Mid-Year Study Shows Recorded Music Having a Surge in 2021, Led by Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift and, Yes, Morgan Wallen

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Any lingering impact that COVID-19 had on American life did nothing to slow music’s six-year growth streak, as MRC Data’s 2021 Mid-Year Report shows overall music consumption for the first six months up 13.5% over the same stretch of 2020. That gain outpaces the 11.6% year-over-year growth that the U.S. music market clocked in all 12 months of 2020.

While hip-hop continues to be a major contributor to music revenue, the mid-year shows other genres catching up, with a country title leading all albums in overall consumption during the first six months. Although country artists like Garth Brooks and an early-in-career Taylor Swift have earned the best-selling albums of previous years, it might surprise you to learn that the top dog of the mid-year recap is music’s most un-invited guest, Morgan Wallen.

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The mid-year report card also finds actress-turned-singer Olivia Rodrigo joining the winners’ circle, Swift continuing to thrive, and the once-novel comeback by the vinyl LP is on its way to a 16th straight year of annual growth, all as streaming continues to rule the roost. On-demand audio and video song streams are up by 10.8% in the U.S. over the first half of 2020, and up 27.5% on a global basis. (The full MRC Data report can be downloaded here.)

Oh, and here’s a sentence you haven’t seen in 10 years: album sales are up over the prior year. Not albums plus the value of song streams and sales, but albums alone, although the stakes are lower now with streaming feeding a song-based consumer.

For the first half of 2021, physical and digital albums combined rang 51.3 million units, up 12.6% over the same term of 2020. Compare that with the year-end 2020 report, which saw a 9.2% decline with a total of 102.4 million. In the album’s fattest year, 2000, MRC — then called SoundScan and later named Nielsen Music — reported 755.1 million units sold.

In January, Wallen’s two-CD set, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and led the album chart for 10 consecutive weeks, even after a widely seen TMZ video revealed him to shout a racial slur in January. In the wake of that negative publicity, the producers of the Academy of Country Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards declined to book him while his label, Big Loud, suspended him, yet it showed a surge in both sales and streams.

More significantly, the event prompted most country radio stations, including those owned by the iHeartMedia and Audacy chains, to boycott his songs. Even with that vacuum of exposure, he easily leads the 2021 field.

“He was absolutely on fire, and would have been No. 1 no matter what happened,” says the EVP of one major label. “I think as with all controversies, it hurt him and it helped him. I’m sure every Proud Boy who didn’t own the record has subsequently bought it.”

As it piled up 2.1 million consumption units (album sales plus equivalent value of song streams and sales) over these six months, Wallen’s album became the first to lead the album chart for each of its first 10 weeks since Whitney Houston’s “Whitney” did so for its first 11 in 1987.

“Dangerous” also owns the longest reign by any album since Drake’s “Views” clocked 13 non-consecutive weeks in 2016. The controversy also revitalized Wallen’s 2018 debut album, “If I Know Me,” to the point where it returned to the top 10.

“Morgan Wallen, to his credit, is doing it without massive airplay for most of those six months and he got excluded from award shows,” the executive adds. “It makes you wonder what kind of numbers he could have put up” without a scandal or subsequent media blackout.

On album sales alone, his “Dangerous” came in second to Swift’s “Evermore” by a count of 374,000 to 241,000, although it sold more album downloads than any other title, with his 135,000 units outpacing the 90,000 clicked by Swift’s re-recorded version of “Fearless.” Swift’s “Evermore” is third on the digital albums list with 54,000.

While Swift remains vital, the queen of the charts thus far in 2021 is 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo, who graduated from Disney Channel star to pop sensation in January when her “Drivers License” single entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1.

She went on to earn the distinction of seeing all 11 songs from debut album “Sour” enter the Hot 100 in the same frame the collection racked up 295,000 equivalent units in its first week — the biggest seven-day total of 2021 and the biggest week for a debut album since Billboard began factoring song sales and streams into its album charts in December 2014, besting a mark that Cardi B set in 2018.

Although the album has only been out since May 21, it stands as the second most consumed set of 2021, as streams from her first two singles help her compile a six-month total of almost 1.4 million overall units. She and Wallen are the only acts to top 1 million equivalent units in the first half of 2021, although Justin’s Bieber’s “Justice” (962,000) and “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” by the late Pop Smoke (948,000) come close. Five albums racked up a million or more equivalent units in the first half of 2020, when Lil Baby’s “My Turn” topped all with 1.47 million.

Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” is the undisputed champ on MRC’s Mid-Year Top Digital Song Consumption list (sales plus equivalent value from streams) with 3.92 million units, leading runner-up “Levitating” by Dua Lipa with DaBaby at 3.2 million. The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” fell just shy of 3 million with 2.93 million, while each of the remaining top 10 songs each surpassed 2 million.

While the 13.5% gain over the first six months of 2020 is larger than 12.9% the industry saw at last year’s midpoint, it’s worth noting that the top 10 songs of the first half of 2020 compiled bigger numbers than this year’s crop. This time last year, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” led all comers with a little more than 6 million units, over Future’s “Life Is Good” with 4.2 million and the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” with 3.7 million.

The dominant numbers earned by Wallen and Rodrigo illustrate how other genres are making strides in a streaming-dominated market that favored hip-hop in recent years. Rap is still the most dominant ingredient in the upper reaches of this year’s Digital Song Consumption chart, accounting for four of the top 10 tracks, but that’s down from eight of the top 10 from the first half of 2020.

Likewise, hip-hop sports just two of the midpoint’s top 10 albums (the aforementioned Pop Smoke and No. 9 Lil Durk), compared to six of 10 in 2020’s first half and five at the halfway mark of 2019.

Pop, led by Rodrigo, owns half of the top 10 albums in the first half of 2021, compared to just three a year ago, with Lipa, Swift and Ariana Grande joining Rodrigo and Bieber in this half-year’s winner’s circle. Country, shut out of the top 10 albums in 2020’s first half, owns two slots in the latest report, with Luke Combs — the genre’s lone top 10 album in the 2020 year-end recap — joining Wallen. The Weeknd is R&B’s sole representative in the mid-year top 10, as he was a year ago.

Aside from the four hip-hop songs, the mid-year top 10 includes three pop tunes (Rodrigo, Lipa and Bieber’s “Peaches,” featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon) and three R&B entries (SZA’s “Good Days” joining the two Weeknd songs).

“Olivia Rodrigo is just rewriting the rules,” says the aforementioned label exec. “She’d be an outlier in most years. Dua Lipa has been one of the most amazing artist development stories over the past three years. The genres of the top 10 songs are more diverse than we’ve seen, and that’s good.”

Catalog titles are always prevalent among the top sellers in vinyl’s long-running comeback story, and that’s the case this year, where six of the top 10 albums have been on the market for more than 18 months. But Swift’s latest, “Evermore,” leads the pack with 143,000 sold. She and Billie Eillish each own two of the top 10 vinyl LPs.

While the fast ascent of streaming during the 2010s led to a similarly quick decline in digital downloads, mid-year 2021 sees a shift in the pattern, with digital albums down by 26.8%, compared to a 20.3% decline for digital tracks. In recent years, the steeper declines happened in song sales, as evidenced by the year-end 2020 report, when digital songs dropped by 22.3% as album downloads only slid by 12.5%.

Early this year, MRC reported that country and Latin, two genres that had long been lagged during streaming’s boom, were the two categories that showed the biggest growth in the U.S during the pandemic-impacted 2020.

Those genres are now in line with the overall industry trend, with 81.4% of country music consumed in 2021’s first half coming from streams, while accounting for 86.7% of Latin music in a six-month period when streams account for 80.9% of all genres combined. As recently as 2019, when streams made up 68% of all genres, and 76% of hip-hop and R&B combined, streams only accounted for 69% of country’s consumption, and 58% of Latin’s.

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