Singles are select songs from albums that artists and record companies distribute to promote record sales, but in recent years sales of singles has actually affected album sales.
In years past, singles were sold on 45-RPM records with either other promotional singles, or B-sides to the album itself. This eventually evolved to the cassette single by the late 1980s, which held either a few songs, or the single plus remixes or alternate recordings. By the 1990s, the Compact Disc replaced the cassette, and singles were released on this format, usually in a cheap, flimsy case and contained either a few songs, or remixes similar to the cassette.
CD singles were not as popular as earlier varieties, and record companies feared they would take away from album sales, causing the change from “Singles Charts” to “Album Charts” in the late 1990s. This trend continued into the 2000s, until Apple released the iPod, and iTunes shortly after, causing a revolution in music distribution.
Because of this new format, it is much easier to sell single songs over full albums because they are cheaper, and Apple makes it possible to buy individual songs, when a person would normally have to buy the whole album.
The problem in this case is that artists are now focusing on this new format, and have turned from writing whole albums with a central theme, to writing individual songs with no connection to each other. Artists also concentrate on writing a handful—or less—of good songs and releasing an album with “filler tracks,” or tracks that have little thought or effort into them just to fill album space.
iTunes has a bar graph that shows a song’s popularity compared to other songs on a particular album. In popular music, these graphs generally show a few songs on an album with a popularity of 10, and the rest of the songs with a popularity of 5 or less. With this specific example of Lady Gaga’s “The Fame,” the top four selling songs on the album are all popular radio singles, the rest of the songs on the album are seldom—if ever—played on airwaves. This example also has an “album only” option for the final song, which means the song can only be purchased by buying the whole album, as opposed to an individual download. With this example, the album only track has 0-out-of-10 bars, indicating very little sales compared to other songs.
The distribution of music from Taylor Swift offers a different example of how singles dominate the album selection. On her album page, Taylor Swift’s singles outnumber her albums. This persuades consumers to buy singles over full-fledged albums, boasting a lower price, and containing the most popular songs on the album.
Not all artists are following in the digital downloading trend. The progressive band Tool doesn’t allow any of their music to be downloaded from iTunes or Amazon MP3. Instead, the band encourages their fans to go to record stores and buy physical albums, and is against buying individual tracks.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are artists who feel the idea of digitally downloading and paying for albums should be the fan’s choice. The band Radiohead released their 2007 album “In Rainbows” on their own website, and let fans decide what they wanted to pay. This type of procedure is called a “pay-what-you-want” download. Other artists have had similar success with this idea. The independent YouTube personality Keith Apicary sold his debut album as a pay-what-you-want download in 2010, letting fans decide the price.
CD bundles are also becoming more popular, combining an album with live footage/recordings or additional albums included. With video becoming more and more important to consumers, this medium has the possibility to bring back the sale of physical records.
I think that people should stop downloading singles and start buying physical albums again. This should not fall solely to the consumer, though. Artists need to start looking back at what made music great years ago, and follow the same idea. Instead of writing individual songs, they should start writing albums with a central theme.
In my opinion, collectors buy CDs, and serious music collectors buy vinyl. My reasoning behind this is that physical albums come with so much more than digital singles. With an album you get the album artwork, along with a booklet that my contain lyrics to songs, or an inside look to the recording process or previous concert tours. Many believe that vinyl has the best sound.
– Kyle Flathers