Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

RIAA Report 2023 Takeaways: Is the U.S. Too Reliant on Paid Subscriptions?

RIAA Report 2023 Takeaways: Is the U.S. Too Reliant on Paid Subscriptions?

The RIAA’s release of 2023 revenue figures show U.S. record labels are increasingly reliant — possibly too much so — on paid subscriptions for both revenue and revenue growth. While consumers continue to pay for premium streaming services, ad-supported on-demand streaming is languishing and newer platforms like TikTok provide more promotion than they do royalties.   

The top-line takeaway of the RIAA’s 2023 report is that the U.S. market grew 7.7% to $17.12 billion, an improvement from the 6.6% uptick seen in 2022. Without adjusting for inflation, 2023 revenue was about 17% above the CD-era peak of $14.6 billion set in 1999, marking the ninth straight year of revenue growth after the U.S. market bottomed out at $6.95 billion in 2014. After nearly a decade of gains, the record business is healthy and stable.


But look over the RIAA’s report and you’ll see the U.S. market is missing the dynamism it could — and wants to — have. The revenue mix doesn’t have the diversity of past years. It’s not for lack of effort: Record labels are partnering with AI startups, licensing music to social media platforms and looking for new ways to engage with big spending superfans. But emerging categories remain just that — emerging — while other categories don’t yet provide much of a revenue boost. On-demand streaming turned around the industry, made music into an appealing asset class for investors and allowed handfuls of companies to go public. But where does it go from here?

Here are five takeaways from the report. 

The U.S. market is more reliant on paid subscriptions than ever.

Revenue from paid subscriptions from premium music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music totaled $10.15 billion and accounted for 59.3% of total recorded music revenues in 2023, an increase from 57.8% in 2022 (and far higher than percentages seen during the preceding years: 57.2% in 2021, 57.4% in 2020, 53.4% in 2019 and 47.3% in 2018). But U.S. labels were even more reliant on subscriptions for revenue growth, with paid subscriptions accounting for 79.4% of that growth in 2023. Ad-supported streaming — services such as TikTok and Facebook — grew 21.5%, or $56.2 million, but accounted for only 4.6% of annual growth.  

New subscribers are harder to find

For all the growth attributable to subscription services over the last decade, it might not be enough for some markets. As Billboard noted on March 15, SNEP, France’s recorded music trade group, warned that revenue growth from subscriptions “is slowing down here while our market is far from having reached maturity.” Fortunately for the United States, subscription penetration has surpassed 50% of U.S. internet users, according to MusicWatch. But the 2023 RIAA figures suggest streaming services have already picked the low-hanging fruit and will need new products to attract new customers. With far fewer new subscribers in 2023 than in previous years, labels were fortunate that Spotify raised the price for its standard individual plan in 2023. After adding 7.6 million subscribers in 2022 and 8.5 million in 2021, the U.S. market added just 5.2 million in 2023. That’s a sharp drop from the 15.1 million new subscribers gained in 2020 when pandemic restrictions caused an uptick in both music and video on-demand streaming services. Price increases by Spotify in July and Amazon Music in both January 2023 and August helped average monthly revenue per user improve to $8.74, up from $8.35 in 2022.  


Advertising has stumbled.

A few years after advertising revenue surged, ad-supported streaming’s strength is probably its potential to convert some free users into paying customers. Ad-supported, on-demand streaming revenue rose just 2.3% in 2023, an even worse showing than the 3.5% improvement in 2022. Things looked much better a couple of years ago after ad-supported, on-demand streaming revenue jumped 46.7% in 2021 following a slowdown in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ad-supported on-demand streaming actually did better in pandemic-stricken 2020, rising 32.2% even though the bottom fell out of the ad market when brands braced for a recession by curtailing their ad spending. It was a remarkable turn of fortune for the promise of ad-supported music; after Spotify’s ad-supported revenue jumped 81% in 2021, CEO Daniel Ek said the growing online ad market bode well for India, Indonesia and other developing markets where Spotify operates. Since then, however, subscriptions — especially in mature markets like the United States — have carried the load for Spotify and others. 

Social media is growing fast but remains small. 

The highest growth rate of any category in 2023 came from “other ad-supported streaming,” which includes relative newcomers to licensing agreements such as TikTok. Other ad-supporting streaming jumped 21.5%, to $317.7 million, making the category about 75% as valuable as the fast-declining download and ringtone category (which was down 12.2% last year). The downside is that the category remains a small part of labels’ business:. Last year, other ad-supported streaming accounted for less than 5% of total revenue growth — about 6% as much as subscription services.  

Physical sales were dependable, not explosive.

Both LPs and CDs had double-digit growth in 2023 — 10.3% for LPs and 11.3% for CDs — as physical formats benefitted from enthusiasm for vinyl collectibles and K-pop fans’ penchant for buying multiple CD variants of new releases. Total physical revenue increased by $181 million, or 10.5%, to $1.91 billion, and it has grown 66% since 2018. That more than compensated for the $60 million decline in legacy digital formats such as track and album downloads and ringtones. Still, vinyl and CD sales accounted for 14.8% of 2023’s revenue gains compared to subscriptions’ 79.4%. 

By Michael

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