Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Fuck Singles

We’re all familiar with the standard industry practice of bands and recording artists releasing “singles” in advance of a new album’s release.  This is so commonplace, and has been going on for so long, that no one ever seems to question the philosophy or merits behind it.  Well, I think it’s time someone lay waste to what is in my estimation a misguided undertaking.

Let’s begin by examining the often-cited motivation for releasing singles - generating a “buzz” - that electric gossip over something so cool and interesting that no one can stop talking about it.  Without a buzz, your album will be released into anonymous oblivion amidst the endless sea of content that humanity swims in; the world won’t stop to take notice of your contribution, and no one will realize you even exist.  But fear not, for the single has the potential to avert this creative and existential disaster.  This is that one song that will change everything.  A song so special, it makes you believe in magic.  Yes, the single holds the power to generate that coveted buzz, but…and this is the important part…it must be released in advance of the album to which it belongs!  Failure to abide by this tenant will render the single powerless; for reasons unknown, people simply will not feel the same way about the song otherwise.

So this is the apparent mythology at work.  But while I am certainly not opposed to the principle of generating a buzz, I would rather do without the supposed benefits that result from this exercise.  After all, why would I want listeners to hear only one song from an album?  This doesn’t make sense to me, and even less so in situations where a single (or singles) are released months in advance of the album, such that by the time the album becomes available, listeners’ perception of the entire body of work is unavoidably distorted on account of having heard the single(s) out of context and disproportionately more frequently.  Fuck that.  When I finish an album, I release the album.

Now there are some that view the single as being representative of the album as a whole - that it functions as a sort of emissary, communicating the identity of the new album to listeners.  However, unless every song sounds the same, this is an aural impossibility.  And while I suppose a single could be representative of the spirit of the overall work, heterogeneity notwithstanding, and while I also concede that there are albums in which every song does in fact sound the same, there is nevertheless no compelling reason to release that single in advance of the album’s release.  Unless of course the album is subpar, in which case the utility of an advanced single lies in deceiving your audience in an attempt to manipulate listeners into pre-ordering an album they haven’t had the ability to vet, or buying it on faith upon release.  Fuck that.  I am not in the business of aural bait-and-switchery.

This brings us to the idea that singles constitute the “strongest” songs on an album, a notion that once again implies a subpar album, and to which I again refer you to my lack of interest in bait-and-switchery.  But I am also confused by the principle of an artist / label creating a work that is comprised of “strong” and (by implication) “weak” songs.  If a song is weak, why the fuck is it on the album?  Of course, it may very well end up that a listener gravitates to one particular song on an album while ignoring the rest of the work, in which case, so be it…but I’m not going to decide or predict on their behalf which song on that album they will / should perceive as being more worthy of their attention than others, nor will I assume that such an outcome is a forgone conclusion.  Fuck that.

Still, there remains the practical consideration of radio play (be it traditional or digital in nature).  Stations aren’t going to play an entire album, so you need to deliver a single in order to participate in the process.  Well, note there is nothing inherent in this concept that requires delivering a single in advance of an album’s release; not to mention, it makes more sense for people to fall in love with a song whose album they can immediately purchase or stream, rather than have to wait a few months, at which point they will hopefully a) remember there was an item they were previously interested in, b) realize this item has now become available, and c) still be interested in it.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t the stations / DJs / tastemakers decide which song(s) to play from a given album?  Otherwise, what purpose do they serve, apart from feeding the masses musical fodder as directed by their label overlords?  And while we’re at it, why should there be a moratorium on playing multiple songs or a full album from an artist?  Am I crazy to think that stations should simply play whatever music they think best satisfies the genre / style parameters they seek to service?  What’s with all the arbitrary and contrived rules about music consumption?

In light of the above, I have been and will continue to be a conscientious objector to this indefensible pastime.  The only singles you will find from me are self-contained songs that do not belong to a larger body of work.  After all, that’s what a single should be…one single fucking song!!!!

10 comments:

  1. I think singles hold value in that they can draw in in new fans. Let's face it, the general population either lacks the time or mental fortitude to sit through an entire album to decide whether or not they enjoy it. People need a snapshot that acts as a precursor to the rest of their experience. For this reason, I think singles are a good thing, though from what I've explained, they could simply be discussed at the same time as the rest of the album's release.

    The crux here is that like it or not, we live in a created culture where people want to be first. They want to be first to buy. First to listen. First to review. First to share. And only first week sales matter. Singles perpetuate this environment. Did you hear that single that dropped at 12:14pm EST by DJ Exclusive? I can't wait to buy the album when it drops on 23:00hrs PST on longtermattentionisdead.com.

    Personally, I love getting the email from your mailing list that poof, a new album has magically appeared and I get an unexpected listening experience that makes my day. I wondered if Beyonce unexpectedly dropping her album successfully would cause a bit of a shift, but no. The machine rolls on. I suppose you could retaliate by releasing singles to an album with an indefinite release date for the rest of your life.

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    1. Well, does the general population lack the attention span for albums, or does the industry simply treat them that way? And if an album fails to maintain a listener’s attention, does it mean the listener is incapable of paying attention, or does it mean the listener simply doesn’t like the album? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But as you correctly pointed out, none of the above gives merit to releasing singles in advance of an album.

      I suppose a single can be useful to the extent that it introduces the listener to the overall body of work…but isn’t that what track # 1 does on every album????

      In terms of a culture of firsts…again, I question how much of this is innate vs arbitrarily dictated and/or projected onto culture. I don’t dispute there are people to whom it is important to be first…but I doubt they constitute the majority. I think most people could care less where they fall on the spectrum…what matters to them is whether the music they are listening to is compelling or garbage.

      First week sales are solely a function of how effective a marketing campaign is, not a function of the quality of the music…such figures are only useful as a measure of abstract popularity. Now, if you’ve spent millions on marketing, it makes sense that you would be concerned with these numbers, but as far as the general listening public, who cares about first week sales? Not I.

      I suspect that Beyonce’s motivation to release her album in surprise fashion had to do with combatting piracy, and nothing to do with the philosophical points I have outlined. But regardless, it is a shame that the machine rolls on per normal. I think the industry is stuck in old patterns that have no basis in reality in modern times.

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    2. I'm not trying to spam, Seth Godin is well known. You need to read this post, it touches well on this: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/01/the-crowd-your-work-and-a-choice.html

      So does his classic book "Unleashing the Ideavirus.

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  2. As a non-artist, but consumer of music, I'd like to share my opinion on singles.

    When I think of music that I like, I think first of the individual songs that I like and then maybe the artist if there's multiple songs from that artist that I like. For the average consumer, the album is not an important piece of the "listening to music" puzzle. The album is not much more than just the picture that a certain set of songs share in common on iTunes.

    So, ultimately, like the average consumer, I don't care about the album. I care about the individual songs and it wouldn't make a difference to me if artists released their songs in big chunks as albums or if they just pushed them out one by one as they finished them. So then, how does this matter when looking at the idea of putting out a single as a preview before the album? Well, if the radio stations only get one song from a famous artist, then they're going to play the shit out of that song. Let's assume it is the "best" song. If the whole album is released at once, then the radio stations will spread out the whole album over the time the radio gets to play music. And if this one song gets hammered into my head I'll buy it and notice that artist. But if I don't hear it as much because it's not played as much on the radio because the radio spends more time playing other songs from the album, then I might not realize I like it enough to buy it.

    Speaking of albums, can't wait to hear more of yours!






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    1. I think characterizing an album as just a picture that a set of songs are associated with is appropriate in some cases, and not in others. Some albums really are essentially just a random collection of songs, made by varying producers, mixers, songwriters, etc, all being performed by the same artist. And some albums contain a coherent vision, in which all of the songs were made at a particular time, with a particular mindset and/or creative approach, by the same person(s) - there may not be an overall narrative or concept literally connecting each song, but each song is representative of the artist’s perspective at that stage of their life. Either way though, organizationally speaking I suppose there is a practical benefit to grouping a collection of songs together…much easier to peruse and digest 5 albums than 50-60 individual songs (each with distinct pictures, haha).

      Regardless of the above, I agree that an album in and of itself may be irrelevant from the standpoint of a consumer - everything ultimately boils down to what songs you like or don’t like, regardless of their inclusion on an album. If an artist or band wanted to abandon the album format altogether in favor of releasing independent singles, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if an artist or band decides to release an album, then I’m arguing that utilizing singles as advanced previews of the album is completely nonsensical.

      In the scenario you posited, if the radio stations receive only one song from an album, then yes they will play the shit out of that one song - this of course is the current state of affairs. If that song happens to be the “best” from your perspective, then hey, you lucked out. But if it happens to be a turd from your perspective, then you may never come to discover other songs from that album that you would have actually loved. To put it simply, music is subjective, so for me as an artist or label to decide on your behalf which song is the “best” song is stupid and arbitrary…to the extent that radio stations / DJs are supposed to serve as tastemakers who have weeded through the sea of music to find the “best" music for your listening pleasure, it would be appropriate for them to selectively choose the songs from an album to play, with no allegiance to anything apart from what they think sounds good.

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    2. Of course, only one song can be played at a time, so regardless of what song a station happens to be playing at the time you happen to be listening, you may or may not like what you hear - but if they are playing various songs from the album throughout the time period they traditionally only play one or two, then at least you will be exposed to more than one song over time, and thus have a better sense of what that album contains. Moreover, if the entire album is available at the time you hear that song, then a) if you like it you can immediately listen to and/or purchase the album or other individual songs, and b) if you don’t like it, but you normally like the artist in question, you can immediately check out the rest of the album to see if something else grabs your attention.

      Lastly, one can’t hep but wonder if the common consumer preference for individual songs with no regard to albums is in fact a direct result of the tradition of playing singles…consumers are essentially indoctrinated to view music in this way, and they are perhaps thus influenced even to expect albums to contain only 1 to 3 songs of worth. And perhaps restricting airplay to singles also has an effect on artists / bands, some of whom may knowingly or unknowingly end up catering to this system in which they themselves are making singles and “album tracks” (a.k.a. weak songs that are essentially filler in between the strong songs), which in turn reinforces the consumer’s lack of regard for full length albums.

      It’s a vicious cycle, and it should stop. Every song on an album should meet the internal bar of the artist / band...if a song is “weak” get it off the album. Radio stations should play whatever the fuck they want, and if an album is worth playing in it’s entirety, so be it.

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  3. Fully agree with this post Zack...I find it pointless for artists to release one component of an Album as it may be the "best track" on there, however the album it self should be seen as a whole body of work that is equal and balanced in terms of the tracks themselves.

    Side note, I can sense a certain type of fire coming from you, Idk if its from the frustration of creating this new up and coming album or sheer excitement for it. Either way, I can assure you, you work will be refreshing.

    Take care,

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    1. I appreciate your confidence in the forthcoming album…let’s hope it is warranted :)

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  4. Hi Zack,

    Is it possible if I could get your email as I would like to discuss something.

    Thanks

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