They Just Don't Get It, Do They?

One of the things that the major (and minor) music labels have been struggling with of late is the changing buying habits of the music-listening public. In short, the fact that we buy "songs" and not "albums" now.

The music industry has always had a love-hate relationship with singles. On one hand, singles drove sales for many, many years. Back in the hay day of radio, singles were the only way most people could hear new music. Then they would - hopefully - go to the local record store and buy an album. Oh sure, we would also buy 45 singles, but we bought a lot of LPs, too.

Many artists objected to their songs being released as singles. In one famous case, George Harrison blocked his label from releasing "My Sweet Lord" as a single in 1970. (All of the other Beatles had released solo albums in 1970, and none had released any singles.) Apple (records, not computers) didn't release it as a single in the U.K., but did in the U.S., where it was an instant success. Harrison held out less than two months; the song was released as a single in the U.K. in January '71.

In today's digital download era, the single has resurged with a vengeance. 99 cents songs are all the rage, and consumers are spending about three times as much money on single-song downloads as they are on albums.

The major labels and Apple (computers, not records) are striking back, so to speak. EMI, Universal, Warner and Sony "Rootkits R Us" Records are teaming up to develop a format called CMX. This will supposedly bring enhanced content to people who purchase full albums. Apple is working on its own plan, called "Cocktail" to do much of the same thing.

Here's the problem, and here's what they don't get: many artists have forgotten (or never learned) how to make an "album." They write two or three good songs, package it with eight or ten tracks of garbage, and call it an "album."

Back in the "Album Era" - from the early sixties to the late seventies or so, records were often made thematically, and meant to be listening events. I remember quite will listening to entire albums over and over, because every song was good, and the progression of songs took you on a journey. Try putting on Simon and Garfunkle's Bridge Over Troubled Water or Elton John's Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player or the Eagle's The Long Run and then only listening to one song. Or, if your in a harder mindset, Van Halen's Fair Warning or The Who's Who's Next.

The Eighties signaled the death-knell for albums - MTV saw to that - but there were still some keepers: Brothers in Arms, No Jacket Required, An Innocent Man, and of course, Synchronicity. (Note: I'm excluding concept albums like Tommy and Kilroy Was Here. And live albums.)

Today, few artists produce albums. I'm not saying none of them do. U2's No Line on the Horizon is one of the most brilliant albums in years. David Crowder* Band's A Collision is another group of songs that work best when listened to together. And the recent Israel Houghton offering The Power of One fits my definition of an album.

So my advice to the record labels? Stop trying to game the system by figuring out ways to change our buying habits. Instead, put out a better product! Because a lot of small and indie artists are. And I can buy their tunes on Amazon as easily as I can buy yours.


  1. I've always favored the single.
    I've have lots of albums but by and large there's only a couple songs that I care for. I wouldn't have any problem whatsoever (in fact my iPod would be evidence to the fact) with singling off songs from some of the classic albums. My Van Halen playlist only has two songs from Fair Warning. From Who's Next, it'd be two maybe three songs tops (Baba, Won't Get Fooled Again, and maybe Bargain but I could skip that one if space were in issue).

    I read an essay a couple years ago (I searched for it and couldn't find it again) that took the opinion that the thematic album is largely responsible for the demise of the music industry. Prior to the thematic album, an album was made up of 5 or 6 hit singles and their B side. It may have been the Beatles that first challenged that concept by releasing an album prior to having a hit song singled from it.

    So anyway, I suppose I'm in agreement. However, I wonder if anyone in the industry has considered going back to releasing singles and after there's four or five hits, then compiling the album?


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