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.