Singles versus albums. This has been a big music business debate for the last several years. It remains such a debate, that I’m literally doing just that this afternoon at New Music Seminar in New York City in a panel entitled “The Great Debate: Singles Vs. Albums”. I expect a very spirited discussion about this, but I also sit and wonder…what’s the debate?
In the scope of music history, the album is a blip on the radar. When some of the first music was created, our ancestors didn’t decide to sing an entire specific body of work around a fire. Early church leaders didn’t ask people to sing a hymnal front to back, but instead cherry picked songs to sing that were appropriate to that day’s service. So why should we expect the album to be so special that it’s supposed to permanently remain in the music business?
Maybe it’s a question of money vs. influence. There’s no question that the recorded music business has lost money in the last decade, and that most of that has come from lost album sales. Yet look at the influence that music has gained in the process. We used to be amazed when an album sold 10 million copies worldwide. Now, several songs sell that many worldwide every year. We now see songs get 100x that influence by hitting a billion streams on YouTube.
If you influence people, the money will follow but not the other way around. Today, that’s exactly what is happening. Because once these songs reach influential levels, they have far more revenue streams than ever before. In addition to sales, these songs are streamed heavily on internet and satellite radio generating revenue. Their official videos make millions on YouTube and Vevo. Millions more come in when the songs are used in regular people’s viral videos and remixes. Sync uses are more prevalent and also adding more and more dollars into the coffers.
Even in their still relative infancy, subscription services such as Spotify and Rdio contribute both dollars and influence. In the last month, one of the biggest songs in the world, Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us”, was streamed over 25 million times on Spotify alone.. This is on top of being a Top 10 selling single on iTunes in 14 countries as of this writing. . Spotify streams not only add influence, but also additional money to the bottom line. Compare that with Daft Punk, the biggest worldwide album release in the last month. Less than 40% of the 28 countries that Spotify is in has their album tracks in the Top 15 most played songs, even though the single is. And this is the only album in the last month to have any serious representation on Spotify streaming worldwide.
This newly diverse revenue stream is causing all those involved with songs to make money like never before. Last year, writer/producer The-Dream stated that he made around $15 million for co-writing Rihanna’s “Umbrella”.. And he was one of four writers on that record. While the album did sell 6 million plus copies worldwide, as a 1/4 writer of the song The-Dream’s take on that is estimated to be around 1% of his total income from the song. This makes 99% of the revenue to be likely derived from single-based activity, not album based.
There’s still a place for the album for those artists still committed to making a suite of thematic musical works. The album still has a vital place in the overall diverse revenue stream for an artist. But its power has diminished so greatly that for most artists it is no longer relevant. When you look at usage patterns on radio, television, online and on portable devices, it’s clear that the pathway to the hearts, minds and wallets of music fans is thru the single.