US music subscriptions equal the entire population of Canada now

Explosive popularity of streaming memberships has lifted US music to where sales were a decade ago (even if they're still 40 percent below their peak).

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
2 min read

Strike up the band: The US music industry's revenue increased 16.5 percent last year, thanks to the growth of streaming music. 

Revenue from streaming music represented nearly two-thirds of the US music industry's total haul last year, a music industry trade group said Thursday. That's a meteoric rise considering streaming was neck and neck with downloads -- the other main form of digital music --just two years ago. Now downloads make less than all types of physical music sales combined. 

Money from subscriptions was the biggest driver behind streaming music's growth. The number of paid subscriptions to on-demand streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music grew 56 percent to 35.3 million, according to the data from the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA. 

For a sense of scale, that number is just shy of the entire population of Canada. (And it doesn't include people who pay for a "limited tier" subscription, like Amazon's $3.99-a-month plan that limits you listening to its Echo speakers only.)

The data underscores the explosive popularity of streaming tunes, which has spurred a larger, cultural shift in consumers' relationship with their music. Rather than buying music outright, like we did in the era of CDs and digital downloads, we're increasingly paying monthly fees for all-you-can-access tunes on services like Spotify or Apple Music, or listening free by sitting through advertising on sites like YouTube. 

While the shift caused an outcry among some labels and artists in its early years, the growth of subscriptions has fueled the US music industry's best sales in a decade. 

Still, the business has a ways to go before it approximates the heyday of the CD. Sales are still 40 percent of what they were in 1999.

Overall last year, retail revenues from recorded music in the US grew 16.5 percent to $8.7 billion, the second year of meaningful growth. 

Subscriptions, like the monthly fees for Apple Music or Spotify's paid tier, were the biggest moneymaker and growth driver for the industry, rising 63 percent to $4.1 billion, the RIAA said. 

Money from ad-supported streaming, like free listening on Spotify or music videos you watch on YouTube or Vevo, grew 35 percent to $659 million. 

Meanwhile, download sales, like those typified by Apple's iTunes store, dropped 25 percent to $1.3 billion. For the first time since 2011, sales from physical music products like CDs and vinyl records exceeded those from digital downloads. 

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