on how you choose current titles for your station in 2022.”