Music's Big Winners Of 2021
From superstars like Taylor Swift to lesser-known acts such as 3LAU, some found creative ways to thrive amid a chaotic year.
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The past year hasn’t been the best one for humanity. From a lingering pandemic to a changing climate, there have been plenty of reasons for people to stay home. And though Covid-19 has wrought havoc on touring, music on the whole has fared better than many sectors. The reasons range from the rising value of intellectual property to the increasing importance of superfans (themes you’ve seen in this newsletter before).
Consumption is up by just about every metric, with both vinyl sales and streaming spins trending northward. Legendary acts from Bruce Springsteen to Tina Turner are reaping hundreds of millions by selling their catalogs amid a white-hot market for recorded music and publishing. And forward-thinking acts continue to push boundaries with the advent of Web3 and the Metaverse.
Back in my Forbes days, I used to cap the year with a list of music’s winners and losers. So, with 2021 finally coming to a close, I’m going to reprise my year-end list tradition here in two parts. My goal, as always, is to highlight a few names whose contributions deserve a closer look—whether those names belong to individual acts, groups, or genres. Today we’ll start with the winners.
Olivia Rodrigo’s music is now so ubiquitous it’s hard to remember that, this time last year, she was just another Disney kid with musical aspirations. With the January release of “Drivers License,” she ear-wormed her way into our brains while we were stuck at home, immediately proving she’s no one-hit wonder by following with smash hits “Deja Vu” and my personal favorite “Good 4 U.” When Rodrigo finally embarks upon her first big solo tour in Spring 2022, she’ll skip straight to big venues like New York’s Radio City Music Hall and San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Good for her.
Hip-Hop remains America’s most-consumed genre by a comfortable margin while heavily influencing contemporary rock and pop. And while Covid has stymied countless tours for acts big and small, hip-hop has remained relatively well-insulated. This makes sense: recorded music and outside business ventures have historically generated more revenue for rappers than live music. Acts from Cardi B to Polo G continue to garner scores of streaming spins, and usual suspects like Jay-Z keep clocking nine-figure deals, pandemic or not. The cherry on top: hip-hop is finally getting its own museum.
Taylor Swift might’ve just had the best year of her career, which is saying a lot, especially in a year that’s been brutal for most touring acts. Though she cleans up on the road, Swift pivoted amid the pandemic, putting out both Folklore and Evermore in 2020. She followed up by reinventing the rerelease, sending her rerecorded versions of Fearless and Red to the top of the charts (here’s why her new album is actually a baseball card). Swift has perfected an impossible balance: she continues to be one of the biggest stars on the planet, while preserving an accessible underdog image that resonates with her loyal hordes of superfans (just ask Delta Rae).
3LAU made headlines earlier this year for earning $11.6 million from the sale of what some outlets dubbed the first digital tokenized album ever (though I still contend the distinction belongs, at least in spirit, to the Wu-Tang Clan’s secret album). Debate the utility of this sort of thing all you want, but 3LAU isn’t going away. The DJ’s startup Royal, a marketplace that allows musicians to sell royalty streams to fans, just raised $55 million from a list of investors including heavyweights like Andreessen Horowitz and CAA, as well as stars from Nas to the Chainsmokers.
So there you have it, your list of big music industry winners of 2021. Tune in next week to meet the losers.
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