Has the record industry entered the “age of the single?” The statistics seem to suggest as much.
No doubt the news about record sales this week is going to fuel conversation among industry insiders. Last week’s album sales reached a 12-year low, according to Music Week: down 27.62 percent week-on-week, and down 23.19 percent from this time last year.
Nevertheless, surprisingly and ironically, overall music sales are UP, compared to last year. How is this possible?
That’s right; NME reports that while sales of singles were down last week by over 5 percent, overall sales of singles have seen an increase of nearly 12 percent over this time last year. This effectively cancels out the drop in album sales, resulting in a net gain.
These numbers point to an interesting trend in the music market: even while the industry continues to fight music piracy (which they claim is still bleeding overall sales drastically), the good news is that record sales seem to be turning around—suggesting that possibly the public is starting to get the message about paying for legal downloads.
But it doesn’t look the same. Thanks to iTunes and similar outlets, people no longer have to buy a whole album just to hear one or two of their favorite songs. Instead, they can download only the songs they like, and leave the rest. This is having a dramatic impact on what kind of music is being sold, as well as on how much music is sold. It is also having an impact on how the industry markets music—hence, the age of the single.
Think about the ramifications of individual downloading. If you hear a song placement on a TV show you like, you can instantly go to iTunes, find the song and download it. Reality TV talent shows are tapping into this, as well; if you like a performance on American Idol, you can go purchase the track on iTunes and download it immediately. Same with The Voice (in fact, your download of a track actually counts as a vote for The Voice contestant of your choice!). Downloading singles has made music instantly accessible and cheap, and feeds our need for instant gratification. (It’s much easier to buy one track for $1 than 12 tracks for $10.)
But the question is, what does this do to contemporary music as an art form?
Die-hard music fans still love “concept albums,” where a band or artist creates a collection of songs that is meant to be heard together. What happens to this type of thing when everyone is downloading singles? For that matter, what does it do to the content of an album itself, as producers start focusing on collections of singles for sale, rather than a thematic thread?
For that matter—will albums become a thing of the past? Will artists simply start releasing music a single at a time? (Some artists are already doing this!)
No one really knows the long-term effects of this shift, and there are obviously pros and cons to any change, especially one as monumental as this one. On one hand, it makes it easier for indie artists to get their music out there, whether one song at a time, or perhaps shorter EP collections (EPs are also gaining in popularity). On the other hand, it has the potential of eliminating song collections that provide an extended listening experience, effectively eliminating albums as an art form. (If people aren’t buying albums, why make them?)
I personally doubt that albums will go away completely, even if their sales drop for awhile. But there’s no denying that the “age of the single” is having a huge impact on the music industry itself. It remains to be seen where this road will take us, but it will be interesting to watch.