What Is the Most Popular Music Genre?

Kevin Ott
Woman listening to pop music.

Everyone has a favorite music genre, but discovering the most popular genre in America can be a challenge. With so many different variables to consider in today's music industry, from straight-up record sales to downloads and tour successes, there is a lot more data to consider than ever before. Still, even with all of this information to sift through, one genre has come out ahead of all others.

Music Industry Facts

Thankfully, there are some cold hard facts out there that cut into the confusion and reveal tangible truths. By looking at a few different metrics from a variety of sources, it's clear that a number of genres are highly successful.

Nielsen Soundscan

Midway through 2013 Nielsen Soundscan, a company that collects and deciphers music industry data, released its latest six-month-report on music consumption in the U.S, which covered all CD, digital, and vinyl sales, as well as streaming plays between December 31, 2012 and June 30, 2013. The following list shows which percentage of overall sales and streams (averaged out between all categories) each musical genre received:

  1. Pop -- 27.1%
  2. Country -- 15.7%
  3. Rap -- 14.3%
  4. Rock -- 12.9%
  5. Folk Rock/Country -- 8.6%
  6. Alternative Rock -- 5.7%
  7. Electronic -- 5.7%
  8. R&B -- 4.3%
  9. Soundtrack -- 2.9%
  10. Vocal -- 1.4%
  11. Various -- 1.4%

Besides showing the dominating genres in sales, the Nielsen report had some other fascinating insights:

  • Rap music accounted for 50% of all streaming plays online
  • Rock music accounted for a whopping 80% of vinyl sales

Even with these two facts in mind, it's clear that pop music is the most popular genre, by a wide margin, according to Nielsen.

Tours from 2013

According to Pollstar's mid-2013 report, rock music has been the most popular tour genre:

  • Rock acts accounted for 14 of the top 50 tours (28%)
  • Pop came in a close second with 12 slots (24%)
  • Country was close as well with 11 slots (22%).
  • All other genres failed to make an impression. Rap did not have any tours in the top 50.

However, tours aren't always about current popularity. According to Billboard's list of top tours of the 2000s, the top 10 touring artists were mostly long-time classic rock bands who reaped fortunes on tour regardless of chart presence. Tour workhorses were also a factor. Number eight on the Billboard list, Kenny Chesney played 622 shows in the 2000s, and yet Chesney has never peaked higher than 16 on Billboard's Top 100. He simply worked harder than most others, at least on tour.

NPD Group Survey Data

In early 2013, respected market research firm The NPD Group released the results from its most recent annual survey of music fans from 2012. According to the survey, which asked fans what music they actively listened to, what they purchased, and what tours they attended:

  • Country music was America's top genre in 2012
  • Rock was a close second
  • Pop was a modest third

However, this flies in the face of Nielsen's sales totals for 2012 that place country at number four in overall album sales.

Radio is Conflicted

According to Inside Radio, the industry standard for radio programming trends, country music has the most format counts with 2064 radio stations as of September 2013, up from 2046 in September of 2012. No other genre is close to this number. However, Billboard, which measures both traditional radio and Internet streaming counts, shows the following:

  • 30 of the Hot 100 slots belong to pop music
  • Five of the top ten slots go to pop, including the coveted top three spots
  • No country music appears in the top ten, and only 22 of the Hot 100 slots are country.

The Billboard reign of pop is clear. Although country music has its stake in a multitude of radio stations, its vast empire of traditional airplay has not translated into Hot 100 chart dominance.

Pop is Tops in Popularity

When it comes to deciding the most popular genre today, the mid-2013 Nielsen data and the Billboard charts are the most reliable and most recent.

Although the tour data conflicts with this conclusion, that metric says more about the star power of music legends. The 2012 NPD survey, though it takes the question straight to the consumer, is not consistent with 2012 sales data, and it deals in human subjectivity, which is a less reliable source than cold hard facts. Radio and streaming performance, as well as record sales, place pop as the clear winner.

Global Popularity

According to the most recent annual report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), pop is the dominant force globally as well:

  • Six of the top ten global album sellers were Western pop artists.
  • Pop mega star Adele was the top artist globally.
  • Global singles sales saw more international flavor in the top ten with Psy and Michel Teló.
  • A Canadian pop artist, Carly Rae Jepsen, topped the global singles chart.

The global information above might seem surprising, but according to historical data, the dominance of pop music is old news.

Traditional Word-of-Mouth Drives Popularity

According to a study from Crimson Hexagon, word-of-mouth rapidly increases an artist's popularity. With pop music's built-in audience it's much easier for an artist in this genre to have a video go viral, or a new song become a social media sensation. While you can never replace the traditional lures of a catchy beat and clever lyrics, modern methods of music promotion seem to favor pop music and its growing legion of fans.

What Is the Most Popular Music Genre?