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Tunes Over Time: Seasonal Shifts In Music

4 minute read | February 2014

By David Bakula, SVP Client Development, Nielsen Entertainment

To everything there is a season, and the music industry is no different. From holiday hits to summer jams, music trends vary with the weather. And understanding such trends can be crucial to success for artists, retailers and labels. So is there a “perfect” time to release a new album? Let’s take a look at trends throughout the year in the music industry.

Taking It from the Top

Many artists, retailers and labels believe the December holidays combine the perfect elements of gift giving with the most popular artists. As a result, when we think of the busiest time of the year for new releases in the music industry, many usually focus on the fourth quarter. And there’s something to that—the last nine weeks of the year can typically make up to a quarter or more of all physical CD sales for the year and digital sales typically spike the weeks following Christmas (likely from gift card redemption). So the benefits of having a major release in the fourth quarter are obvious. But December doesn’t have an exclusive on gift giving in the U.S.

The first half of the year is also an excellent holiday marketing period for music with Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Day, not to mention the great exposure from the GRAMMY Awards Show. In fact, some of music’s most successful releases of all time, including ‘N SYNC’s No Strings Attached (11.2 million sales to date), Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me (11 million), as well as the two best-selling albums of the past decade with Adele’s 21 (10.9 million) and Usher’s Confessions (10.1 million), occurred during the first quarter of the year. Out of the top 20 albums sold in the last two decades, 30 percent of the titles were released in the first quarter. And despite the fact that the fourth quarter is usually thought of as the time for blockbuster releases, first-quarter releases make up a bigger share of the top 20 albums of the SoundScan era*. 

Spring into Summer

And music releases stay hot as the temperatures warm up. As a percentage of yearly sales, the spring and summer months also see a steady number of album releases from a variety of genres. Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP (10.8 million) and Eminem Show (10.3 million) were both released in May and are two of the top selling records in the last two decades. Other top releases during the Spring have come from artists like Alanis Morissette, Backstreet Boys and Santana. So the months leading into the middle of the year can be an important time to release blockbuster albums for their popularity to be fuelled by summer hits.

Songs of the Summer

When it comes to the biggest digital songs of the year, the songs of the summer tend to dominate sales. Some of the biggest digital songs of all time break on the radio early in the year. Songs such as The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the two best-selling digital songs of all time, both peaked in the middle of the year. While the busiest week of the year for digital sales is typically the last week of the calendar year, the summer is the time when the biggest songs really blossom.

Summer, of course, is also the time for many of the most popular music festivals. The average U.S. consumer spends approximately $105 annually on music and music-related activities, with live music events contributing to nearly half. Festivals help raise awareness for artists. As we saw in our 2013 Music 360 survey, approximately 70 percent of concert goers engage with artists’ content or share the experience with friends/family while at the event through their mobile phones. Some of the festivals with the biggest fans are Lollapalooza, CMA Music Festival, Ozzfest, iHeartRadio Music Festival, Austin City Limits, Warped, Coachella, Summerfest, Bonnaroo, and SXSW (South by Southwest), and many take place in the summer. 

Chill Tunes

The last quarter of the year is a hectic one for the industry. It’s a time where new holiday music is released (after being recorded in the height of summer!), classic tunes see a sales revitalization, and radio formats turn over. Out of the top 20 albums of the last two decades, approximately a quarter of them were released in October and November. These titles include Shania Twain’s Come On Over (15.6 million), The Beatles’ Beatles 1 (12.3 million) and Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory (10.2 million), as well as the Bodyguard and Titanic soundtracks (12.1 million and 10.2 million, respectively).   

There are many things to consider when determining the best time of the year for a new release. The increased foot traffic at physical retail, as well as holiday gift giving can provide big early returns for album releases. However, when looking at long term success, there really seems to be no perfect time to release an album–it simply comes down to building a long-term story and having great content that builds throughout the year (or years) and stays at the top consumers’ minds no matter when they are shopping for great music.

*SoundScan began measuring music sales in 1991. 

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