Why Music Singles Matter
On what music singles have meant in the past, mean now, and might mean in the future.
“I miss buyin’ CDs at the store And thumbin’ through the cases tryin’ to make a choice. That don’t make no sense to you? Well, of course. See, one man’s inconvenience is another’s joy.”
~ NF, “Motto”, the second single from the album Hope.
“The past is a foreign country,” novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote. “They do things differently there.” There was once a strange land known as the 1990s, where radio was not only for elderly parents and construction workers, it was loved by teens too. We who were young then listened to radios in our bedrooms, in cars, with friends. We even used the FM setting on our portable CD players. Eventually, TV muscled its way onto the scene, and MTV often supplemented the radio. If you were in any sense “alternative”, you’d watch the Kerrang! and Scuzz music channels, which played the kind of loud, aggressive songs radio shied away from. Video may have been killing the radio star, but it was a boon for music.
What was it that we, the droves of teens who sustained the music industry with our hormonally-charged devotion, listened to on the radio and music channels? Music singles, of course. The structure of most shows on radio and music TV was determined by the charts, those popularity contests of individual songs.
Much of my music collection was made up of singles bootlegged from the radio. You’d spend most of an afternoon beside the stereo, tuned to your favourite channel, blank cassette loaded into the cassette drawer, and when you finally heard the familiar first notes of the song you wanted, you’d quickly hit record. In a time before the instant gratification of Spotify, blank tapes meant you could listen to your favourite music without being chained to the whims of the radio station.
It wasn’t all piracy and parachute pants, however. We did buy singles with actual cash, on cassettes and later on CDs. No one can be counted on like an obsessed teenager to part with money to collect every single thing a musician puts out. Pocket money (the quaintly descriptive term we Brits give what Americans call “allowance”) was typically in the £1 to £2 range – just a fraction of the cost of an album, but exactly the price of a single. Pocket money often came weekly or fortnightly, meaning teens could, and would, buy a single every few weeks.
Though the altruistic desire to support musicians may have been part of it, there were other reasons to collect singles. B-sides were an important draw to those of us hung up on a band and eager for anything they might give us. I recall the slim, plastic case containing “Between Angels and Insects” by Papa Roach; the single included a live version of a song that wouldn’t be released until their next album came out. Singles often gave us these live versions, radio edits, and even songs that would never appear anywhere but on that single.
Albums had been taking the spotlight both critically and commercially since the sixties. Concept albums and the notion of a musician-curated playlist in the form of an LP were often seen as more important. But to the young and lacking in funds, the single was essential.
In the spring of 1999, the album Play by Moby was released following two singles and is remembered now as a phenomenal success, dominating global music charts for two years. But between those two singles and the album’s later triumph, Play initially floundered for attention and sold next to no copies. As Moby himself has described it:
“The week Play was released, it sold – worldwide – around 6,000 copies. Eleven months after Play was released, it was selling 150,000 copies a week.”
What turned things around? In part, it was the idea to licence as much of the album as possible for movies and commercials, which “enabled people to hear the music because otherwise the record wasn’t being heard”. An additional six singles were released after Play came out, each of them giving Moby more air-time to be heard. The album dropped in May of 1999, and the singles were drip-released every few months until the last in October of 2000, well over a year after Play failed to get attention at its launch. That’s how you keep people listening.
This unusual release schedule for singles prefigured the mindset that labels and musicians bring to singles today. As Robbie Snow, SVP of Global Marketing for Hollywood Records, told Rolling Stone:
“Traditionally, artists would go a long time between album projects, disappear, and then come back as a big event. In this day and age, we try to keep things flowing so artists almost never go away.”
The music industry, in other words, has long understood that which streaming services are more recently learning: a one-time dump of content (a series, or an album) limits its cultural impact. Keep the episodes or singles coming out over a longer period, and you’ll keep people’s attention. But just as Hollywood has had to adjust to the digital era, the music industry has also had to evolve.
The impact of the digital revolution was first felt in the music industry as a severe decline in the sales of music singles. In the UK in 2005, sales plunged to an all-time low because of the popularity of the as-yet-unofficial market for digital downloads. The situation was desperate enough that downloads began to officially count in the charts, and by the following year, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” became the first single to reach number one in the UK charts on downloads alone.
Downloads also changed the musical landscape for the listener. Freed to own individual songs rather than forced to buy the whole album, fans could curate personalised collections. I own an “album” by Bloc Party made up of all the tracks on their kinetically compelling debut LP and several tracks from the follow-up that I found to be more of a mixed bag – one from which I pulled the songs I loved and in which I left the ones that didn’t dazzle me.
Musicians were also freed from the economic burdens that made albums the most viable commercial option. Artists could now release as many singles as they liked, including a whole album’s worth divided into a run of singles. In time, this led to where we are now: a world in which artists (and labels) are experimenting with new ways to make use of the music single.
Sleep Token are a band that seem to make a game out of defying conventions. The members’ identities remain a secret, though they profess a faith in a deity (possibly invented by the band) known as Sleep. How seriously anyone should take this is anyone’s guess. Musically, they write songs that speak to musicians yet also appeal to a mass audience. Attempts to categorise their genre is a whole conversation among fans, but I like the description I once read online: “R & B Pop Sex Metal”. Given this proclivity for the experimental, it’s little surprise that the way they released their debut album in 2019 attempted something novel.
Sleep Token released the first single of Sundowning at sunset in the UK, in June of 2019. They released the next single a fortnight later, again at sunset, and they continued this pattern until they had released every track. Technically, Sundowning is an album made up of singles. Everything about this release structure, the band’s aesthetic, and most importantly their music quickly earned them a huge cult following (with an emphasis on “cult” – the band’s followers describe the music as “worship”).
With their most recent album, Take Me Back to Eden, Sleep Token tried something new once again. This time, they released two singles a day apart, followed by another pair (again a day apart from each other) a fortnight later. A final two singles were released closer to the album launch. This release pattern, the sheer volume of singles, or a combination of both, dramatically increased Sleep Token’s popularity. According to Spotify’s stats, the band went from fewer than 300,000 monthly listeners before the first single in January to more than 1.5 million by the end of the month. When the full album came out, Sleep Token had over 2.6 million monthly listeners.
When Hayley Williams announced a musical project in 2019, she released two singles that were then included in a five-track EP called Petals for Armor I. Later that year, Williams released five more singles, all of which made up a second EP, Petals for Armor II. These EPs gathered momentum for the final release of the Petals for Armor album, which included the two EPs and a “third act” of five additional songs. Of this unusual method of teasing and sating the listener’s appetite, Williams said:
“There are a lot of themes covered on the album as a whole, and I thought it best to separate some of these themes so that there can be time for everyone to digest some of the songs before we move along to others.”
All of these experiments invite scrutiny as they each, in their own ways, imply a shadow to the bright light of perceived progress. What happens to the album when half of it, or even all of it, has already been heard? Do albums become mere collector’s items to scratch a completionist itch? What of the authorial role in curating an album’s tracklisting, in shaping its flow and telling a story? Some musicians now speak about using singles to appease the abbreviated attention-spans of modern listeners – but should the artist narrow their remit in this way, or should they make demands on our concentration?
There is a conversation to be had about our responsibilities as listeners and what we owe the artist, but I’ll save its full articulation for another essay. In the meantime, we might consider whether we are owed precisely what we demand, or do we owe something to the artists gifting us their creations? Should I make myself sit through tracks I don’t care for, not to force myself to love them but to appreciate what is there, to better understand why I don’t like those songs? Am I missing out on some key part of the artist’s vision? These are questions worth asking, maybe the next time you’re downloading a single.
• “‘Play’ 10 Years Later: Moby’s Track by Track Guide to 1999’s Global Smash”, in Rolling Stone, by Christopher R, Weingarten (2009)
• “Why Your Favorite Artist Is Releasing More Singles Than Ever”, in Rolling Stone, by Elias Leight (2018)
• Hayley Williams interviewed by Zane Lowe for Apple Music (2020)