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It took a couple decades, but the music business looks like it’s okay again

Sales were up more than 8 percent in the first half of 2016.

Taylor Swift The 1989 World Tour Live In Los Angeles - Night 1 Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for TAS
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

The music business peaked in 1999, and it has been tumbling ever since.

Now it looks like it's starting to climb back up: Music sales in the first half of the year were up 8.4 percent, to $3.4 billion — the industry's best performance since the height of the CD era.

That boom is fueled entirely by the growth of paid subscription services. This year's numbers include Apple Music, which didn't exist a year ago but has 17 million worldwide subscribers today, as well as Spotify, which has been growing faster than Apple and has 40 million global subs.

Digital downloads via stores like iTunes, meanwhile, are falling behind. Those sales dropped 17 percent to $1 billion. And some people still buy CDs, but soon that business will be a footnote: Those sales dropped 14 percent and now make up just 20 percent of U.S. sales.

All good, right? Not according to Cary Sherman, who runs the RIAA, the labels’ American trade group. He has a Medium post complaining that YouTube doesn’t pay enough for all the music it streams, almost all of which is free.

If that complaint sounds familiar, there’s a reason: It’s the one he has been making for a while. Over in Europe, where Cary’s counterparts have been making the same push, regulators have agreed, and are proposing new rules designed to help the labels (and other content owners) out.

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