Friday, April 16, 2021

What we listened to in the strange days of 2020

“Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down
They're going to destroy
Our casual joys”
― The Doors

It never got weird enough for me.”
― Hunter S. Thompson

The year 2020 was filled with strange days indeed, no doubt the strangest I have seen in my six decades on this planet.

What a year! While many of us spent most of the year at home separated from friends and family due to a worldwide pandemic, others took to the streets to protest deadly police brutality and to challenge a demonic president teetering on the edge of insanity. Sadly, far too many of us denied the deadly virus and worshipped the mad king as a god. Blessedly, the year drew to a close with spontaneous celebrations as a brutal, contentious election was finally called with the good guy as the victor.

So, how did we cope with the massive upheaval in our lives? Online meeting apps connected us with the workplace and loved ones while video streaming services brought moves and television into our homes. But let us not forget music where many of us found a refuge. Audio on-demand music streaming finished the year with a 17 percent increase in the United States.

That factoid is contained in a year-end report by MRC Data (formerly Nielsen SoundScan and Nielsen Music Products), in partnership with Billboard, that tracked 2020 music sales data. The 55-page report paints a comprehensive portrait of what we listened to and how we listened to it.

“Before the coronavirus pandemic led to nationwide lockdowns, the music industry was doing great,” the introduction to the report reads. “Audio streaming increased 20 percent year-over-year through March 12, while total audio consumption was up 15 percent through the first 10 weeks of the year. But by March 20, the widespread shutdown of all live concerts, events, offices and schools disrupted the daily activities and commutes that drove that growth, and caused us all to reassess our media habits. MRC Data tracked these ever-changing habits over a series of eight COVID-19 studies, which found that time spent with music actually led all other media types and increased over time.”

There is a tremendous amount of information to unpack in this report. If you are at all interested in the music industry, especially its cultural impact, I suggest you take a look at the document.

One interesting takeaway is that we listened to more music in 2020 but bought less of it. Total audio consumption in the U.S. was up 11.6 percent over the previous year, and on-demand streaming of songs was up by 17 percent. Sales of digital albums dropped 12.5 percent, while sales of physical albums dropped 7.4 percent. Sales of vinyl LPs, though, increased a whopping 46.2 percent. Consumption of music older than 18 months increased 17.9 percent.

What we listened to also changed. Children’s music and country gained audiences. From the report: “Families turned to music to keep their away-from-school kids entertained, prompting a 5 percent increase in audio streams of children’s music during the first week of lockdown that sustained growth through the week ending May 7. Country, previously one of the slowest genres to convert fans to streaming services, saw accelerated growth of 21.4 percent from initial lockdown through the week of May 7, and ended the year with a surge in share of on- demand audio streams, from 6.9 percent pre- COVID to 7.5 percent post-lockdown.”

Despite a plethora of streaming services, radio is still a primary source of music for listeners. Per the report: “Radio remained a key vehicle for audiences to consume music, even as commutes and other daily routines shifted. In a typical month, 61 percent of consumers said they still listen to music on over-the-air radio, with 51 percent of music listeners citing over-the-air radio as a top music discovery source.”

Impromptu celebrations broke out Nov. 7 when Joe Biden was confirmed as President-elect. And two unofficial anthems of those gatherings saw huge streaming increases. “IMarkkeyz x DJ Suede the Remix God’s “Lose Yo Job” saw the biggest single-day percentage jump in on-demand audio streams, surging 585.95 percent on Nov. 7 versus the day prior, while YG & Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT” (FDT stands for F**k Donald Trump) captured the highest volume of election-related streams for the day, with 2.06 million on-demand audio streams,” the report said.

While rock music no longer dominates the nation’s music scene, it still is a popular genre, second only to R&B/hip hop in total volume. Here are rock’s 2020 stats: 19.5 percent of total volume, 39.5 percent of total album sales, 44 percent of physical album sales, 30.8 percent of digital album sales, 21.4 percent of digital song sales, 15.6 percent of total on-demand streams, 16.3 percent of on-demand audio streams and 11.4 percent of on-demand video streams. Much of that though, is driven by classic rock acts.

“2020 was a transitional period for rock,” the report said, “as a global pause on touring caused many of the genre’s biggest acts to sit out the year for new releases. Concurrently, the growth of catalog rock continued to accelerate as heritage acts like Queen and Journey helped the genre increase its piece of the streaming pie, finishing 2020 as the No. 2 most-streamed genre .... On the new-release front, rock trio AJR scored its biggest hit to date with ‘Bang!,’ which finishes as the No. 2 biggest rock song of the year, and the runner-up biggest rock song at radio. Just outside the top five year-end rock albums this year were new albums from Miley Cyrus and Machine Gun Kelly, who both released their first rock- categorized projects in the fourth quarter.”

The top five rock albums of 2020, four of them greatest-hits compilations, were classic-rock acts, led by Queen’s Greatest Hits, followed by Elton John’s Diamonds, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicles: The 20 Greatest Hits and Journey’s Greatest Hits

The top five rock songs were also dominated by legacy acts. “Rumors” by Fleetwood Mac was first, with “Bang!” by AJR second, “Believer” by Imagine Dragons third, “Don't Stop Believin’” by Journey fourth and “Hotel California’ by The Eagles fifth.

Classic rock also dominated top rock-radio songs. "High Hopes" by Panic at the Disco was the No. 1 song, followed by “Bang!” by AJR. Journey (“Don’t Stop Believin’”), Bon Jovi (“Living On A Prayer”)  and Joan Jett and The Blackhearts (“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”) were third through fifth.

Top physical-album sales (vinyl, CD and cassette) included Queen’s Greatest Hits at No. 8 and Abbey Road by The Beatles at No. 10. Those two albums were third and fourth in vinyl album sales. The soundtrack album Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix, Vol. 1, was fifth in vinyl sales, with Legend: The Best Of by Bob Marley and The Wailers sixth and Rumors seventh. Michael Jackson's Thriller was ninth.

Songs by The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Journey were in the top 10 for programmed audio streams, which are streams from services compliant with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Maroon 5 was the closest thing to a rock act to make any of the digital and on-demand lists.

Two classic rock acts, Phil Collins and Fleetwood Mac, got a tremendous boost in 2020 due to viral videos.

“A viral video featuring twin brothers reacting to hearing Phil Collins’ 1981 top 20 Hot 100 hit ‘In the Air Tonight’ helped streams for the song surge 122.1 percent Aug. 7-9 (compared with Aug. 4-6) to 2 million, while downloads of the song leapt 1,516 percent to 6,000,” the report noted. “Collins’ catalog of solo songs also saw a 602 percent boost in digital downloads, to 11,000.”

TikTok was a blessing for Fleetwood Mac. According to the report: “Forty-three years after ‘Dreams’ became the group’s sole Hot 100 No. 1, the song returned to the chart after it accumulated 2.9 million on-demand U.S. streams (up 88.7 percent) during the three-day period of Sept. 25-27, when a popular TikTok video featuring skateboarder Nathan Apodaca drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice started to reach mainstream audiences. The song eventually rose to a 2020 high of No. 12 on the Hot 100 and accumulated 249 million on-demand streams, 62.6 million audience impressions at radio and 147,000 downloads this year.”

Two other classic-rock acts set Billboard chart history in 2020: Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 on Nov. 7, making The Boss the first to earn a new Top 5 album in each of the past six decades (1970s through 2020s). In March, James Taylor became the first act with new Top 10 albums in each of the past six decades with the No. 4 arrival of American Standard on the Billboard 200 dated March 14.

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