With 2023 coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on another year in the music business — one that saw both record revenues and widespread upheaval, new technology anxieties and age-old questions of accounting, and ebbs and flows in consumer tastes and business transactions.
It was also a year that heralded a new era of change, with many companies and executives looking to find ways to better position themselves for the remainder of the decade. Whether that was calling for new payment models for the industry, shedding jobs to pivot towards profitability or reviewing their practices to shift into a new era, it’s been a year of existential self-examination for many as all layers of the biz seem to be on the verge of a new era.
At the same time, there were new twists on well-worn paths to success, some conclusions to long-running questions and long-dormant issues that raised their heads once again. Trends that many thought would die down have nonetheless endured, genres rose to the forefront that had seemed destined to forever remain under the radar and long-held truths and partnerships broke down under the bright lights and pressures of the mainstream.
There were also tentpoles of massive success, with record-setting tours and albums and artists that simply blew away the competition, with levels of dominance that only come around once a decade — or a generation. Here, in the waning days of the year, Billboard looks back at 10 of the biggest news stories in the music business this year.
Major, Record-Setting Tours
In a year in which new tours from Beyoncé and Taylor Swift dominated the discourse, it was a long-running farewell tour that kicked off what turned out to be a record-setting 2023: In January, Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road cemented its status as the highest-grossing tour of all time before going on to become the first tour to ever reach the $900 million mark in June.
Yet it was Beyoncé’s critically celebrated Renaissance tour that logged the top spot on the year-end Billboard Boxscore rankings, having grossed $570.5 million across 55 shows with 2.7 million tickets sold. Meanwhile, Billboard projects that, when all is said and done, Swift’s Eras Tour — which has not reported official numbers to Boxscore — could surpass John’s tour as soon as next year to become the highest-grossing global tour of all time, having already reached an estimated $900 million across 66 shows in 2023.
Making the Beyoncé and Swift tours that much more memorable, of course, has been their respective releases as concert films, each of which debuted at No. 1 at the box office upon their debuts, with the latter’s theatrical gross crossing $250 million. Live music, whether in person or on the silver screen, has never been so lucrative for the creme de la creme.
Taylor Swift Ticketing Fiasco Leads to Government Pressure
Swift’s Eras Tour wasn’t all about the money she made — it also caught the eye of the government after its initial on-sale was plagued by long wait times, bot traffic and astronomically high prices that emerged from Ticketmaster’s dynamic pricing policies. That led to a U.S. Senate hearing in January and the thread of a probe by the Department of Justice into possible monopolistic practices by Live Nation, with the possibility of breaking up the entertainment giant seemingly on the table.
Since then, multiple senators and representatives both nationally and on the state level have introduced bills aimed at curbing hidden fees and forcing resellers to be upfront about what they charge fans; ending exclusive licenses between promoters and concert venues that limit the types of shows that can be presented at a given location; improving competition among ticket sellers by limiting the length of exclusive agreements with venues and promoters; and others.
So far, many of those initiatives have gone nowhere or progressed only marginally. But the Eras Tour debacle re-opened the door of a once-settled debate over control of the live music industry in a way that likely means this topic isn’t going anywhere soon — and could continue to upend the status quo moving forward.
A Call for Streaming Royalties Reform
Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge wasted little time in making clear his top priority for 2023: On Jan. 11, he released his New Year’s memo to staff in which he called for reform in the way that streaming services pay out royalties, saying that the flood of content uploaded each day — more than 120,000 audio tracks, according to Luminate — as well as the rise of “functional music” and fraud on the platforms was diluting the royalty pool available to artists.
What followed was a string of partnerships — first TIDAL, then Deezer, then SoundCloud and Spotify — that UMG announced to study how the pro-rata model that had existed for more than a decade could be amended to prioritize artists. By year’s end, a few new proposals were on the table. The first to arrive was Deezer’s model, which prioritized active listening (users who intentionally search for or click on an artist’s song) and “professional artists” (artists who have accumulated 1,000 monthly streams from at least 500 unique users), while removing “non-artist noise” (essentially, white noise and nature sounds) from the available royalty pool and cracking down on fraud and malicious actors who attempt to game the system. That was met with some pushback from the indie community, which objected to the language and seemingly arbitrary baseline number of streams required for payment, but sparked debate in the industry.
Shortly after, Spotify followed with a more toned-down proposal, one that also focused on eliminating fraud and “functional music” noise from the royalty pool, but with a much lower barrier to entry from streaming users before an artist received payment. The Spotify proposal was met with more muted dissent and officially cracked wide open the concept of the split-tier royalty model that is likely, in some form, to become the basis of royalty payments moving forward — though the industry is far from uniform in how it is approaching the issue. Either way, a royalty reform for the first time in well over a decade is a significant development (and songwriters will get a boost next year, too).
Some Long-Running Legal Battles Wound Down, But a Lyrics Battle Looms
This past year saw the resolution, in one way or another, of several long-running legal issues that have percolated through the music business: the Tory Lanez–Megan Thee Stallion case; Kesha’s long-running dispute with Dr. Luke; Ed Sheeran’s copyright case; and even arrests in the unsolved murders of Jam Master Jay and Tupac Shakur. Meanwhile, other cases involving Lizzo, Diddy, Axl Rose and others have sprung up and are ongoing. (See a rundown of the most consequential here.)
But one that is just now getting underway, and may last the majority of the coming year, is the Georgia RICO trial against Young Thug and others in which lyrics in his songs have been allowed to be included as evidence in his trial. It’s a controversial practice that has drawn widespread condemnation from civil rights activists and music industry leaders for years and could figure prominently as the trial kicks into high gear next year. It’s an issue that is one to watch in 2024.
Layoffs, More Layoffs and Exits
Even with plenty of money moving around the music business, the depressed advertising market, a tough year in tech and pivoting business priorities have led to a brutal year for layoffs. The year started with thousands laid off at Google, Amazon and Spotify and ended with even more layoffs at Spotify — this time some 1,500 people — and the looming prospect of layoffs at Universal Music Group, too.
In between there were cuts at Motown, Meta, Instagram, Downtown, Warner Music Group, Utopia Music, Discord, CAA, TikTok Music, BMG, SoundCloud, Amazon Music and TIDAL, to recount a partial list, as many companies either went through painful self-assessments or made a conscious decision to aim for profitability at the expense of headcount. Many of those came with high-profile executive exits as well — though perhaps the most high-profile executive to leave a post this year, former Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner, was voted off the board of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame following an outrageous interview he gave to The New York Times that sparked shock and anger in the biz.
The Scooter Braun Saga
Mega-manager and HYBE America CEO Scooter Braun has been a lightning rod in the biz for a few years now — really ever since buying up Taylor Swift’s catalog in his acquisition of Big Machine (and subsequently selling it to Shamrock Holdings) and the fallout from Swift’s condemnation of the deal. So when, seemingly out of the blue, several of Braun’s high-profile management clients appeared to begin dropping him one after another this summer, the Swifties had a field day and conspiracy theories ran rampant as to what was going on behind the scenes.
The first domino to fall came in May when Latin star J Balvin left to sign with Roc Nation, a move that fell a bit under the radar at the time. Then came a report in August that Justin Bieber — whose association with Braun extends to his teenage years — was looking to leave, which sparked mayhem online. Billboard reported days later that Demi Lovato had left Braun the month prior — a move reps said was unrelated to any Bieber news — only for sources to confirm hours later that Ariana Grande had also parted ways with the manager. (Days after that, Idina Menzel also confirmed she no longer worked with Braun.)
Naturally, conspiracy theories began to fly as to what was behind the exodus. And ultimately, the biggest piece of the puzzle — Bieber — still works with Braun, due to clauses in the contract. Those searching for some nefarious deeds, however, were ultimately disappointed. Due to his duties at HYBE, where he is focused on building the Korean company’s North American business through acquisitions like the $300 million deal for Quality Control this year, sources say Braun’s efforts have shifted away from day-to-day management and many of those artists left on good terms. But the speculation was breathless during the final days of summer.
Country’s Dominance and the Rise of Regional
For years now, country music has occupied a comfortable place in the U.S. music business, chugging along contentedly as the fourth-biggest genre in the nation without really shifting much from a steady 7% share of the market. But this year the genre exploded, due to a confluence of its streaming audience fully maturing and a slew of high-profile, high-quality releases led by the overwhelmingly dominant Morgan Wallen as well as albums from Luke Combs, Bailey Zimmerman, Zach Bryan and more, as well as controversial but high-profile No. 1 singles from Oliver Anthony Music (“Rich Men North of Richmond”) and Jason Aldean (“Try That In a Small Town”). That boom has ultimately pushed country up to 8.5% of the overall market, and 10.4% of the current-music market (albums that have been released in the past 18 months), rising 22.0% and 45.1%, respectively, year over year. That’s a massive gain that has reoriented the possibilities that lie within the Nashville labels.
Another genre that upended expectations at labels: Regional Mexican music, a genre within Latin that had never before produced a Hot 100 hit and that became the dominant genre in Latin music by far in the past year, with genuine stars like Peso Pluma and Eslabon Armado emerging, among others. It’s a success story that gets to the heart of the next generation of the music business: Languages and national borders matter less than ever, and what constitutes a hit is broader and can come from more places than was previously possible. That’s a lesson the biz is learning from the explosion of K-pop in the past few years, too, and even on that front the market has diversified beyond the top few groups as more K-pop acts have found success at the top of the charts this past year.
Reports of The Catalog Market’s Decline Remain Premature
In each of the past five years or so, the same question has emerged: Have we reached the end of the catalog-sale boom? And once again, the year has produced the same resounding answer: Nope! While many of the highest-profile legacy catalogs are officially off the market at this point, there are still tremendous amounts of money being thrown around for both older artists and current hitmakers, with sources telling Billboard of late that while multiples have certainly come down, the appetite and competition in the space has not lessened one bit.
This past year alone, Katy Perry sold her catalog to Litmus Music for $225 million; Justin Bieber sold a bundle of his rights to Hipgnosis for $200 million; Metro Boomin sold some of his publishing catalog to Shamrock for $70 million; and deals with undisclosed price tags went through for rights from Graham Nash, Nelly, The Pointer Sisters, Sonny Rollins, The Hollies, Kool & the Gang, Juice WRLD and two members of The Doors, to name just a few. Meanwhile, several firms raised hundreds of millions of dollars apiece to fund additional acquisitions moving forward, with more money flooding into the space each month.
For this amount of action to be continuing at a time when questions linger over the most high-profile of these catalog funds, Hipgnosis — following a shareholder vote that ousted its board chair and led to new executive appointments — is hugely notable.
Focus Shifts to AI
Artificial intelligence has been on the radar of the music biz for much of the past decade, yet it was decidedly on the backburner for years as the industry focused on streaming, TikTok, virality and Web3. That decidedly changed in 2023, as AI took its first major, society-wide step into the mainstream of pop culture — and the music business fully shifted its attention to the possibilities and concerns that such a profound technological shift could bring.
Soundalikes have given rise to copyright concerns and artistry; production has moved fully away from human creation and into the hands of technology; the sheer volume of music and audio that it allows has led to existential, and monetary, concerns; and companies like YouTube and Meta have released tools to help artists and regular uses utilize the technology, with repercussions that won’t be understood for years.
Perhaps the biggest story to emerge on this front in the past year has been that of Ghostwriter, who in April released his first single, “Heart On My Sleeve,” and ignited a huge debate within the industry. The song utilized an AI voice filter to mimic the voices of Drake and The Weeknd, confusing fans and inflaming concerns about ownership and likeness and how easily those things can be twisted and exploited in a thus-far-unregulated AI future. The song led to calls to Capitol Hill for reform, to negotiations with streaming services on how to detect and crack down on songs that use AI and, ultimately, a debate over whether AI-generated songs could be eligible for Grammy consideration. (Ultimately, they were not.) It was a paradigm-shifting conversation, and one that will continue to dominate headlines in 2024.
BMI Converts to For-Profit Model, Is Being Sold to New Mountain Capital
For nearly 100 years, the performance rights market in the United States has largely hewed to a status quo: ASCAP and BMI were the two biggest PROs for songwriters, operating as not-for-profits under a government-mandated consent decree, and paying out profits to songwriters in a fairly predictable way. That paradigm began to shift at the end of 2022, as BMI announced a move to a for-profit model, with an eye towards a sale, which ultimately manifested itself in a $1.7 billion deal with New Mountain Capital in August that could lead to an acquisition of the PRO.
The deal led to much consternation among songwriter advocates and rights groups concerned about the priorities that could shift with private equity — a sector traditionally concerned with little else than maximizing profits for investors — owning such a consequential organization at the expense of royalty payments to songwriters. Those fears, at this point, remain theoretical, and proponents of the deal point to outside investment in BMI leading to improved technology and services that the PRO can now provide, as well as plans for international expansion that can be crucial for royalty payments in the future.
Whether such a deal is ultimately one that can benefit songwriters is now the major question.