Music Industry Downfall, Part II: The Rise of Social Streaming – Update

If any industry has felt the brunt of the internet as a disruptive technology, it’s the music industry, which has been dealt a heavy blow by the onset of digital music distribution. On the April 28, the RIAA again confirmed this state of affairs when reporting that CD sales, the mainstay of the business for the last 15 years, were down a whopping 20.5% in 2007. Then on May 2, a Federal Court ordered AOL, Real Networks and Yahoo! to pay $100M to music artists as back payment for streaming their music online, proving that it’s not just the Big Four labels who have been affected by this disruptive shift.

Apple, a technology company, has become the most powerful player, with sales of 2 billion songs last year. The iPod/iTunes combo, the default of cool in our culture, has freaked out the Big Four and sent traditional music retailers like Wal-Mart and web 1.0 giants like Amazon scrambling into digital music distribution. So far their nascent incursions have not had a big impact, despite offering DRM-free music and savings of a few pennies.

While Apple and other legal download options have somewhat offset declining CD sales, the industry carries far too much overhead from 60 years of jacked up prices to make the digital transition smoothly. Music buyers used to pay up to $18 for an album and rarely was every song a keeper, now they pay 99 cents a drink.

Moreover, many consumers don’t pay for music at any price. The chart below, based on Compete’s data on more than 1,000 music sites, shows how the most popular options for listening to music online are free.

Despite lawsuits against illegal download sites, the fastest growing category in online music last year was P2P downloads, which shot up 140%. Nearly ten years after Napster raged through college networks, online music piracy continues to grow.

Meanwhile, the largest category in online music in March, 2008 was streaming, which racked up 28M unique visitors. The portals have driven the category’s dominance for many years by plugging into their massive traffic bases. MySpace joined the top ranks in 2005.

Then in 2007, a new breed of Web 2.0 sites with sleek, bright graphics and deep search and social feature integration, began to spread virally through social networks and heavily-linked music blogs. The sites combine streaming music with community-based sharing (vs. the anonymous exchange at P2P download sites) and in doing so can skirt thorny legal download issues.

These social streaming communities have risen rapidly in popularity. iMeem recently overtook Yahoo! Music as the most popular streaming site on the web.

*The Hypem1500 presents aggregate traffic to the more than 1500 music blogs tracked by the Hype Machine, a popular blog aggregator. The Hype Machine itself is ranked separately from its network at #16.

Collectively, the social streaming communities are flattening out the curve of online music. Compared to a year ago, the distribution of unique visitors at the Top 25 Streaming sites has a more gradual drop-off and longer tail.

As the music industry seeks to reassemble in the wake of digital distribution, it should recognize social streaming communities as the fastest growing opportunity in its evolution.

Since the original post, we received great feedback from MySpace who provided the urls of music streaming beyond, and we wanted to share those numbers. After we ran Compete data on the expanded set of urls, we found that its aggregate volume for music-streaming unique visitors is 19.2 million.

The data from the post included only the subdomain traffic of some sites, and does not represent all of their on-site streaming activity. This relates to some of the larger brands like MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo! who have more urls beyond the subdomains listed where consumers can stream music.

We encourage discussion on our blog and additional perspectives on the evolving online music space.