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.

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."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>