The return of the single

by Martha Rowsell


In the 1950s and 1960s many bands released 7” records, otherwise known as singles. This format was extremely popular with fans, artists, labels, and easy for radio DJs to play. This was an era when many bands were still recording new versions of classic hits. The rise of the album was part of a creative development that took place for many bands that had made it in the 50s and 60s. They wanted to start expressing themselves with more songwriting and larger concepts. The single became an advertisement for an album, not just a product on its own, and record labels and artists could also make more money and sustain long term careers. The pattern of releasing one or more albums is now firmly rooted in many artists’ minds, where many see an album as a significant product. It showcases a level of artistry and focus that suggests you are indeed a ‘serious musician’.

However, singlethe world around us has changed. Modern music consumption habits shaped by the rise of streaming services and YouTube mean that the individual song has reclaimed its place as a cultural norm. People no longer have to buy an album just to hear the one song they liked from it. Musicians have not given up the habit easily though. As Music Clout writes: “According to Nielsen Soundscan, in 2011 there were 1.374 billion digital transactions last year. Of those only 103 million or 7.5 % were for albums. This means that approximately 1 out of 14 times a consumer went to buy music online last year they purchased an album. First with Napster and MP3s, then iTunes and the iPod, and now with streaming services like Spotify and–the music consumer has repeatedly demonstrated that they prefer single songs to albums. Despite this fact, nearly 77,000 albums were released last year.”

Our previous post Music for Millenials illustrates some of the things that young listeners care most about – and listening to a full-length album is definitely not on the list. Releasing one single at a time can also be an extremely effective and smart business strategy for a band. Here’s how:

  1. Save money and time. You can record, mix, master and release a single in a relatively short amount of time. This means that you can feel that you are making progress. Otherwise you might spend years making an album that nobody will hear if you don’t have the money to keep paying for studio time, professional help, and a release strategy or physical product at the end. Furthermore, it will make it easier for you to continually release new things, instead of writing and producing one album, and then offering your fans nothing for a whole year. Millenials like their music little and often. Each single can and should also be accompanied by a cool video. The whole process is much easier and cheaper for you and everyone you work with when it’s done it bitesized chunks with individual singles.

  3. Build hype. You can be very creative with how you present and relase your singles. For example, some artists release one every week or month, encouraging fans to subscribe or follow this process with the anticipation building for each new song. This approach leaves fans and music industry press wanting more, and wondering what your next song will sound like. Singles are also practical for radio DJs and music journalists to use to promote you and write about you.

  5. Future planning. Releasing a few singles actually sets you up well for a future album release. You can measure the response of your fans, what they liked, what they didn’t like, what works, and what doesn’t work. Furthermore, any publicity you build from single releases might make a label, manager or booking agent more likely to work with you in future. This means that if you do want to make an album one day, you will have a lot more resources and support in doing so. You will have already done some ‘market research’, and worked out what sort of band you are, and who listens to and likes your music.

The music industry is an extremely complicated business, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that will always work for you. However, even considering different ways of working and thinking about different approaches can be extremely helpful. With digital distribution and the rise of the DIY scene, you have a lot of power, but also a lot of decisions to make! If you have recorded an album and you’re ready to release it, don’t be afraid to do this. The important thing is to recognise where you fit in, and work within the trends and cultural expectations that exist in that scene.