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Welcome to the Singles Era

Why is the music industry so obsessed with hit singles?

The single: it’s a staple format of the music industry and in recent years it has dominated our field of vision. For some, it’s the answer to all ailments. For others, the hit single becomes a haunting spectre to be unceremoniously played at every gig. However, for most, that special single is a game changer - a truly great hit can break an artist, define an era and win over a fan for a lifetime. We’ve noticed that the single is the modern music industry’s current obsession, and we’re asking where has this trend come from and what impact does this have on other areas of the business?

Illustrations by Slip On The Rock

The first part of this discussion will focus on our historical love affair with the single. We’ll be tracing these roots back to the height of our obsession in the mid 20th century, then onto to the rise of the album in the late 60s and early 70s, and then to the subsequent switch in the age of the Internet. By looking back in this way, we might be able to make more sense of why our culture is so utterly fixated on the hit hingle. As Bob Stanley suggests “We have to know where music has come from in order to understand where it’s at and where it could be heading” (Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop).

Bouncing straight off that prophetic quote and into Stanley’ great explanation of pop history, and specifically to a landmark moment he pinpoints - the launch of the first 45 rpm vinyl discs in November 1952 via EMI Records. The first year of the singles era was a sign of things to come as “by the end of 1953 EMI had issued close to three hundred 45 rpm titles.” Most notably, Billboard, one of the longest-running documenters of popular music, kept tabs on this revolution throughout the 1950s by publishing several singles charts, including Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys and Most Played in Jukeboxes. This variety was an indicator that singles were everywhere and by 1958 the Billboard Hot 100 chart was here to stay.

The singles trend then continued well into the following decade, and as one Rate Your Music compiler states:

The point when album sales overtook 45 rpm single sales didn't occur until 1966 or 1967, roughly at the same the time the Beatles were working on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's.

“Voodoo Child” by the legendary Jimi Hendrix spans a heart-stopping fifteen minutes

Prior to that, what all of these influential tracks had in common was their format - the 45 rpm disc - and so artists felt obliged to keep their songs to an industry prescribed three minute mark. Lengthier titles were consequently pushed into the eaves of the LP. A few examples hand-picked by The Telegraph for their list ‘50 Greatest Album Tracks: the hits that never were’ could be Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” (1968) at 4:12, Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” (1967) at 5:12, or “Voodoo Child” (1968) by the legendary Jimi Hendrix which spans a heart-stopping fifteen minutes. That’s not to say these tracks weren’t popular, but rather they weren’t able to make an impact by chart standards. However, listeners were already voicing their frustration with the traditional audio options and the industry’s oppressive standardisation. Some argue that the turning point came with Bob Dylan’s memorable “Like A Rolling Stone”, first released in 1965 via Columbia Records. It was an unexpected hit that the label “didn’t have high hopes for [...] since it was six minutes long” (Rolling Stone) and CBS even tried to make the record more “radio-friendly” by spreading it over both sides of a seven-inch vinyl, which did not go down well with Dylan or his fans who demanded the song be played in its entirety on radio and be accommodated for on one side of vinyl (Greil Marcus, Like A Rolling Stone).

From the late 60s onwards consumers began moving further and further away from the single. In 1969, Billboard published a report on this cultural shift which showed that even in the face of changing sales, the label owners were reluctant to let go of the make-more-hits technique that had served them so well over the past few decades.There was clear uncertainty from vintage executives like Decca’s Colin Borland, EMI’s Ken East and Penny Farthing’s Larry Page who points out a sore point for the business: “Singles are far too costly at the moment: but if the whole prices structure for records were changed, then I believe there would be a swing back to singles.” Of course, Page and the other singles advocates had no idea what it would take to trigger such a “swing”. With the wonderful resource of hindsight we can now see that on the other side of the rising album wave waited a digital revolution that would simultaneously shatter the music industry and save the single.

Illustration by Slip On The Rock

Some suggest that the resurgence of the hit single obsession began with the emergence of the first digital music store iTunes, and some lay blame with the explosion of streaming services, but really it began much earlier with the rise and mass adoption of music piracy. Napster, LimeWire, Pirate Bay… whatever your poison was, it’s safe to say that everyone (especially those pesky millennials) did it. An interesting aspect of this underground movement was that even the groups responsible for leaking hundreds of thousands of tunes still considered the album to be the most valuable. The rest of us, on the other hand, that is the general consumer, seemed to prefer our pirated material in the single form, and there’s a few reasons for this. Firstly, in the early days of the MP3 it could take hours or even days to download a digital LP so spending only a few minutes on your absolute favourite track of the moment does seem much more attractive. Secondly, the advantage of exclusively downloading “hits” meant you could forget about the album filler. And thirdly, the chart toppers were relatively easy to find - a quick search and hey presto! music for your library, without the need to go searching for obscure b-sides or underwhelming bonus tracks. Thankfully, music piracy with it’s symptomatic sub-standard audio files and virus-filled downloads are now a thing of the past, but where technology has progressed, our consumer habits haven’t. The Guardian’s Eamonn Forde spells it out for us:

“In 2003 – before digital made an impact on legitimate sales – a total of 30.8m singles were sold in the UK [...] Fast forward to 2012 and the story is very different. A total of 188.5m singles were sold in the UK last year (of which 99.6% were digital)”

In direct correlation to this album sales came to 100 million in 2012, which was a depressing downturn of a third over the same period. The fact is the decline of the album as a consumer’s go-to choice of format has been a slow and continuing one, and in direct correlation the single has risen to take its place back on the sales throne.

We’ll leave off our adventure through music history with a nod to our relationship with the radio. Think about when you tune into your favourite station: what do you expect to hear? For most, the answer is a string of chart-toppers or only the best songs from their preferred genre(s), and that’s because hit singles are the staple diet of radio. We have been conditioned to expect, hope for and need a selection of Top 40 hits. Our behaviour towards music consumption is something we already linked to radio in our article ‘Is streaming the final destination?’, and so we could argue that our reliance on one of the music industry’s few stabilities - radio - has shaped the way we prioritise singles over albums. What’s more this trend only seems to be on the up.

Over the past year, the big stars of radio have made moves towards streaming. First in February 2015, Zane Lowe left BBC Radio 1 to run Beats1 for Apple Music, a move rumored to help Apple’s streaming service compete directly with Spotify. Then last December, George Ergatoudis left his position as Head of BBC Music to lead Spotify’s in-house music curation and content strategy. This is no coincidence as a year and a half ago, he tweeted:

With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction. Playlists are the future.

And since radio’s format has always been, in essence, the playlist, it’s no surprise to see these music influencers transition into the streaming industry with ease.

Skipping over the temporary trend of cassette mixtapes, the modern version of playlists really grew in popularity with credit to YouTube. In 2011, Forbes already reported music videos to be ranked amongst the highest of YouTube views and currently the Top 20 most viewed videos on the site are all music videos. The preference for singles on YouTube can also be mirrored with the growth of Majestic Casual, La Belle Musique and other music channels. These channels upload singles and often gain significantly more views than the original artist upload. Just take a look at Kygo’s “I See Fire” remix, which has 57+ millions plays on La Belle Musique’s channel compared to 42.4 million on his own SoundCloud. These channels have soon progressed to become serious contenders in the music industry, with Majestic Casual sitting in as a Resident DJ for Beats1 and La Belle Musique hosting their own one day music festival in Malta. It’s a career projection most musicians aspire to have in their lifetime, let alone within four years.

This trend brings a second wave in the music-tech industry that points towards “playlist startups.” Some have already been acquired, like Soundwave (by Spotify in January 2016) and Songza (by Google Play in July 2014). Other notable curators are 22tracks, a site with the sole purpose of promoting singles; ToneDen.io, which helps artists build their audience by allowing listeners to download singles in exchange for social follows; 8tracks, a playlist-centric site which has 8 million active users per month; and Playlists.net just released a new app called “Playlist a Day” which requires Spotify. The list expands even further when you include influencers on platforms like SoundCloud. For example, HumanHuman user Discobelle has a whopping 1.02 million followers on SoundCloud and Hillydilly has 11K followers, the latter of which recently joined the streaming game by releasing their own app, which has seen 5-10K installs on Google Play alone.

Variety in music curation appears to be most significant difference between the radio and streaming industries. Streaming requires a more expansive knowledge of music that caters beyond the Top 40s. Google Play is known for giving the “Susan Boyle” test, where curation applicants must create a playlist that a Susan Boyle fan will love. Offering a streaming service isn’t just about dishing out hits - it goes back to catering to individuals and retaining their attention.

What’s more, some of these playlisters are evolving into celebrities, much like household names Zane Lowe and Annie Mac. One newcomer to the limelight is Connor Franta, co-founder of Heardwell, a six-month old music label in Los Angeles. Recently recruited to join the The Recording Academy, this YouTuber has over 5.2 million subscribers, his reach is higher than most musicians in the business. It’s becoming more apparent that tastemakers in streaming and radio already influence the music industry more than the musicians themselves.

So, what does this unwavering focus on singles mean for the future of albums and their artists?

As George Ergatoudis said “...at a mass market level [the album] is already small and going to stay very small”. Groundbreaking numbers are more likely to only follow names of global powerhouses like Adele and Taylor Swift. It’s also worth noting that even way back before streaming took hold, iTunes counted how many times a song got played, not how many times an album gets played through. There’s no doubt that as digital sales continue to grow, the desire to play an album as a whole piece of work will decline.

A common counter argument to the lost album experience is the rise of vinyl sales. Since 2009, vinyl purchases have risen by 260% and the few start-ups who are in the business of distributing records have developed a solid following. There’s Vinyl Me, Please, a company that believes an album must be enjoyed as a complete work of art; vnyl, a subscription-based startup in the USA that sends you a new record each month; and Turntable Kitchen, which pairs food recipes and vinyls in a monthly subscription service. And unlike digital, there’s no way to track how many times these vinyls get played or if vinyls are just used for display. In the radio world, album supporters are even rarer. One San Franciscan radio show called “Deep Listening” from BFF.fm goes against the traditional “singles format” by playing music from same artist, band, album or theme for sixty minutes. However, it’s unlikely that the music industry will see a huge growth for this type of programme. Ultimately, the art of listening to an album in full is a niche market.

With the rise of playlists and compilation albums, it’s no doubt that singles will define an artist's career well before their debut album does. Technically, YouTube’s Rebecca Black foreshadowed this pattern of “one hit wonders” within streaming, but there are plenty more examples within the music industry. Thanks to tweets from celebrities like Hayley Williams from Paramore and Jessie Ware, obscure artist Ryn Weaver skyrocketed away from anonymity with her song “Octahate.” Alessia Cara’s “Here” peaked at #1 for American Billboard charts, and she was also longlisted for BBC’s Sound of 2016. Then there’s Rory Fresco, an unknown artist who has over 1 million plays on his song “LOWKEY” mostly because SoundCloud’s algorithm put his track after Kanye West’s new song “Real Friends.”

Another example is Gallant whose song “Weight in Gold” has been remixed enough times to be considered an album in itself and his SoundCloud remix playlist has well over 2 million plays. This single propelled Gallant in stardom and he has since gone on to tour with critically acclaimed Sufjan Stevens, and therefore opening up his music to a wildly different crowd than listeners of the “Weight in Gold” remixes. What this shows is by streaming singles new artists can achieve greater exposure and a more targeted audience. The downside is that it also means stretching artists thinly across multiple channels. Music acts may have to get their songs on SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play to reach the audience they could get from one play on radio. In America alone, radio reach was 245 million in 2015. As for streaming, the numbers are on a global scale: SoundCloud has 250 million, Spotify has 75 million and Pandora has 81.5 million. As streaming services and music apps grow, along with better data plans for mobile, listeners will find ways to listen to singles as they please. This points towards a rise in playlists, a decline in listening to albums as a whole and even a higher value in music curation for radio and streaming.

If we look back at what we’ve learned through this journey so far, there are a few factors that come into play for the rise of the single: cost, format and culture. What has made the hit single so successful today is something of a perfect storm. With the rise in streaming services and free downloads the price of music has been drastically reduced, and for many it’s now seen as a commodity, whereas the full album is treated more as a luxury. This cost-cutting trend is also tied directly into the way we access music. As previously suggested, listening to music as part of the physical experience is now contained to a niche market with the majority of us belonging to a digital community of passive listeners. Where there was once a format war, there is now a streaming war with everyone from Spotify to Apple Music to SoundCloud to Bandcamp to Tidal to Deezer and many more all vying for our attention. The digitalization of the single isn’t solely a business issue, because it also facilitated a sharing culture, where making a connection with an artist’s latest release was no longer a solitary experience stopping at your front door, but a world-wide communal one. While all of this may make it more difficult for an artist set a place on the charts, it also widens the landscape for newer musicians to be heard. On the surface, the current business of making hits may seem like an over-congested, competitive atmosphere, but there are plenty of theorists who imply that competition is a sign of health, bringing about diversity, quality and growth. In other words: welcome to the single’s era and make yourselves comfortable because we may be here for a while.

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