New Survey Bears Good News For Spotify And Podcasts, Bad News For Radio

Listening to music and podcasts in the car through mobile phones is getting more and more popular, … [+]

Every year at this time, Edison Research and Triton Digital publish the results of a study called The Infinite Dial that tracks the use of digital audio and related media in the United States. It’s a study that dates back over 20 years—it got its name from the digital radio that was introduced at that time—and is well-respected for the rigor and consistency of its methodology. This year’s study shows how the pandemic has changed digital audio consumption habits. It also shows a few surprises in the streaming music sweepstakes.

The 2021 Infinite Dial results show that the use of online audio—including digital radio, AM/FM internet streams, podcasts, and music services—has plateaued at 68% of Americans ages 12 and up. But there are clear winners and losers, and they don’t merely reflect pandemic-related factors such as people staying at home.

One big winner is podcasting. Growth in podcast listenership shows no signs of tapering off, as monthly listenership continues its linear growth path to 41% penetration, up from 37% in 2020. Growth is particularly high in the 12-34 age bracket, more than half of whom now listen to podcasts regularly (while the 35-54 bracket levels off around 40%). Podcast listenership is also getting more racially diverse, with nonwhite listeners now at 43%, up from 37% last year. And people are listening to an average of eight podcast episodes per week, up from six last year.

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Monthly podcast listenership, percent of respondents age 12 and up.

Podcast listening is also gaining ground in the car as more people get comfortable with using digital audio through their mobile phones, even though car ridership dropped by a few percent last year in the pandemic. 50% of survey respondents now use their phones to listen to Internet audio (up from 45% last year). As a result, use of AM/FM radio dropped sharply.

Radio is the big loser here. Cars are the last bastion of heavy broadcast radio listening, due to radio’s hands-off ease of use and its incorporation of traffic, weather, and other information that’s useful in cars. But with the rise of both Internet connectivity in cars and voice-response technology, it’s not surprising to see AM/FM radio drop from several years of stability in the low 80% range to 75%. (CDs are the other big loser: CD player use in cars plummeted from 55% in 2015 to 35% this year. That’s consistent with the continued falloff in CD sales shown in the RIAA’s recently published revenue numbers for recorded music.)

As for podcasts, 30% of respondents listen to them in their cars, and podcasts are poised to overtake CDs in in-car listenership by next year.

Audio sources used in the car, percent of survey respondents ages 12 and up.

The surprises in this year’s Infinite Dial results came from digital music services. The rise in podcast listening benefits Spotify, which has moved aggressively into podcasting over the past couple of years. Spotify’s app is now neck-and-neck with Apple AAPL -0.8% Podcasts in popularity for podcast listening. Apple and Google GOOG -2.5% have made little effort to increase their presences in podcasting, and Amazon AMZN -0.8% recently started adopting a podcast strategy similar to Spotify’s.

With one major exception that we’ll get to shortly, Spotify is now the undisputed king of online audio services. Last year’s Infinite Dial study had Spotify and Pandora tied for the lead in monthly listenership to “audio brands,” both with 25%. Amazon Music was in distant third place at 14%, though it had been the fastest-rising in listenership. The research strongly suggested that Amazon’s fast rise was due to the rapid adoption of Alexa-based smart speakers, a trend that continues into this year. Amazon Music is particularly popular with Alexa device owners, though still behind Spotify.

Monthly listenership to online audio services, percent of respondents ages 12 and up.

But here’s the surprise: according to the new Infinite Dial data, Amazon Music listenership has stopped growing, while Spotify continues to grow (and, less surprisingly, Pandora listenership continues to go downhill). 29% of respondents listen to Spotify on a monthly basis, while 20% listen to Pandora and the same 14% as last year listen to Amazon Music. (Apple Music is also flat at 12%.) iHeartRadio, meanwhile, is down to 10% after having peaked at 13% in 2019. This makes sense given that iHeartRadio features Internet streams of AM/FM stations.

The other surprise here is the new No. 3 online audio service: YouTube Music, the paid subscription service that Google launched in 2018. Last year Google migrated Google Play Music subscribers to YouTube Music and discontinued the former service. YouTube Music’s user experience has improved quite a bit over the past three years, as its machine learning algorithms get better at figuring out not only listener preferences but also the metadata that is vital to a decent music service user experience.

Which leads us to the exception: the Infinite Dial doesn’t track the use of YouTube (the main, free service) for music. That’s a problem, given that YouTube is well known to be the No. 1 music service in the world by a wide margin. The Infinite Dial used to track YouTube usage for music listening, separately from “audio brands” like Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora, but it hasn’t done so for years. This means that music industry folks can’t use Infinite Dial data to get complete information on the relative popularity of the streaming music services that now constitute the vast majority of the music market.

Otherwise, the Infinite Dial continues to be an oracle of useful information about digital audio programming and its popularity on a range of consumer devices.

I am the founder of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies, a consulting firm whose clients include content providers and digital media technology companies ranging from

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