Single Sales Have Exploded, But Artists Still Record In 10-Song Spurts

In 1979, more than 200 million vinyl singles were sold. This sales figure for singles would not be matched by any format until 2005. Cassette singles and CD singles never sold like vinyl.

But in 2004, the sales of singles suddenly began to increase at a rapid pace. This chart reflects sales data recently reported by the RIAA. In 2005, the 1979 record was shattered and new records have been set for the sales of singles in every year that followed.

Now obviously, the reason people suddenly started buying songs individually again was due to the availability of a la carte downloads via on internet. The internet was ready and willing for this long before 2004, though. The difference is that up until 2003, the RIAA fought the new technology.

The iTunes store launched in April of 2003, making it cheap and easy for people to buy songs legally. This effectively rendered piracy inconsequential. Sure, it still goes on, but stores like iTunes and and others took away the motivation for an average citizen to break the law.

Prior to the 33 1/3 speed “long play” record, artists recorded in the 78 rpm format. Early 78s had wide grooves and turned fast, so the limit was about five minutes per side. Product was put out with an “A-side” and a “B-side” concept. The song on side A was the side that was expected to sell.

When the 33 1/3 format was introduced, some of those old 78 recordings were compiled to create “albums” and new recordings were made that included 10 songs or more. 10 more or less became the de facto standard. As cassettes and CDs were introduced, artists could put more than an hour of music together. By the time CDs came around, the entire attitude of the industry had shifted away from short recording sessions of a couple of songs. You could still get singles or “maxi-singles,” but those were secondary to the full-length album.

Now, we have clearly come full circle. Single sales are where it’s happening once again.

And yet, I still see artists going to the studio with the mindset of recording 10-12 songs. Wouldn’t it make more sense for an artist to go ahead and get into the studio every time they get 2-3 or maybe 4 really good songs ready to record?

This would mean less time between inspiration and delivery. The sales potential would be greater. Every couple of months, an artist would have something fresh. Artists could still put out a CD once they had three sessions in the can if there was sufficient demand, but in between, the download would be the exclusive way to own the song. Diehard fans would buy the download AND the CD, even if it was mostly a collection of songs they already owned. Smart labels would keep a couple of songs in the can for the CD release to increase the appeal.

I still prefer CDs to downloads, but reports like this one from the RIAA have convinced me that the old way of recording music no longer makes any practical sense.


  • February 25, 2012 1:31 AM

    I have been saying this very thing for the last 7 months. Problem is too many artist are stuck in the “cookie cutter” system that worked for them 50, or even 10 years ago.

  • KLB
    February 25, 2012 4:00 AM

    You make some good points, but you probably need to include the trend in “album” sales for a few years before single downloads became popular up through the present to bolster the argument, at least with respect to numbers alone. As for the quality aspect, doing a couple at the time makes sense. Wouldn’t there need to be some changes in the assumptions of not only the artists but also the studio folks for the smaller “cookie cutter” to become more common?

    • admin
      February 25, 2012 4:38 AM

      I agree the sharp decline in album sales only makes the point stronger. Why do artists continue investing so much per recording when they know at least half the CD will never be sung in concert and only two or three songs will ever be played on radio.

      It’s come full circle back to the 1950s. It’s an industry driven by singles again.

      As for the studios, I’m not necessarily suggesting that fewer songs be recorded overall. There would still be songs recorded that never take off. Songs should be sent to radio in pairs or three at a time rather than one at a time. That way, they could see which one sticks.

      The key is that the investment wouldn’t be all or nothing. Instead of committing to 10-12 songs at a time, studios would need to bring an artist in for a couple of days to record tracks one day and vocals the next. They could do 3-4 songs in that time, then wait until they have another 3-4 songs ready before doing it again.

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