While music streaming services continue to add subscribers in the U.S., “in a potentially troubling sign for the recorded music business,” the number of total streams has remained the same. That trend is the topic of a think piece in Billboard, authored by Will Page, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics who previously was chief economist at both Spotify and PRS for Music, a British music copyright collective.
In the story, he wonders, “Has streaming volume really peaked in the U.S., or is the current stalled growth a blip?” According to MIDiA Research, domestic streaming services added 11 million paying users from January to September, totaling 117.9 million. But for the past four months and counting, audio music streams have averaged 17.5 billion a week.
Page says that’s up slightly from the early March pre-pandemic peak, before the lockdown cut music listening down by 13% to a year low of less than 15 billion streams, “as consumers stopped commuting and obsessed over the news. Streaming gradually rebounded, increasing 15% by the end of June — but has plateaued since.”
Answering his own question, Page surmises that a number of factors impacting the staid numbers and suggests they “seem temporary.” Label sources point to the previous year, where cyclical trends in the release schedule led to finite periods of flatness. The presidential election also appears to have sliced into listening, with a sharp dip in streaming during election week. Thanksgiving also historically creates a 2% to 3% dip in music streaming. “Another obvious factor limiting music streaming time for now is the lack of commuting, with most offices still closed,” he writes.
However, Page also looks toward other forces that may be applying more long-term pressure on streaming volume. For one, gaming is competing with music. Page cites a number of stats: Market research firm IDG Consulting reports increasing average gameplay hours per user across the board. Counter Strike Global Offensive play increased 40% since the pandemic started and Defense of the Ancients is up 38%. Roblox, which appeals to kids 9 and up, hit 120 million global monthly active users in June 2020, and IDG Consulting now puts that figure at about 160 million — a fifth of which are likely in the U.S. That’s a 33% increase in just the past five months.
The increasing popularity of TikTok may also be at play, with the app installed more than 66 million times this year. App analytics company Sensor Tower says that 40% of TikTok’s U.S. growth accumulated in 2020. Meanwhile, adults are increasingly turning to podcasts: Between 2014 and 2019, time spent with music was down 5% and time spent with spoken word was up 20%, according to NPR and Edison Research, Page notes.
Overall, he believes, “When artists resume touring and releasing big albums to drive ticket sales, music streaming could still return back to growth, but the new attention economy guards against such complacency. It’s likely that music streaming will struggle to grow even when things return to normal. We know that songs are getting shorter, and without more songs being consumed, music is already losing the battle for attention.”