The Great Debate: Albums vs. Singles

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So the story goes like this: Estelle releases her song “American Boy” on Atlantic Records. It does well on iTunes and becomes a top 10 single, and the folks at Atlantic Records, struggling to find their place in a changing music marketplace, decide this is great and heave a huge sigh of relief that they’re once again making money. Sound right to you? Oh how little you know of the music biz. In reality, Atlantic Records decided the most appropriate response to the success of “American Boy” was to pull it off of iTunes.

Now, before you say “well no wonder these big record labels are dying; they’re clearly brain-dead already,” let me point out that apart from the names of the singer and the song, there is nothing new in this story. The thinking apparently is this: people want this song, and they’ll pay a small amount of money for it because they can. But we can make them pay a much larger amount of money for this song if they have to buy the whole album to get it.

This phenomenon has happened at three different phases in the music industry – one for each of the three major recorded media, LP, CD, and now digital downloads. Think of it; back in the 70s, you didn’t buy Led Zeppelin singles. You wanted “Stairway To Heaven,” you had to buy the whole album. (Not that “Stairway” would’ve fit onto a 45 rpm single anyway…) In the early 90s, if you liked MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” or Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” you couldn’t buy them without buying the entire CD, packed with more than an LPs worth of filler. And now we’re seeing it again with downloads. Kid Rock’s album has sold way over a million copies because people want the hit “All Summer Long” and his record company (wait for it… Atlantic Records!) won’t let you download it as a single on iTunes.

Part of the reason for all this is the artists themselves. Starting with The Beatles and “Sergeant Pepper,” many rockers saw their albums as a whole package, to be listened to as a single experience. If your friend’s basement, a black light, and pot were involved in that experience, so much the better. But most of this is pure marketing. And sometimes it works (Kid Rock), and sometimes it doesn’t… so Estelle’s song has now been put back on iTunes because people simply weren’t buying the album.

What about you? Is your record collection full of complete LPs and CDs that you bought for a single track? Or do you have a bunch of 45s, CD singles, and digital singles and only a few select albums?