Streaming in Quarantine: Pop Is Down, Acoustic Sounds Are Up - Rolling Stone
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The Sound of the Coronavirus Quarantine Is an Acoustic Guitar

Streaming data shows that bluegrass, country, and singer-songwriter classics have spiked during the pandemic, even as streams fell overall

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Baez and Dylan: Streaming data shows that during quarantine, listeners have gravitated toward folkier, more acoustic-leaning sounds.

Rowland Scherman/National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Millions of listeners have been coping with the loneliness, moral fatigue, and existential boredom of a global pandemic to the beat of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” so many that the song took the top spot on the RS 100. Yet overall, Americans have been seeking solace not in synthetic beats, but in the acoustic guitar.

Streaming data shows that in the first two months of social distancing, American listeners largely gravitated away from electric and electronic genres and toward the acoustic — to singer-songwriter classics and country jams, from Joan Baez to the Byrds and Bob Dylan.

According to Alpha Data, as on-demand audio streams streams in the U.S. dipped eight percent from March 13th through May 7th compared with the previous two months, streams for pop, dance, and hip-hop decreased at up to two times that rate, while genres like country, soft rock, and bluegrass have stayed steady or seen up to double-digit growth. This analysis is limited to on-demand audio streams in the U.S., which is the primary metric powering the Rolling Stone Charts

Pop took the biggest hit, dropping 16 percent. As streams for pop giants like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande fell — down 31 percent and 20 percent, respectively — there was also a new-music drought as many artists postponed their April and May albums. Streams for oldies pop, however, stayed steady, and legacy pop acts seemed to be less affected, with Madonna’s streams dropping two percent and Prince’s streams climbing 18 percent. Hip-hop streams fell 15 percent, but with Drake’s May 1st release of Dark Lane Demo Tapes, they finally buoyed back up to pre-COVID numbers. Dance music dropped 11 percent in the first six weeks before returning to normal in late April. 

Country fans were facing a drought too, with the pandemic delaying albums from Dixie Chicks, Luke Bryan, Margo Price, and Willie Nelson.  But country music was still up across the board, with contemporary and traditional country each up eight percent compared with the previous eight weeks. And when a major country star did release an album Kenny Chesney, with the RS 200–topping Here and Now country reached its highest weekly-streams level all year. 

Streams for country roots music, which includes honky-tonk and Western swing, saw the most substantial leap, up 22 percent compared with the previous two months. Folk and bluegrass were up nine percent and five percent, while Americana stayed steady. John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” grew 18 percent, while streams for Townes Van Zandt’s catalog were up 12 percent. 

There was wide variation within rock. Songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” saw double-digit growth, while Queen’s streams fell eight percent and Slayer’s dropped 11 percent. It wasn’t the time for distorted electric guitars and blaring vocals: Streams for hard rock and metal fell 10 percent, while arena rock tumbled 23 percent. Acoustic rock flourished, with leaps for singer-songwriter music (up eight percent), soft rock (up five percent), and roots rock (up four percent).

Even within individual artist catalogs, fans flocked to more acoustic sounds. While Taylor Swift’s on-demand audio streams dropped 22 percent overall, it was her early country-leaning singles like “Today Was a Fairytale” that were the most resilient. Bob Dylan’s streams were up 10 percent overall, with the biggest surges for early acoustic folk ballads like “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” and “Oxford Town,” up 30 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

These trends largely hold up when comparing the first two months of quarantine with the same eight weeks in 2019. Industrywide, on-demand audio streams from March 13th through May 7th were up less than one percent compared with last year, which is meager compared with the average 20 percent increase the industry was seeing in the six months before. Year-on-year, pop and hip-hop fell 13 percent and four percent, respectively, while contemporary country, country roots, and singer-songwriter music were up 11 percent, 31 percent, and 14 percent.

The trends in Alpha Data reflected much of what individual streaming services saw. Pandora listeners gravitated increasingly to bluegrass, country, and folk-rock, while the platform’s Country Chill station nearly doubled in listening hours. Globally, Deezer reported increases across their Acoustic Escape, Happy Acoustic & Folk, and Acoustic Chill playlists, with Acoustic Escape seeing the biggest global increase in streams in March and April among all their stations. While Spotify did not report an increase in acoustic listening, listeners did gravitate toward “chiller” and more nostalgic music

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