Feature

Get into the singles game!

Let’s face it, the day of the music album — for most intents and purposes — is pretty much done. With the exception of the past 30 years, most recorded music has historically been about songs: single songs that stand alone.

In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that album sales finally started killing the single.

The long playing record was really invented to allow for longer pieces — primarily classical and jazz — to be properly recorded. Albums of pop songs were an after-thought. When I first started buying records in the early ’60s singles cost 66 cents while LPs went for just under $3.

With singles you got a bonus track — the B side — for free! With LPs you got a hit song or two plus a lot of (somewhat crappy) filler. It was The Beatles who really changed all of that with their LP Rubber Soul. The Canadian version of the album (which differed from the British release) had no hit songs, but it sold like hot-cakes.

This is how Wikipedia put it:

The album was commercially successful, beginning a 42-week run in the British charts on 11 December 1965. On Christmas Day it replaced Help!—The Beatles’ previous album—at the top of the charts, a position Rubber Soul held for eight weeks. … The US version of the album also greatly influenced the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson believed it was the first time in pop music that the focus had shifted from just making popular singles to making an actual album, without the usual filler tracks. He “answered” the album by releasing Pet Sounds in 1966.

With bands like Pink Floyd, albums became the way to go. One of the biggest-selling bands ever, the Floyd stopped issuing singles after 1967 while Syd Barrett was still with them. King Crimson and other prog-rock bands followed suit. By the early ‘70s, the hit parade was waning, and thus the singles market, as album sales took over in the forms of LPs, 8-Tracks and cassettes. Singles were doomed — or so it seemed at the time — and record companies had totally abandoned them by the digital era of the 1990s.

With the digital boom came the ability for just about anyone to record their music, easily and somewhat professionally. But with the digital boom came the CD era and the ability to record up to 76 minutes of music.  While vinyl artists had been restricted to less than 40 minutes – 20 minutes per side. The more you jammed in, the lower the sound quality (like on K-Tel records). Consider that Beatle albums ran from 26 to 35 minutes (excluding the double White album), or 18 minutes per side. Although cassettes allowed two sides up to one hour each, pre-recorded ones mirrored what was released on vinyl — they were a poor quality cousin really meant for car stereos in the days before the Sony Walkman.

What all this meant was that instead of having two sets of music, albums on CD had only one. With the attention span of the average listener geared to about a half an hour, anything longer was heading into dangerous territory, no matter how good the artist. Very few of the “album-oriented” artists could manage to enrapture audiences for longer. And yet, with the advent of the CD and the digital age, albums grew longer, songs were no longer limited to three minutes, and the 10-12 song LP became the 15 song CD. 15 songs in one linear set of music.

But it was still the album era. People were forced to buy entire CDs just to get a single song that they liked. The only other way for the hostage public to go was bootleg. Remember the phrase:

“Home-taping is killing the music business.”

Most listeners were trapped into buying albums of songs when they really only wanted a few. The price of CDs was (and remains) roughly $20 so buying a lot of (mostly forgettable) filler was an insult that the listeners had to put up with. So people started illegal downloading via peer-to-peer web sites like Napster. The album-oriented forces of multi-national conglomerates fought in vain to keep this from legally happening. Now the 66 cent single has turned into the 99 cent downloaded mp3.

It wasn’t unusual, in the heyday of the album, to sell a hundred CDs per weekend at a Canadian folk festival. I recently spoke with a well-respected recording artist who told me that he did pretty well at a recent festival, selling only forty copies of his work. It’s the law of diminishing returns. Very few kids buy albums these days — they get bored too quickly. Instead, they opt for the songs they really like and load them onto their Ipod or other mp3 players. Even if they do download a lot of songs by one artist, chances are their mp3 player is playing in shuffle mode — they just don’t like listening to one album at a time. So the day of the single is back upon us.

There seems to be a disconnect between the forces of creativity and the reality of the listener, which is mind-blowing to say the least. While the listener wants to buy singles, the artist still wants to record as many songs as possible, in album format. While the listener wants to pay 99 cents per song, the recording artist still wants 20 bucks a pop for an album.

When we consider the cost of recording an album — upwards of $30,000 including production, recording, manufacturing, publicity and promotion — you do the math and figure out how many sales are required to break even. Major artists can also get royalties from public performances and publishing to recoup some of their monies;  small-time artists are lucky to get a minimal SOCAN cheque once every five years.

I’ve been programming a radio show for 23 years; I get CDs sent to me every week. I can honestly tell you that I have trouble listening to most of them for very long; few of them are worthy of more than 15 minutes of my time, which is really too bad, because not all the good songs are at the start.

Some of the younger performers (who mostly market themselves online) send me EPs, or 5 song CDs containing their best songs. This makes life much simpler with less filler to go through to find a cut suitable for my programming purposes. So I have developed some theories as to why the album must go — and why it’s likely to stick around, however unwanted:

Vanity. A vanity project is a self-published piece of work.
Ego. There’s more than enough to go around.
Vanity + ego = a conceit that is long in the tooth and consumes a lot of time.

These two are the biggest culprits. Explain to me why anyone must have your ear for the better part of an hour.

The only albums I can understand are live recordings that deserve a full listen, replacing the live show. The other albums worthy of purchase are those incredible pieces of work by the most amazing artists which are few and far between; compilation albums of historic or folkloric value. Soundtracks. 95% of recorded music doesn’t figure into this equation at all. Therefore they fall into the vanity category.

This explains another thing: blinded, the artist walks off the edge of a cliff.

Consider the reality of releasing an album of music. The production and its costs are one thing; the time it takes to actually accomplish all of this is another. A lot of time and energy go into packaging, promotion, touring, holding special events called “CD Release Parties”, etc.

So in reality, what is happening here is an “Artist” records an enormous body of work over a period of months and then releases it to the world in a flourish – a little zap of light which soon vaporizes into history. 14 songs sent out to radio stations at the cost of thousands of dollars. A little tour of release events and then it is done: the CD is out there. And then we don’t hear from this artist for another two or three years. And this somehow makes a lot of sense?

Consider the alternative: the singles market. Record some of your best songs, your absolute winners, ones that audiences love, ones that bring them to their feet. Release them as singles. A buck a song. Stagger their release dates: one every two or three months. Leave them wanting for more. It’s cheaper, it’s higher quality, it keeps your name in public view much longer.

And when you’ve got an album’s worth of such ‘hit’ songs, release them as your greatest hits. Isn’t that the way it worked in the olden days before album-oriented sales took over the market? Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) was one of the best selling Rolling Stones albums of the sixties.

Times and technology change, but the love of great music prevails — one song at a time.

Steve Fruitman is the host of Back to the Sugar Camp on  CIUT, 89.5 FM in Toronto.

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6 comments

  1. avatar
    Rhys 24 September, 2011 at 10:30

    No, no, no. That’s like skipping movies and only watching the trailers. The single is just a taste of a full body of work. The best artists are the ones that can put out a solid album.

    It’s also kind of hard to base a live tour on one song.

  2. avatar
    frankcasting 24 September, 2011 at 10:55

    Great piece, Steve, and I have thought similarly in recent years too. But in doing so, I came to a couple of conclusions that left me less than convinced that this was the way to go.

    Canadians depend a great deal on some kind of government help to create records (name the brand like FACTOR and level of gvt., it all comes down to public finding). Are those lenders ready to fund non-CD-format projects? And even if they are, the artist still has to budget to record songs at a studio, get them mastered, and promote their existence, whether one at a time or not.

    If recording and mastering studios run like other businesses, it would cost more per song to do one or two at a time, wouldn’t it? As you know, CDs themselves cost artists between $1.00 and $3.00 to manufacture, and maybe $1,000 – $2,000 to design; it’s the least of their costs, it’s everything else that adds up to the $30,000. So why not continue to put them out, even if they do release a track at a time on iTunes?

    There are still millions of people who are not ready to give up on shiny discs any time soon. The act of buying a physical souvenir at a venue, or of lovingly giving the gift of music (nothing says “gift certificate” like a download card) will always be part of our culture. Not all of us are as enamoured with the “shuffle” play as the kids are; try as I might on my iPhone, it frustrates me more than it pleases me, I like to know what artist is coming up next, and even what song. Like a great concert, there is a science behind the energy flow of a great recording, and that’s part of the enjoyment.

    As for the quality of CDs that appear in your mailbox, I recall in my radio days that there was more crap in my box than an elephant could produce in a week, but there are still some *great* Canadian (and other) albums being made, and I have heard several cover-to-cover beauties this year alone. It would be a loss of a CD like Alex Pagman’s “33” was lost to the 1950’s style of consuming music.

  3. avatar
    Michael Wrycraft 24 September, 2011 at 18:41

    ahhhh steve… my second favourite passionranter next to flohil. i remember feeling gut shot but then inexplicably happy when i first went to fruitman’s website and caught his exuberent criticisms of album design.

    i enjoyed reading this piece but agree with only half of what was said and personally i don’t think the album is dead.

    like steve’s album design critiques i found that, like this story, steve’s point of view relates more to his direct experiences as a dj rather than an overall industry view.

    i agreed with a lot, yes… a lot of the music industry is changing rapidly and in surprising ways — from the delivery of music to the marketing of music and all points in between — and it’s a blurry wild ride. but i believe that like many other things that evolve, the basics are still in place as a foundation… quality, attention to detail and artistic statement.

    steve earle in his keynote address to nxne several years ago complained about how the overall quality of “albums” HAS gone down and he found it hard to convince his son, who was illegally downloading a lot of singles, to purchase albums legally. he tried to explain that what is son was doing was actually taking food out of their family’s mouth. his son then explained that he tries buying albums and is constantly disappointed, as steve mentioned, because he finds one or two really great tunes and 12 crappy ones.

    maybe this is the difference between artists and folks who just want to spit out product. it used to be that you headed into the studio with your best new 20 – 30 songs and a lucky 12 made the grade hopefully filling the album with the best you had to offer. nowadays it’s a bit more like “i’ve got 11 songs written… as soon as i write 2 more i’m going in to record them. quality control in this regard has slipped a lot lower overall.

    i would suggest that most of the music that steve plays on his radio show and a lot of what is covered in this website is generally not geared towards the big “youth market” but toward an older demographic. the kind that just now starting to dabble in i-tunes etc but still appreciate a collection of wonderful songs gathered together in one place by an artist they love to listen to.

    i love to put my i-tunes on shuffle occasionally because it shuffles through a huge variety (90 GBs and counting) of songs selected from full albums not singles, but always go back to listening to full albums. there might be a great single but you are either going to like a single or not. with an album there’s a little something for everyone. if you don’t like one song… you’ll likely love the next.

    and in an album it’s not just about individual songs, but how a group of songs rub up against each other… how one song brings you down to a deep dark emotional place and the next songs takes you soaring higher and the following song is the perfect palette cleanser for the next song which takes you somewhere else until you hit the deliberately sequenced closing song which gently kisses you goodnight, tucks you in and says so long until the next time you play the album.
    an album is an amusement park, a single is one cool ride.

    most good albums, and not necessarily concept albums, have a lot of time and careful consideration put into what songs should even exist alongside each other in this basket of music, the choosing, the sequencing, the dynamic flow. and this is what my ears appreciate and can’t live without.

    i could listen to an artist’s single and think what a cute song… fun to dance to. i can listen to an album and be taken on a journey or experience revelations about the artist themselves… go with them as they go through an emotional break up, a new love, a trip around the world.

    in the end i think that lighter, fluffy, celebrity-driven music can flourish one single at a time and make their major label handler’s terribly happy but i think would be hard for most artists to express themselves one single song at a time and i say… no matter what the format or delivery system… give me a full blast of david francey everytime… if he starts teasing me with single songs i could go postal….

    “long live the album!!!”

  4. avatar
    Willy Blizzard 25 September, 2011 at 04:49

    Thank you for a timely essay, complete with historical overview. Truthfully, when we made our own little album we sweated over it, trying to treat it as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, especially the order of songs (key, tempo, musical stylings, etc.) The perception that our popular culture is suffering from collective attention deficit disorder is spot on too. I actually remember the days when one could actually hear Ravel’s “Bolero” on AM radio. Wouldn’t happen nowadays.

  5. avatar
    em 25 September, 2011 at 12:00

    i dont think this way at all. i grew up on 45s, then mono lps then stereo… I don’t think essays are the same as novels. I value albums (but not the same pop ones you cite) as a complete concept just as a single might also be if thtas all you have to say (or sell). I take the album concept as a journey and while I might not like every song, 99% of the time, there is a thread to follow and a journey to make. These days its fashionable to go to the cloud or to fit some quick tune into a limited attention span. For me, its different. I still like to shut out the world, put on a disk, be still and to take the ride. Dead for you or for the corporation perhaps, but I never much cared about that myself.

  6. avatar
    Ian Robb 20 October, 2011 at 15:34

    Steve as DJ has my sympathy. I can’t imagine how much time he must spend listening to stuff he really doesn’t like enough to consider playing. However I’m not sure that removing albums from the equation would make even his life simpler. If we all went to an exclusively single format, most artists would release each track as it was ready, and instead of one contact from the artist regarding say 10 or 12 tracks, he would receive each recording or notification thereof separately. How would that help? Steve’s problem probably has more to do with the fact that far too many people are recording, period. And that many of those have inflated and unreasonable expectations of airplay and celebrity. This has little to do with format.

    It is undoubtedly true that albums are often just collections of recently written or learned, but otherwise unconnected songs. But is that necessarily bad? Often a great deal of care has been put into sequencing the songs to give the whole project a nice dynamic flow: just as the artist might do in live performance. There can be much added artistic value in this if it’s done well. Thematic, retrospective or tribute collections aren’t the only projects that can benefit from the album format. And a well written set of liner notes and attractive and congruous artwork is not without its appeal either. I don’t get to listen to Steve’s show, but I imagine like any good DJ he provides interesting context for the music he plays. As a self-published artist, I like to do that for album buyers with carefully written liner notes. My attitude is “give the listener a choice” If (s)he has the attention span of the average Fox News viewer, then use shuffle by all means. But not everyone is that way.

    On the subject of “vanity publishing”, I think Steve is a bit harsh when he suggests that it is synonymous with “self publishing”. Many very good and established artists publish their own work for reasons which have a lot to do with maintaining artistic control or with the financial return on their investment. They don’t want to hand over control and a slice of the pie to someone else. All artists are vain to some degree–you don’t get up in front of an audience without some of that–but self published work is not necessarily a hallmark of vain mediocrity.

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