The music industry changes very, very quickly. Here’s a time-lapsed review of how recording formats have morphed over time — dating back to the early 1970s.
If you liked our 30-year music industry recap, you’ll love this. Each pie shows the revenue contribution from various recorded music formats in a given year, 1973-present, based on Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) revenue figures. If you want to see it again, just wait for the animation to start over or refresh the page.
Each pie represents 100% of total recording revenue for the year, and was calculated using US-based inflation-adjusted data. As you can see, the number of ways we’ve listened to music over the past few decades is staggering. For those old enough to remember the original, non-retro vinyl era, the 1970s were dominated by vinyl LPs, EPs, and single 45s, with 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, and even other tape formats like reel-to-reel a significant part of the landscape.
Those formats largely carried into the early 1980s, with cassette tapes actually dominating for several years. But the early-80s witnessed the birth of the game-changing CD format, which gradually emerged to become a preferred format for music fans. By the mid-1980s, both CD albums and singles were starting to establish their presence, gradually replacing inferior-quality cassettes and vinyl formats (though of course, many would argue that CDs are actually inferior to analog vinyl LPs).
By the time the 80s were coming to a close, the CD was clearly dominant — and just beginning a decade-plus expansion that would power an unprecedented music industry boom.
Amazingly, by the time 2000 rolled around, the CD accounted for roughly 90% of total recorded music sales — and most of those were full albums. At that point in music industry history, both vinyl LPs and cassettes were largely regarded as on their way out.
Of course, one thing that isn’t shown in this animation is Napster, which emerged in the late 1990s. While the cash-heavy CD party continued into the early-2000s, fans were increasingly shifting to digital downloads — typically without paying for them. In this pre-iTunes Music Store era, paid downloads were still in their infancy, with most music fans preferring the ease of mp3s — obtained from Napster, Kazaa, or later, BitTorrent.
That was the start of a massive proliferation in formats, starting with the paid download (single or album), as well as ringtones, ringbacks, and nascent streaming music platforms. Suddenly, the recorded music industry was the wild west, with CDs (including higher-end variations like SACD and DVD-Audio) battling it out against a litany of other formats — legal or illegal. Artists were suddenly drawing revenue from previously-niche formats like online radio and satellite radio, which pay royalties through SoundExchange in the US.
That chaos eventually cooled, with streaming platforms like YouTube and Spotify starting to replace both physical formats and more clunky downloads. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that music fans were willing to pay for streaming in massive numbers, even after nearly a decade of enjoying unlimited free music.
Special thanks to Maksim Kolotilin for assembling this animation.
Want a closer look? Here are the individual year images, starting with 1973 on the top left and 2020 on the bottom right. Each image was created by the RIAA, using their shipments and revenue database.