Singles vs. Albums

An article this morning in the New York Times mentions that album sales are on a decline (16% last year), and the sale of individual songs via downloading services (such as iTunes) is on the rise (54% in the past year). Should we be worried that the album is a dying relic of the past, or happy that single songs are selling better than they have been able to in recent years?

We just may be seeing a swing of music releases back toward a singles format as opposed to albums; the way we purchase music is coming full circle. When records were first issued, they were distributed on 10″ 78RPM shellac discs. Just as RCA was touting a new, compact 7″ 45RPM format to replace the “78s,” Columbia brought out the Microgroove long-playing record that could hold several songs per side on a single disc. (The term “album” comes from the days of 78RPM records being sold together in a book-like album of two or more discs.)

Albums were great for classical music and jazz, and other long-form musical works, but they really didn’t catch on in popular music until the mid 60s when rock and pop bands began releasing concept albums that demanded a continuous listening experience. Following that, FM radio originally carved its niche by playing album tracks, the non-hits that the AM stations were still playing constantly. By the time the 70s rolled around, albums were “events”. We still had single releases to create the buzz, but the album was an entire experience, released every year or two, just as the buzz from the previous album began to die off.

One could say that the advent of the CD was the death knell for singles. There were a few abortive attempts at releasing CD singles, but they have never taken off.  Perhaps they are priced too high? You could pick up a 45RPM single for under a buck in many cases; even in recent years, a 45 was probably about 20% of the cost of the entire album.  CD singles were priced at anywhere from $3.99 to $9.99–not exactly conducive to promoting sales of singles, when you could buy the entire album at loss-leader prices for $10-$12 from your local big box retailer.

A change in physical format never helped either.  3″ CDs came out with a bang, but quickly became a novelty, as production costs were higher due to the low volume, and consumers never cared for the format as many players could not play them safely.

Marketing and floor space for CD singles was also non-existent–my favorite record stores had either a “wall of singles” or a completely separate area with dedicated bins for the singles, where you could choose the latest 45s for purchase.  CD singles were always relegated to an endcap at a big box retailer, or just thrown in the bin with the album releases.

With downloadable music being popular today, it’s no wonder that consumers are gravitating back toward purchasing individual tracks. Not everyone has the capability to download music (I’d say downloaders are still in the minority), but the labels have gotten the message: music buyers are tired of buying weak albums with poor filler and one or two hits. Over the years, singles were a lot of things to a lot of people. They were a cheap way to pick up the latest, catchy hit. They were a good way to sample an album without buying the whole thing. They let artists get individual songs out quickly, ahead of albums, or even in some circumstances, release non-album singles. Today, other than music downloads, the only concept of a “single” is what gets approved for airplay.

It also doesn’t help that many of today’s “pop” acts are just too musically weak to make an entire album of music. The one or two mediocore songs that could have been singles are often the only ones on an entire CD that are worth listening to; the rest is filler…[i]bad[/i] filler. And releasing albums three or four years apart isn’t helping either: the public quickly loses interest, and even there, a couple of single releases would maintain interest until the next album came along.

One could argue that even the older albums had filler, but why, then, would a classic like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” have so many good songs from track to track? Many of these recent “manufactured” acts barely have the talent to pull off one or two mediocre singles per year; doing an entire album is a real stretch. If the artists’ managment AND the record label realized what a poor product they were putting out, they might realize one of the valid arguments as to why album sales are dropping off: poor product, at a poor price. (Granted, few pay full list price anymore, but having CDs with a list price of $18.98 is counterproductive.)

Remember in the 70s and 80s when albums came of age? A group would release an album every year or two, get a few hit singles off of it, and then when the buzz would just start to die off a year or two later, a new lead-off single would appear shortly before the next album hit the shelves. These albums had a lot more staying power: the non-hits had substance, and the entire album experience was enjoyed, as opposed to today’s method of cherry-picking what few good songs there are on a new recording.

There’s too much “machinery” to make this happen now, too much corporate overhead. One could say that the majors have become too big to be useful. Look at the many independent labels popping up now. Like singles, record labels themselves are coming full circle, with the “little guys” (indies) setting up shop due to the big labels’ inflexibility to adapt quickly. While downloads are far from an ideal way to buy “singles”, perhaps this movement toward single-song purchases and indie releases will put more good music back in the hands of those of us who are buying it.

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