June 9, 2021

The Year Our Musical Tastes Stood Still

Part two in a series 2020 Sucked (for Music)

In our last post, we analyzed Billboard’s year-end charts to learn that listeners consumed less music in 2020 that was actually released in 2020 than they had consumed current-year music in previous years. This lackluster interest in 2020’s music holds true no matter how they were consuming that music.

By far, radio saw 2020’s hits hit hardest: Only a third of the songs listeners heard most on FM radio last year were actually from 2020.

Was radio right to hang on to the past?

To find out, we turned to Coleman Insights’ recently released Contemporary Music SuperStudy 3. Their annual study compiles the most consumed songs in streaming, sales, and airplay according to MRC Data during the past year, then asks 1,000 12- to 54-year-olds across the United States and Canada to rate each song using Coleman Insights’  FACT360 Strategic Music Test platform. The result is a ranker of North America’s most popular contemporary titles from the past five years.

Their study confirms it clearly—listeners would have rather stayed in 2019.

Era Distribution

In previous studies, Coleman Insights found that 40% and 36% of the 100 of listeners’ most popular songs were from the previous year—that is—the newest songs examined.

In this year’s Contemporary Music SuperStudy, however, only 26% of the top 100 titles were from 2020, while interest in songs from four years ago (2017)—among the oldest songs in the study—grew significantly.

Dive deeper and the songs listeners love most seem suspended in time.

  • Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” is the most-loved song in North America—just like last year.
  • Pinkfong’s “Baby Shark” is the least-liked song in the study—just like last year.
  • Moreover, six of the of the Top 10 songs listeners loved most were the same songs listeners loved most last year.

Top Songs by Year

I talked with Coleman Insights’ Executive Vice President and Senior Consultant John Boyne, who spearheads their annual Contemporary Music SuperStudy, to dig deeper into their findings and how it impacts how you should program contemporary formats.

John Boyne

[Matt]: So this year’s study found a lot fewer songs from the most recent year among the U.S. and Canada’s favorite songs than previous studies found for their respective most recent years. Did any particular audience segment or music fan base drive that trend?”

[John]: No, it wasn’t driven by any particular segment of the population. Instead, it was a broadly seen pattern. Among younger and older, among men and women, and among fans of different genres, the most popular music was relatively older than we had previously seen.

[Matt]: Should current-based radio stations shift their strategies to play more recurrent or recent gold based on your findings in the Contemporary Music SuperStudy 3?

[John]: While I believe Contemporary Music SuperStudy 3 gives us great insight into macro happenings, I wouldn’t go so far as to apply these findings to the strategy of an individual radio station. Every situation is different. In a particular market, with a particular target demo and a particular station, you may not see the same patterns that we see play out in this big, broad study.

Moreover, with this study, we’re looking backwards not forwards. With communities opening back up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see contemporary music go from “bust” to “boom” in the coming months.

[Matt]: At the risk of asking a researcher a subjective question, do you think listeners’ lackluster interest in 2020’s music is a reaction to the pandemic, a natural downturn in music that was already in the works, or a little bit of both?

[John]: I’d say “a little bit of both.” We do a lot of music research. Going into the pandemic, there was already evidence that some genres were slumping. The pandemic then made things worse, from some combination of artists not out promoting music, consumers not out at concerts/clubs/events, new music being strategically held back, and just a general retreat to that which is comfortable and familiar.

[Matt]: Have the styles of music North Americans enjoy changed this past year?

[John]: Yes. In this assessment of mass music tastes, the leading category of popular titles continues to go to Pop. Beyond that, we see that Hip Hop/R&B is up, while Country is down.

Genre Distribution

[Matt]: “You had an interesting finding about Country music that suggests last year’s indications of a revival might have been overly optimistic. Can you tell me more about that finding?”

[John]: Country came down to earth after an up-trend last time. Digging into it, we see that fans of the Country genre continue to exhibit a lot of passion for these titles. The problem is that Country’s performance among everyone else waned. And that’s typically the difference-maker when genres get hot; they blow up beyond their core fan base.

Also interesting is that the up-and-down trend for Country was most pronounced in the suburbs. They represent the swing district of both politics and music apparently!

Genre Distribution Among Suburban Listeners

[Matt]: What surprised you most about this year’s findings?

[John]: Prior to seeing the results, we theorized that they might be somewhat frozen in time, but even so, I will say it was surprising to see how consistent some things were. The most popular song was the same. Six of the ten most popular songs were the same. The most prolific artist was the same. And the least popular song was the same. One year later, one thousand surveys later…pretty wild when you think about it.

[Matt]: Will Coleman Insights do it again next year?”

[John]: That’s the plan! Hopefully, a year from now, the pandemic will be well behind us and we can talk about Contemporary Music SuperStudy 4 without making references to Groundhog Day.

Check out Coleman Insights’ Contemporary Music SuperStudy 3.

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