A teenager turns a bitter breakup into an entire album. An Italian Eurovision winner has a U.S. hit with an old-school rock banger. A Canadian R&B singer breaks the GOAT chart record of a 61-year-old song by a Philadelphia R&B singer. An Applebee’s commercial is a hit.
These oddities mark our memories of 2021’s music. While the styles of music U.S. consumers enjoy most saw little change in 2021, beneath the surface of last year’s most popular songs are emerging trends that have a significant impact on how you choose current titles for your station in 2022.
In this blog…
Tracking the Hits
Every year, Integr8 Research tracks Billboard’s year-end charts of the biggest songs on radio, streaming, and paid digital downloads for the year. On the surface, 2021 doesn’t look very different from 2020: Hip Hop remained the most popular sound on the combined Hot 100 year-end chart but lost some ground to Pop.
Look closer at last year’s biggest hits, however, and you’ll find four trends in music consumption and the lessons they hold for your programming decisions, as we will detail next.
New music returns to the radio
There’s tremendous conjuncture about the health of new music—and no one metric can adequately address an issue as complex as the public’s appetite for the novel verses the familiar. The songs listeners heard most on the radio in 2020 certainly re-enforced the idea of falling demand for the newest music—none of the Top 10 most-played songs on U.S. radio in 2020 were actually released in 2020. All were 2019 releases.
Typically, about half of the top 10 most-played songs on U.S. radio are songs released during the current year, while the other half are from the previous year. 2019’s 10 most played songs on U.S. radio demonstrates this norm.
While 2021 looked way too much like 2020, at least the vintage of music on U.S. radio returned to normal. 4 out of the 10 most-played songs last year were in fact released in 2021.
One anomaly among 2021’s 10 biggest radio hits is The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”. Notice that this 2019 title remained among radio’s top songs in 2021, despite being almost two years old? We’ll talk about that title’s significance in future blogs.
The lesson for radio: new music is not dead.
As illustrated on the following chart, style-wise, Pop and Country remained the biggest sounds listeners hear on U.S. radio. Meanwhile, Hip Hop saw less radio exposure in 2021 compared to 2020.
Streaming becomes mainstream
2021 marked a watershed moment for the songs most played on streaming services. For the first year ever, most of the 10 most-streamed songs were Pop or Rhythmic Pop songs, not Hip Hop.
Historically, the biggest songs on streaming have been the “pure” Hip Hop titles that are typically limited to Urban/Rhythmic radio airplay, while only a handful of the most-streamed titles are Pop, as highlighted in 2018’s Top 10 most streamed songs:
While Hip Hop titles remained prominent among the year’s 75 biggest songs on streaming, 2021 marked the first year the 10 biggest streaming hits were Pop and Pop-oriented Hip Hop sounds typical of CHR airplay—seven of the Top 10 most-streamed songs in 2021 were Pop titles.
Additionally, the three Hip Hop titles among the 10 most streamed songs of 2021 were mainstream Pop Hip Hop, not the typical pure Hip Hop titles limited in airplay to Urban radio.
Meanwhile, Country, long absent from streaming’s biggest hits, continued the trend first seen in 2020 of the genre’s biggest songs placing among the year’s most streamed songs.
The combination of more mass appeal titles among the most played songs on streaming services, coupled with growth for genres such as Country, indicate that the usage base for streaming music has grown beyond the most youthful and tech-savvy music consumers towards a user base that increasingly includes everyone.
The lesson for radio: Streaming is no longer a niche audience. It’s your audience.
People who still use iTunes buy Country, K-pop—and politics
Who on earth still pays to own digital music? Increasingly, it’s Pop and Country fans and fewer Hip Hop fans.
Two very particular groups in 2021 put down cash to own their favorites.
- Among the 75 biggest paid digital downloads were six different titles from K-pop megastars BTS, only one of which was among the 75 biggest songs on the radio or on streaming.
- Also among the 75 biggest paid digital downloads were two different songs titled “Let’s Go Brandon,” the chant that organically became a substitute for Americans with a wish for the current President that is far less radio friendly. First, Loza Alexander’s version reached #2 on iTunes’s U.S. sales chart, then Bryson Gray hit #1 on iTunes. Neither song made streaming’s year-end chart.
The shift of Pop and Country and the decline of Hip Hop likely presumably stemmed from an aging consumer base for paid digital downloads, as younger music fans had already migrated to streaming.
However, strong sales of BTS and “Brandon” may also suggest that certain fans with a strong affinity for an artist or a song still wish to pay money to show their passion, loyalty, or support.
The lesson for radio: While music sales is already largely irrelevant to radio, purchasing music in the future may become a way of signaling passion for an artist, a song, or a cause.
To learn other music trends that could shape the decade, check out How The Homelanders (a.k.a Gen Z) Will Soon Change Popular Music and How to Prepare Your Station to Appeal to a New Generation.