Why Are Music Streams Down If Everyone’s Stuck at Home? Experts Weigh in

Geoff Mayfield

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While it might seem counterintuitive that music streams would decline at a time when so many Americans were ordered to stay home, data-savvy label executives were neither startled nor concerned by the 7.6% drop in plays that happened in the March 13-19 tracking week. Simply put, they say it’s down to focus on news and other televised options; the loss of daily commutes, where many people stream music; and multiple people at home together streaming the same things.

As governors and mayors throughout the country declared stay-at-home orders, consumers who typically listen to music at work and during commutes turned their attention to visual media, including news coverage and TV streaming services. Nielsen Media Research reported a 60% rise in overall TV viewing for the tracking week ending March 20, with CNN up 119% over the prior week, Fox News up by 60% and MSNBC up 37%.

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Reality shows have also drawn more eyeballs in recent weeks, as have streaming services like Disney+, Apple TV, Hulu and the omnipresent Netflix, while video streams on YouTube and other outlets rose by 7%.

“Based on our data analysis over the last two weeks, TV streaming engagement is up 15-17% week over week,” says Daniel Ives, managing director for Wedbush Securities. “From a subscriber perspective, we believe when it comes to the likes of Apple, Netflix, Disney there’s been at least a 10-12% subscriber bump, relative to what you would typically see in a normalized few-week period.”

More eyes on TV screens meant less time for music consumption. Based on what had already played out in countries where COVID-19 disrupted life earlier, music executives were prepared for a bumpy ride.

“We weren’t really surprised given how audio streaming drops over the typical weekend,” says a major label analyst. “Thus far we are not seeing streams rebound this week, and from other territories we looked at, we expect it may be several weeks before we do.”

“When it first happens, people are locked into news,” says a senior executive at another major. “I think both Italy and Spain showed us that after the dips it comes back, so I expect we’ll return to at least previous numbers, and then with subscriber growth, we will ultimately be up. But, gaming and video, television and Netflix — they’re the short-term winners.”

“I view this as an anomalous one- to two-week period,” says Ives. “As more consumers get used to working from home, music in the background while they’re doing work is going to be more the norm rather than sitting on the couch watching ‘Stranger Things’.”

According to Alpha Data, the tracking service that provides music data to Rolling Stone, Variety and Music Business Worldwide, programmed streams from services like Pandora dropped even more than on-demand streams. The former slid by 9% (3.5 billion), while on-demand streams from the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music saw a 7.3% decline (16.6 billion).

Aside from the week after Christmas, when volume adjusts from a holiday-week pace, weekly streaming variances of more than 1% are unusual, and from the start of the year through the tracking week that began March 6, there had only been one week in 2020 when streams didn’t grow over the prior week.

As concerns over the U.S. spread of COVID-19 rose, the March 6-12 period saw streams drop 2% to 21.7 billion, setting the stage for last week’s bigger drop. Based on patterns from some European markets and data tracked during the week, two veteran music analysts expect audio streams’ downhill slide continued for the period that ended March 26.

Beyond the time displacement caused by increased video consumption, music executives say audio plays were impacted by three realities of a stay-home world: cars, kids and clustering.

While audio stream services saw growth during the down week on desktop, gaming console, TV, and speaker applications, one Los Angeles-based senior exec looks at data and his own experience to note that eliminating drive time means fewer plays.

“If you look at (Spotify’s) built-in car application, it was down over 20% listening, which makes sense. I don’t think the volume of people that are listening on game consoles is the same as the millions of people that are listening in their cars.

“You realize the number of people who aren’t in cars right now, and you can look at me as an example. I’m usually in the car two hours a day minimum, and I’d be exercising, but the gyms are closed. That’s the other piece. So, your device use is changing considerably.”

He notes that parents working from home find their listening patterns altered, too. “The last two weeks, I’ve been very physically and mentally tired because in any sort of break I get, you know what I’m doing? I’m going outside and playing with the kids for 15 minutes. Or, they’ll come in here to ask a question, so you can’t listen as much. I would imagine explicit lyrics become a bigger issue for parents, too.”

The kid factor shows up in Alpha Data’s numbers, as children’s was one of only three genres to gain plays during the period that ended March 19. The category grew by 3.8% last week, while classical rose 1.5% and folk (artists like Hozier, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Avett Brothers) had a 2.8% gain.

The overall disruption of normal routine diminishes audio plays. “My boyfriend and I, when we’re apart at different jobs, we’re listening on our separate Spotify accounts,” says a music publicist. “Now we’re cooped up together sharing one Sonos and listening to one Spotify account every day.

“You’re seeing the same thing with families. Whoever has the ‘aux’ is in control unless you’re breaking off into headphones. There’s a lot more listening together, rather than individuals streaming on their commute or in cars.”

Ghazi Shami, founder and CEO of the Empire label, made a similar observation March 26 during one of the online music panels hosted this week by Troy Carter, CEO of management company Atom Company. “Kids are home. You’ve got four people packed into the same house. You’re probably all going to be listening to the same thing, rather than everyone listening to different things.”

Declines by categories that normally crowd the top of the charts fell even more than the overall market in the March 13-19 frame, with pop down by 8.3%, hip-hop by 8.6% and R&B by 11.6%. Latin music saw the biggest slide, down 14.2%.

The numbers were also impacted by patterns that play out during business as usual, as albums by rapper Lil Uzi Vert, r&b singer Jhene Aiko and K-pop group NCT-127 that debuted in the top 10 for the week ending March 12 saw inevitable second-week declines.

While streaming play numbers might look alarming, senior executives note that unlike when the industry was based solely on sales, streaming revenue isn’t diminished when transactions decline.

“The main thing for the industry is it’s probably not hurting in terms of revenue, because most people are probably not turning off their Spotify accounts or their Apple Music or Amazon or YouTube accounts,” says one senior label exec. “That’s where it’s a little bit misleading. The bigger question is, are those partners still signing up people? Is it the normal trend? That I don’t know, but for now, the pot of money remains the same.”

In the same week when audio streams dropped by almost 8%, Alpha Data saw album sales drop by 27.6%, digital album sales by 12.4% and digital songs by 10.7%. The last mentioned amounted to 3.9 million, the first time in Alpha Data’s four-year history that tracks sold less than 4 million.  Those declines prompt that exec to shudder at what might have been.

“Think about it. If it were 15 years ago when this happened, what would the industry look like when it was a heavy physical business? We would be screwed. “

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