Why the record industry is killing the single

One of the most hallowed symbols of rock 'n' roll is on its way out, and consumers -- and artists -- are the losers.

Topics: Music,

Is the pop single — the most venerable and fabled of rock’s artifacts — dead?

At one time, singles made up a hefty part of the record industry’s income. At the format’s height, American consumers bought nearly 100 million a year.

But things have changed. Record companies want consumers to buy full-length CDs when they fall in love with a song. So they’ve shut off the spigot when it comes to releasing less expensive commercial singles to retail. Consequently, the format remains in a free fall; with fewer singles available, sales are down 40 percent this year, according to SoundScan, to a total of about 30 million, and there’s no end in sight to the slide.

The debate rages. Labels insist they simply cannot make a big enough return if fans are buying $3 singles instead of $16 albums. Retailers, though, fume that they’re suffering without singles, which have historically increased foot traffic in stores, especially among younger shoppers.

Labels like the single when it suits their purposes; during parts of the overheated 1990s, labels released them in floods at deeply discounted prices to help promote blockbuster albums and claim fanciful new sales records (i.e., “Mariah Carey’s new single entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1!”; truth was, it sold for 49 cents).

But that was then, this is now, and the music fans are the losers.

The drawbacks to the industry’s singles strategy were on full display following Sept. 11, when Enya, Alan Jackson, James Taylor and Neil Young all released songs that either directly addressed the terrorist attacks, or tapped into the country’s deeply felt need for healing. The songs demonstrated how pop music, perhaps more than any other mainstream art form, can effectively, and quickly, enter our collective conscience. Yet, in an illustration of how the music industry too often treats its customers, none was released as a single in a timely fashion, leaving consumers with no way of purchasing the songs, since they didn’t appear on current album releases either.

The most dramatic example was Enya’s “Only Time.” Released as a single to radio in August, the Celtic, New Agey song about love and remembrance was almost immediately adopted by programmers as a sweeping requiem for the nation. The only hitch was that the single sent to radio was a remix and dramatically different from the version on the album, which had been in stores since November 2000. That meant the nearly 1 million fans who went out and bought Enya’s CD after Sept. 11 hoping to enjoy the same “Only Time” they’d heard on the radio were sorely disappointed. Instead, they heard the original, non-remix version.

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One solution would have been for Enya’s label, Warner Bros., to include the “Only Time” remix on a newly pressed version of the album. But that costs money.

Another solution would have been to release the remix as a commercial single. But with fans paying just $3 for the single, that probably would have cannibalized more profitable album sales. Warner Bros. held off on the “Only Time” single for nearly three months after Sept. 11, finally shipping one to stores in late November. (Profits are going to charity.) The move worked for Enya; since Sept. 11 her album climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and has been certified five-times platinum.

Over at Sony Music, Columbia Records balked at releasing James Taylor’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as a commercial single. His plaintive reading of the melancholy classic seemed custom-made for this year’s holiday season. Taylor recorded the song as an aside more than a year ago but felt strongly about releasing it now, even though he has no album out. Columbia sent the track to radio, and it is available for streaming — but not downloading — at Microsoft’s MSN. With no single released, however, fans are unable to purchase the song for their own collections.

Meanwhile, both country singer Alan Jackson and classic rocker Neil Young have recorded songs specifically about Sept. 11; “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Let’s Roll,” respectively. Each was shipped to radio but remains impossible for consumers to come by. Both singers have new albums due out early next year on which the new songs will appear. Their record companies are hoping the topical songs will drive album sales, and are not releasing singles to retail.

“The labels have an obligation to make available the songs that consumers want,” says Carl Singmaster, owner of Manifest Disc & Tape in South Carolina. “And they’ve failed to do that.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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