The Thinking Man's Take On: Singles

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This past week’s publishing of the Absolute Best Songs of 2009 (.25 of the way through) got me thinking about music releases today – particularly about the role of singles. Depending on who you talk to, singles are either dead, dying, or stronger than ever. So what’s the deal? Where do singles fit into this blogosphere?

This topic hints at about a thousand other topics - it’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls: Where do singles fit into albums? Where do albums fit into the blogosphere? Where does the blogosphere fit into modern pop music? Where does modern pop music fit into Music in general? But for today let’s just tackle singles. Next week I’ll take a look at the state of albums these days - for now, let’s spin the hits!

Before discussing singles, let’s get a definition and some history. Singles are generally songs that are marketed and promoted from an album - released to blogs, played on the radio, and used as background music for car commercials. In order to be classified as a single, a track has to be officially released by the band/label, be blessed by the RIAA in some strange ritual involving chickens, and then recognized by charting organizations like Billboard as a single. There are currently 7 people in the world who can legally and officially pronounce a song a “Single”. The rest of us just use Wikipedia.

Singles originated during the days of vinyl, when records were limited by their size and playback time of around 3 minutes. The 3-minute single era reigned through the sixties, and was replaced by 12” vinyls with longer playback times in the 1970s. The existence of 7” and 12” singles simultaneously provided for hilarious hijinks when people would play records at the wrong speed, making all artists sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks or Barry White. These years were part of what is now known as the “Heyday of Funny Records”.

Singles died, rose from the dead, and died again. And maybe rose again. CDs struck a blow against the institution of singles, but iTunes and Amazon have helped it back to prosperity. Scanning a list of the top-selling singles of all time, one finds an eclectic assortment. The eight best selling singles of all time – Elton John, “We Are the World”, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, Flo Rida w. T-Pain, “The Macarena”, and “Whoomp! (There It Is)”. It’s like the Bar Mitzvah reception from hell.

You’ll notice, however, that Flo Rida managed to sneak his name in with some pretty big time acts. In fact, scanning down the next 15 top selling singles reveals a fairly current roster – Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and T.I. to name a few. Frankly, I’m astonished by how many of these tracks have come out in the past 2 years (11 of the top 25 sellers of all time, by my informal count).

So what does this mean? Well, the way I see it, there are a handful of options.

Option 1: The Single is BACK as a format, Baby!

This is definitely a possibility, although not indirectly tied to the downfall of albums. The reality of the situation is that nearly all music in today’s world is previewable – through iTunes, through HypeM, through Torrents, through the thin walls of your studio apartment. And when we preview things that are bad, we’re less likely to buy them. I dare you to find anyone that would pay $.99 for Britney Spears’ “My Baby” (the unquestionable worst track of 2008) if they weren’t buying it in the context of the album. If I have a choice between paying a dollar for “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” or shelling out $10+ for the full album, you can bet I’m buying the single. This is what happens when you title your album “Souljaboytellem.com” and fill it with tracks titled “Donk”, “Yahhh!”, “Booty Meat”, and “She Thirsty!”. Yes, the previous sentence is full of facts. I’m crying on the inside.

Regardless of album quality, digital releases have revolutionized the single. Top singles are tracked in the iTunes store and readily available in a single click. HypeM breaks singles and builds buzz in an entirely listener-generated format, allowing truly good singles the opportunity to be heard by tastemakers and early adopters. They make those singles their ringtones, and before you know it, a song about baggy sweatpants and Reeboks with straps has sold 4 million copies.

Is the single back? Maybe. It’s a little early to declare it a definite – 10 years ago we were psyched about getting a new Discman. In another 10 years, artists will be releasing songs directly into our computer-helmets, and we’ll be able to buy them with e-cash by blinking our left eyelid twice. Or, conversely, artists might go back to making good cohesive albums, and we’ll cut back on buying singles.

Option 2: Americans have tons of expendable income and the economy is great!

The only way you believe this is a credible theory is if your butler has been bringing you papers from 4 years ago because he’s worried you’ll fire him if you read today’s news. This is not the answer.

Although, that being said, Wikipedia does tell me that “Singles have generally been more important to artists who sell to the youngest purchasers of music (younger teenagers and pre-teens), who tend to have more limited financial resources and shorter attention spans”. These groups are also the most likely to be unaffected by today’s economy, due to their inability to land lucrative jobs in the Banking Industry. Coincidence? I think n….yes. Total coincidence.

Option 3: Pop Music is better than it has ever been before.

Considering that Flo Rida recently had a single that sampled Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record)”, I’m going to go ahead and say this isn’t true. Quality of pop music notwithstanding (since I do think there is a large quantity of quality pop on the airwaves today) I think we can safely say that the quality of music -for better or for worse - is not what is driving the singles market. There’s way too much marketing, buzz-building, and behind the scenes effort going into every song to naively think that talent = sales.

Option 4: Albums are dead

Hmmm. This may be where the rub lies. But here, also, is where the discussion splits into a million tiny pieces. Genres come into question, “album” must be defined, and we open up new cans of worms. So I’ll leave it here for today and pick up next week on the topic of albums. In the meantime, enjoy your Flo Rida singles.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment. His favorite singles are: Kraft 1% Cheese, Malt Scotch, and line drive over the shortstop's head.