How the music business is faring amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Roddy Ricch
Roddy Ricch’s single “The Box” is 2020’s biggest streaming hit so far.
(Scott Dudelson / Getty Images)

Anyone paying attention to the music industry knows that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the touring business, thanks to the postponement of tours by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Kenny Chesney and the cancellation of festivals including Coachella and Bonnaroo.

But the coronavirus has also cut into the growth of digital streaming, which slowed significantly after widespread stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March.

That’s according to a new midyear report from Nielsen Music/MRC Data that says activity on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music began 2020 up 20.4% over 2019 — then ratcheted back to an increase of only 13.8% between March 13 and July 2 as listeners spent far less time in the car or at the gym.


According to Pollstar, of the $12.2 billion projected this year in box-office receipts, $8.9 billion could be lost if the industry remains dark for the rest of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

April 6, 2020

Predictably, the slowdown was worse for sales of recorded music, especially in physical form: After starting out the year up 4.6%, physical album sales plummeted amid the pandemic to finish the first half of 2020 down 20.3%.

Even so, listeners streamed enough music between January and the beginning of July — the equivalent of 361.2 million albums, Nielsen says — that total audio consumption (of which streaming represents 85%) was up nearly 10 points over 2019 for the year so far.

Here are 10 other takeaways from the report:

  • As in recent years, hip-hop and R&B unquestionably dominate the streaming market, with nine of the 10 most-consumed artists (including Drake, the Weeknd and Lil Uzi Vert) coming from those genres. And the 10th? Billie Eilish, whose brand of moody, beat-based pop draws deeply from rap.
  • Though her sweep at January’s Grammy Awards now feels like ancient history, Eilish’s historic victory powered a 53% boost in her streams. Other high-profile events from the pre-COVID era produced similar results, including the Super Bowl (which led to a 193% uptick for halftime performers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira) and the Academy Awards (which drove streams of Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” up 385%).
  • Verzuz, the series of Instagram Live beat battles curated by producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, has done much the same during the pandemic, with Erykah Badu and Jill Scott seeing a 217% increase in streams after their bout and Beenie Man and Bounty Killer enjoying a 216% boost after theirs.
  • Albums by men account for nine of the 10 titles on the list of 2020’s biggest records so far, with Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” the only album by a woman. Lil Baby’s “My Turn” is at No. 1 with a sales-and-streams equivalent of 1.47 million copies, followed not far behind by the Weeknd’s “After Hours” (1.42 million) and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Eternal Atake” (1.37 million).
  • On streaming services, the year’s biggest single by some measure is “The Box,” the squeaky hip-hop hit by Compton’s Roddy Ricch, which has racked up more than 1 billion streams. Yet at radio “The Box” has been outpaced by Post Malone’s “Circles,” which Nielsen says has been heard by an audience numbering more than 2.2 billion.
Puerto Rican artist Bad Bunny
Puerto Rican artist Bad Bunny in February.
(Chris Walker / For The Times)
  • Among Latin pop artists, Bad Bunny claims four of the year’s five most-streamed albums with his pair of 2020 solo releases, “YHLQMDLG” and “Las Que No Iban a Salir”; his 2019 duo record with J Balvin, “Oasis”; and his 2018 debut, “X100PRE.” (The remaining album on the list? Balvin’s “Colores.”)
  • New rock acts are having trouble competing with the genre’s pioneers: So far, no album released in 2020 (or in 2019, for that matter) has outperformed greatest-hits collections by Queen, Elton John, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Journey.
  • Kenny Rogers’ death on March 20 drove his classic songs “The Gambler” and “Islands in the Stream” to the top of the following week’s sales chart. Other artists whose songs grew in popularity after their deaths include John Prine and Bill Withers, both of whose streams went up more than 1,000%.
  • In 2019, vinyl sales rung up on Record Store Day accounted for 11.2% of the format’s sales in the first half of the year. In 2020, the cancellation of the annual event (due to the pandemic) helped flatten vinyl’s growth by more than 30%.
  • A year after “Old Town Road,” half of 2020’s 20 most-streamed singles took off at least in part as a result of going viral on TikTok, according to Nielsen. Among the songs to find success on the video-sharing app that made Lil Nas X a star: “The Box,” Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Trevor Daniel’s “Falling.”