Some things do in fact come around again. Back in 1999 or so, during the back end of my HMV years, I remember both managers and distributor reps — and numerous music journos — saying that the single was a dying format. No one wanted to buy a cd with only four or five tracks on it (and most of those tracks being a nine-minute danceathon remix of a three-second sample of the song at that point). And certainly no one wanted to buy a cassette with those same tracks because who owns a tape deck anymore?
In the ensuing years, bands continued to release the occasional single, but only as a promo release, or a special to the fans, or a collectible for Record Store Day. It was no longer a major moneymaking format like its original ancestor nearly a century ago.
And yet, over the past five or so years, I’ve been seeing a significant uptick of releases from well-known bands dropping EPs of five or six tracks, or one-track mp3s. And they’re selling quite well. Not as high as back in the day, but well enough for them to make money.
Beck has been using this to exellent effect, having dropped numerous singles in between his album run of Modern Guilt, Morning Phase and Colors. Some of them, like “Dreams”, eventually ended up on albums, but many of them remain single-only releases. His current single “Saw Lightning” is another variation, one that Depeche Mode was known for back in the 80s: the teaser single. The new song that will most definitely be on the new album, which may or may not show up for another few months.
Other bands like Broken Social Scene and Belle & Sebastian have started releasing multi-volume EPs over the course of a year. Many groups have stated that this seems to be a more creative and less stressful way of recording and releasing music, as it affords them the time to work on a smaller batch of songs in between shows, business work, day jobs and family life. Failure did a variation on this last year, recording and releasing a full album as four EPs.
And from a commercial aspect, 2018 has shown that the single-only release has become a working format again. One of that year’s biggest singles — which won four Grammy Awards at that — was Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”…and to date it does not appear on any full album.
Even b-sides, the favorite of many avid collectors like myself, have not exactly fallen by the wayside, either. Instead, they will show up as true b-sides on collectible seven- or twelve-inch singles, rarities compilations for Record Store Day, or extra tracks for Expanded/Deluxe Editions. The latter will often be released on the same day as the regular edition and given a reasonable price point, often for only a few dollars more.
And lastly but QUITE importantly…the single is a perfect platform for the indie band who wants to put themselves out there, either one song at a time or as a calling card for more future music. This has become a career-saving outlet for bands who are not on major labels (or chose not to be, essentially ‘self-publishing’ via bandcamp and other online shopping sites). I can’t tell you how many great new songs and bands I’ve discovered on a single release over the last few years.
The resurgence of the single format in the music business is due to multiple and varying reasons, but I’d say the most important one is that labels and distributors have come to terms with how the average listener buys their music. The casual listener will use a streaming service and, if they’re dedicated enough, will download the single from one of the many online sites. I think they’ve also taken improved release schedules into account as well; we will rarely see multiple non-promotional singles dropping from already-released albums, but a teaser single a few months preceding the album is definitely on the upswing. Services like Amazon Music and iTunes will offer the single as part of the upcoming release, either on its own or as part of a pre-order, letting you buy the rest of the album at a reduced price.
It’s taken a long time for the business to catch up to the changes in collecting and listening over the last twenty years, but they’re finally catching up. And it’s working.