The “Single” has been around since the beginning of recorded music; in fact, singles were the chosen method of packaging a music product before albums existed. The relative importance of the single has varied dramatically, both commercially and artistically, over time. Although singles were the norm in the 1950s. In the mid-sixties, with the emergence of rock music and the conceptual albums that came along with that, singles lost their significance for a time. In a physical product, an album has almost identical manufacturing, packing, and distribution costs as a single but can sell at a significantly higher price. The ’90s saw albums created and sold at as much as $20 an album. Indeed, not every song on the album was a hit, nor was each song always even palatable. As long as there was one hit to drive sales, the album sold. This was the model of the recording industry. It was the era of high production, marketing, and distribution costs; megastars; and a consumer base forced fed songs they didn’t want by way of packaging songs they did want.
Now that consumers have a choice, they have made their decision overwhelmingly clear. They want convenience and customization. What does this mean for the artist or music entrepreneur? When everything is turning digital, where does an artist go? Certainly, no matter what happens with how we distribute music, the fact that we need a star will never change. So today, we don’t make music; we make stars. The key is to find a global appeal. Once that appeal is created, find its product and market.
The two most significant digital incomes are 60% mobile sales, 48% internet streaming. Streaming music and illegal downloads are playing the role of radio. Asian Music Mogul JY Parks states in a 2009 Midam interview, in Korea, they lost 90% of the physical CD market, his flagship act, “Wondergirls,” never made an album. Instead, they created mini albums – these albums only have three songs, the physical product is more like a photobook for the fans to have – music products have a much faster turnover today, so all you need is 3 or 4 songs, need to release two songs a year, no time off, no one gets music from actual CD’s. Singles are about convenience, which is the cornerstone of any market in today’s society and global culture; albums are too inconvenient for customers; customers don’t want to be pushed to buy 12 songs. It’s just uncomfortable and inconvenient for the customer. It is very convenient to purchase one digital song, from the computer, in an instant download.
Reuters.com declares that Album sales in the UK fell 3.5 percent to 128.9 million in 2009, the fifth consecutive year of contraction. Single sales soared to an annual record of more than 152 million, an increase of 32.7 percent from 2009. Ninety-eight percent of all singles were sold digitally. An unprecedented 4.22 million singles were sold in the last week of 2009 – more than in any previous week. The sales boom was put down to the use of new MP3 players received as Christmas presents, as music fans downloaded a wide range of tracks, old and new.” As for how consumers find and purchase music continues to evolve, for music companies, it is vital that to be able to continue to invest in contemporary artists and support new digital services,” “While sales of physical CDs continue to trend downwards, music fans are clearly responding to the explosive growth of digital retailers and outlets selling and streaming music in the UK. 2009’s record singles result is encouraging.” said Geoff Taylor, BPI chief executive. In the US, the figures are only worse. According to Billboard, for the 52 weeks from January 5, 2009, to January 3, 2010, 373.9 million albums were sold, down 12.7 percent from the same year-ago period. Overall, U.S. music purchases hit an all-time high in 2009, as sales of albums, singles, digital tracks, and music videos topped 1.5 billion for the second consecutive year, according to year-end data released today from Nielsen SoundScan.Album sales took another double-digit drop in 2009, down 12.7% to 373.9 million. Meanwhile, digital track sales reached another milestone, up 8.3% from 2008 to more than 1.1 billion in 2009.
So with single sales up, what is the issue? The real problem is that record labels, and ultimately, artists pour thousands of dollars into the production costs it takes to create an album, and a $0.99 download just doesn’t cut the mustard to suffice in recouping the costs. We are now seeing major acts like Pink Floyd fighting this new trend. A British court has ruled that Pink Floyd’s songs can not be unbundled from their albums due to artistic creation and the fact their music tends to be conceptual. As such, online music stores, including iTunes, can not sell single songs without the band’s permission. Since Pink Floyd’s songs seamlessly go from one to the other, this aided in the court’s ruling. EMI was claiming while this is true and per their contract applies to physical media, it did not apply to online sales. The judge ruled that EMI is “not entitled to exploit recordings by online distribution or by any other means other than the complete original album without Pink Floyd’s consent.” My question is, so why do we continue to make albums? Some artists are getting the picture with creative, innovative ways of releasing their music.
Billy Corgan plans to release the new Smashing Pumpkins project, “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope,” one track at a time, as free downloads, starting in late October. “No strings attached, no e-mail address need be given, no fees, nothing, totally free. A 44-song free-for-all!” says Billy. He adds, “I thought it would emphasize that each song is really important to me and also try to get myself up to the speed of a world that is absolutely devouring information.” In the new Rolling Stone, Corgan says, “I was never comfortable with the album format. It always felt so forced and was obviously an economic decision made by others and not an artistic decision made by creators. It can be draining to try to record 15 songs over a six-month period.” Billy goes on to say, “I want no limitations on what I can, and will do. I think the size and shape of the traditional album is just morphing into something much more in the moment.” Other bands such as Radiohead are considering similar creative strategies.
What should an artist do? I believe an artist new path should go something like this: write – write A LOT – churn out 100 songs or so at least, chances are writing that many pieces, your best work will be somewhere in there, also aside from the probability that at least 1 out of 100 songs will be amazing, practice makes perfect. Then, invest the budget you would have used to record an entire album professionally, in home recording equipment. Demo (or record beautifully if you can in your home studio) all or most of your written songs. Get an excellent catalog of demos. Next, put your demos where people can hear them, basically get a giant focus group to listen (this may mean something as simple as streaming your songs on a private link for a select online audience, handing out sample demos or mixtapes at shows, etc.), also play live and play your material, pay attention to the reaction of your audience, and let the listeners or fans choose which songs are your singles. Then, get in a professional studio and record 1-3 songs at a time, get them mixed and mastered; this is where you spend the money. Then release your singles properly. You won’t make enough money from downloads alone. But then again, you won’t have spent as much on recording costs either. You will need to create multiple streams of income for your brand and single. Tour, sell merchandise, create ringtones and ringback of your singles, mobile apps, wallpapers, publishing and licensing, any and every income source you can dip your hands in, get there. And you must think outside the box and look to the future.