FEBRUARY 25, 2011.
Singles Might Save the Music Industry.
The music business is on the verge of bankruptcy.
There may not be agreement on the exact magnitude of the industry's collapse—cataclysm or mere catastrophe?—but one main cause is clear: the humble "single."
Until digital downloads came along, to get a copy of the one hit tune found on a given album, you had to buy the whole CD, a technology that effectively killed off the old 45 rpm vinyl single. But now, in the age of iTunes, the single is back from the brink of extinction. Instead of making a purchase north of $15, consumers can get the one song they want, unbundled, for a dollar, more or less. Revenues, not surprisingly, are down.
Lady Gaga is likely to sell far more copies of the individual digital track "Born This Way" than she will copies of the CD. And she's hardly the only artist embracing the single, which is quickly becoming the main way people purchase music. And while the switch may be an immediate disaster for the recording industry, it just might be the best thing to happen, musically, to a business which is stagnant.
Before the LP came along in the late '40s, the record business was all about singles, and teens didn't have a total monopoly on buying them. The pre-LP era was one of astonishing musical creativity.
How much better if bands could record and release a tune or two at a time, not only keeping costs lean but gaining the flexibility to revise their sound as listeners give them immediate feedback. Singles once gave musicians the chance to rework and refashion their best material.
At the same time, the new age of the single might even help musicians take more artistic chances: The investment in time and money is so much less for a single that artists may be able to take risks with individual tracks that they were not able to do with the big make-or-break discs.
Singles allowed musicians to keep themselves more regularly before the public. Frank Sinatra pioneered the "concept album," the idea of programming a long disc with thematically unified songs, and did so brilliantly with such albums as "In the Wee Small Hours" and "Come Dance With Me." But he also used a release of first-rate singles, such as "Witchcraft," to give his audience something fresh to buy every few months. It is a marketing strategy that artists have been relearning as the technology evolves.
The only music worth recording will be the music worthy enough that it has a chance to be bought.
If that means less junk gets produced and released, the triumph of the single just might be a rebirth, not the death, of the music industry.