I embrace the new media model but I still miss the way things used to be. In the heyday of vinyl, the album cover and sleeve might have been just as exciting to see as hearing the album. When I would go buy a CD, I was certainly excited to hear the rest of the album that the song or two I had heard on the radio enticed me with in the first place. But I really couldn’t wait to open the jacket and read what was in there.
Those days are long gone. (But not before Steven Seagal snuck one in.)
According to Nielson Soundscan, in 2011 there were over 1.3 billion digital transactions. The surprising statistic from that is that only 7.5% were actually for whole albums. The single reigned supreme. Ironically, there were still 77,000 albums released that year.
I think the majors were and may still be in denial to some degree. Their business model is so big that they can’t be so flexible to change how they operate when the market swings so quickly. The process is designed around selling albums. The majors are fixated on tangible goods and believe(d) the best returns are on full albums.
As an independent, my overhead is A LOT lower than any big gun out there. I can be as flexible as the market needs. Moreover, I need to be. Personally, I love albums even though many of them couldn’t deliver an entire album worth of music as good as the few songs I really, really liked. To be expected, I’m realizing I love the single and the new opportunities it provides and what I loved most about the album might be found in other ways.
So, now that singles are the bomb-diggity, what about liner notes and artwork? There are new opportunities for anyone creative enough to deliver. Of course we’re seeing the typical shirt, hat, signed picture combo deals all over the place but that’s rather bland. Not that I don’t think this merchandise isn’t valuable, it really is. I love shirts and hats but I just think they are mandatory and not really special. Kinda like cheese and sauce to a pizza. They don’t make the pizza special but you have to have them. The choice of toppings, however, is only limited by your own imagination. That’s the fun part.
What would you want? Handwritten lyrics? Polaroids? Pints? Recipes? Plant seeds? Water bottle? Tuque? Coozie? Game? Map? Drawing? Coloring Book? Think for a moment what an artist could offer that would create a connection with the fan.
Beyond the creative aspect of marrying merchandise with singles or an EP, there’s a very good case for releasing singles from a business perspective. First, no more filler songs. Every song is very important. Each song gets writing attention, marketing attention, and stands alone as the offering. Why would that work? Any streaming radio or terrestrial radio will play a single song. Music videos are single songs. Film and television sync are singles. Any DJ is likely going to play a single not an album.
Another advantage to releasing single songs is the regularity and consistency that an artist can continue to connect with a fan. In the past, an artist would release an album in a year or longer. Then try to ride it out through touring. Since touring is still a huge part of any artist’s career, releasing singles allows an artist to release a song every month continuously. Case studies have already proven that this type of consistency of fresh content has a tendency to engage more fans. Content is paramount. Releasing singles would allow you to surprise a fan base with a single 2 weeks ahead of a perceived schedule. It’s so much easier to promote and serve a single than an entire album.
On a less exciting note, if a single doesn’t really connect with fans or sort of flops… so what? Right? Move on to the next single. Releasing singles allows the artist to experiment a little bit without having to think about an entire album or put all the budget into a large body of work.
There are a couple possible hitches in this singles theory. The first would be that you are really moving on from the album. Record stores and other retailers are out of the picture entirely and you’d be part of a new revolution. But, consider all the wagon wheel companies that went out of business when Ford came out with his car. This might just be a fact of moving forward. These retailers have to use their resources and money and figure out how to exist in the new market or retire. Sounds harsh, but that’s how it is. Albums still exist however, and maybe if everyone was releasing singles, only the best albums would ever be for sale rather than so many bad albums hiding the few good ones. Maybe record stores and retailers would become more like antique dealers instead? That sounds like a long shot.
Another consideration is that illegal downloads and leaking the songs has a much greater impact on the singles model since there is no album sale pending. At least when there’s an album sale on the horizon, the leak might lead to the sale. Now, the single is the sale.
Personally, I’m not trying to kill the album. I miss it. I’m just accepting the reality and sifting through all of this trying to find the new opportunity to exist as an artist. By exist, I mean make a living that pays my mortgage, health, and dinner. An occasional vacation would be nice but not required. I think a lot of artists would be satisfied with a typical income. If not, I think they’re in this for the wrong reason.
Serve the song. Serve the listener. Content is paramount. Connect with your community.