Singles vs. albums: What would Stompin’ Tom do?
I really enjoyed reading Steve Fruitman’s piece on singles [Get Into the Singles Game] and why it makes sense that an artist should gear their music towards releasing individual songs in today’s market. I would like to share a couple of points of view that came to mind on this rainy autumn day in my motel room.
I am writing to you while on tour in Northern Ontario on the fall 2011 edition of our “Never-Ending-Highways-Tour”. My band just performed at the Wawa Motor Inn.
Wawa is a little town on Highway 17 on the Trans-Canada Highway. Most people just drive through or stop just long enough to have a photo taken at the Canada goose statue. This place is known across the land as the place where every hitch-hiker that crosses the country gets stuck – “The town so fantastic they named it twice”
The Wawa Motor Inn is the same place where Stompin’ Tom performed as a solo country/western singer around 1967 or 1968 and also the place where he wrote the song “Little Wawa”. I myself have written quite a few songs about Canada and in 2009 and 2010 I was personally invited by Stompin’ Tom to go on the road with him and open his concert tours from Newfoundland to Vancouver and also play in his backing band.
Stompin’ Tom is a Canadian icon and has had an extremely colourful and decorated career with many platinum and gold selling albums and awards ranging from Junos, to The Order of Canada, and honorary doctorates from several universities.
I recall asking Tom one time, “what do you think is the secret to your success in the music business? Was it because you wrote songs about Canada and nobody else did?”
Tom replied that there were many people writing songs about Canada but the thing that set him apart is that he had songs from everywhere on his albums.
He said there were many great singers and songwriters from Newfoundland but they were singing songs only about Newfoundland and so on. He told me that from the very beginning of his recording career he was very careful that he made sure that he had songs from different parts of the country on his albums.
He has since released 50 albums and each one contains songs from all of the diverse regions of Canada. In this way, he explained, a person would buy an album because he liked a particular song that Tom had written about his hometown or something that he was familiar with or his part of the country and in so doing would listen to all the other songs about the rest of the country.
An example would be that a fan from northern Ontario would buy his album because it contained the song “Little Wawa” but in doing so the fan also bought all of Tom’s songs about Vancouver, New Brunswick, Toronto, and so on.
Tom’s songwriting and his method of presenting songs from across the land on every album eventually led to his being celebrated as “The #1 musician on the list of Greatest Canadians according to the CBC public poll” a few years ago. In this way the full album is what eventually led to Tom’s music being heard everywhere in the land and the secret to his success – without the album format it couldn’t have been done.
As a footnote – Tom actually started by recording 45 RPM singles in Timmins, Ontario in 1964/1965 but it was around the time that singles were being replaced by albums and so his timing was perfect. If it were just singles he would not have had the career that he did.
(I share this story because Steve Fruitman himself is from northern Ontario and a very big Stompin’ Tom fan and so I thought he might find it interesting to know that Stompin’ Tom was a big believer in the album format over the singles format).
On the night that my band performed at the Wawa Motor Inn there was a traveling show from the USA driving through and they checked into the motel to spend the night. They pulled into the parking lot in two big buses – each with a trailer and a separate 16 wheeler tractor trailer unit as well. They had the night off so the lighting and stage and sound crew and entourage of over 20 people came to have dinner and took in our show at the lounge that night.
They enjoyed our music and in talking with several of the crew members I was surprised to find out that they were on a world tour with a DJ – just one guy who was mixing records. I was told that they were playing sold out concerts all over the world and were sometimes getting 6000 people or more in attendance. I found it difficult to believe that a one-man show would need a crew of 20 people but it was explained that he was very popular and had a big light show and it was quite a large production.
I wasn’t familiar with the artist (I believe his name is Skrillex) but when I asked if he had any CD’s out I was told that he is marketed mainly online and on YouTube and has legions of fans.
This DJ seemed to be world renowned and probably much better known than Stompin’ Tom ever was
and he doesn’t seem to have albums out at all. [Skrillex has several albums – Ed.] I am certain that his fans are downloading “singles” from the internet and it sure seems to be working great. (Ironically I suppose – the DJ needs to have vinyl records in order to mix his beats but that is another story…)
So you can see – there is a place for singles and a place for albums in today’s world.
I guess music means different things to different people and it is as diverse as the way that people choose to listen to it and collect it and purchase it.
In terms of radio it has always been more or less singles or individual songs that are played on the air with the idea of selling the album that they are taken from. Radio would rarely ever play an entire album – that is a musical journey reserved for the individual listener.
I am all for singles and all for albums – the only thing I don’t care for is filler – and I think it is safe to say that filler can’t survive in the music business of today and we are all better off for it.
Tim Hus is an Alberta-based musician with a strong grassroots following from coast to coast.