Popdose Roundtable: Singledom, or How I Learned to Stop Recording and Love the Download

Earlier this week, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips announced the next project for the band may not be an album. Instead, he’s considering recording singles, releasing them as videos, and then collecting the videos up as a film – much like a “video album,” an experiment from the early days of home video.

While it is an interesting turn, albeit one of great concern to those interested in the Lips’ all-inclusive concept albums, it’s not particularly a new one. Throughout 2010, Kanye West premiered songs for free on his site, some of which arrived on his latest album. Rush debuted two tracks as an iTunes single, purportedly as a taste of what was to come from their upcoming Clockwork Angels album. However, because of the positive response from their Time Machine Tour, those album plans have been pushed back, by some reports indefinitely.

It begs the question: while the single, in digital form, has been the dominant form for many years now, have we seen the tipping point? Artists that clung to the album-as-end-product method of production are veering away from it, while a small handful cling to the notion. Have we crossed the line where they are now exception but never the rule?

Dave Lifton – As with everything else Flaming Lips-related, I yawned when I heard this.

Ken Shane – Without even knowing about Wayne’s announcement, I found myself thinking about how many artists have promised this sort of thing over the years. I remember way back in the ’70s or ’80s Bruce Springsteen said something about releasing a new song every month, and that was before the Internet. The strategy usually lasts about one song before it’s abandoned. It’s something artists tend to say when they’ve run out of anything else to say.

Rob Smith – I don’t think the Rush example really applies here; the two tracks released at the outset of their most recent tour were positioned as something of an advance of an album — essentially what first singles have always done.

If Coyne is serious, it’s a little disappointing. I think of the Flaming Lips as one of the last great album-oriented bands.  The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi in particular were strong cumulative statements.To receive the songs piecemeal, as he’s suggesting, really defeats the purpose of creating a coherent, album-length statement.  I know in the age of the iPod, that might be an antiquated notion, but I think it’s still a viable artform, the full-length LP, and would be disappointed if the Flaming Lips goes through with that approach.

Dw. Dunphy – Last I heard, Rush is putting off recording the rest of the album and, instead, they’re extending the Time Machine tour.

Matt Wardlaw – …and filming a live DVD in Cleveland on April 15th.

DwD – As for Coyne, I know what you mean. I wish Embryonic wasn’t such a mess, but I get your point. He’s looking at the songs as being soundtracks for videos that would ultimately become a film with, purportedly, a cohesive narrative structure. This coming from the guy who, last year, was behind the music video with the woman who had lasers shooting out of her vagina.

Rob – Jason’s mom was in a Flaming Lips video?

I know Rush is extending the tour, but I hadn’t heard about the next leg affecting the new record.  I guess it makes sense.

It’s kinda like I said in my year-end thing — I like a good disposable pop song as much as the next person, but the music that formed my tastes and, without sounding too dramatic, affected my life, were album-length pieces.  Pink Floyd’s “Money” was a single, but it doesn’t sound right to me unless it’s followed by “Us and Them.” I’ll crank Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out/Stay” when it comes on the radio (on the rare occasions I listen to rock radio anymore), but to me, it’s not a piece in and of itself — it’s the last track on the Running on Empty album.  Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” is an amazing piece of music, but it is itself a piece of a larger, arguably more powerful work of art.

I understand that album sales are tanking, but I think the album as a canvas of an artist’s ambitions is still a viable, necessary thing to continue making.  Not for all artists, mind you — some are better shooting out singles every so often — I’m looking at you, Katy Perry. But I hope bands like Radiohead, Wilco, Phish, Eels, the Decemberists, and, yes, Flaming Lips do not abandon the form. I think contemporary music is better off for the breadth of their ambitions, and for the full-length album as the mode by which they express those ambitions to the world.

DwD – I love albums and album-length statements. Hell, that probably comes with being the prog-nut around here… But I also love trains. Sadly, even with the TSA peep-show in effect, the airport will dominate the train station. Doesn’t mean that artists that still recognize the value of the complete statement won’t shoot for the album, it just means that they will be fewer, and more will opt for the text message instead.

David Medsker – I think there will always be bands that embrace the idea of the album, but it doesn’t seem to mean a damn thing to the people mostly responsible for what cracks the top of the Billboard album chart. I listen to my nephews talk about how they feel most albums don’t have more than three good songs on them, and I just shake my head.

DwD – We had this discussion some time ago, and it came up where someone (I want to think it was Ken) said, “With the Pink Floyd songs so unified on an album, how could anyone listen to it broken up and out of context?” I agree with that sentiment, but my niece does it all the time, on her iPod, and it doesn’t faze her one bit.

Matthew Bolin – Personally, I think we may taking the wrong tack in this argument; that is, that with a focus on singles, that the long-player as “ultimate goal is dead”. I don’t think it’s really-or has to be-so black of white.

Among the MANY things the Beatles did to improve popular music was the idea that “the kids shouldn’t have to pay twice for the same stuff” (that was a good part of the reason that Lennon LOATHED the “Red Album” and “Blue Album”, because people who bought them were getting the exact same material that they likely already before, with nothing changed and nothing added. And note that their creative peak also coincided with a desire to put out high-quality singles that complemented, but did not appear on the albums which would follow. So you have “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” precede Sgt. Pepper, “All You Need is Love” precede the Magical Mystery Tour EP in Britain, and “Hey Jude/Revolution” precede the White Album.

What we’re into nowadays is really the same thing which often went on in the 1950s and early 1960s, before major artists started to take more control of their creative output, both in terms of time in the studio and the amount of product put out over a 12 month period: singles were the name of the game, which albums were basically a way to get people to spend more on an artist’s recordings, with most pop music albums being a collection of two or three A+B sides, and another four to six filler tracks to justify the price. Mind you, there were some classic albums that came out of this (like the first couple of Elvis albums), but a lot of it was dross (like basically any Elvis album after those first couple). The funny thing was, those outside the pop arena, who had been around longer and already had built up artistic cache, were able to put out long players that were high quality and cohesive. I’m thinking especially of Sinatra, who in 1955 (the year before Elvis broke) put out In the Wee Small Hours, not only one of the best albums ever recorded, but to a certain extent, at least in terms of sound and mood couple possibly be considered the first fully-executed concept album. And this was at the same time he was also releasing non-album singles like “Love and Marriage.”

My point is that a good single will sell itself, and a good album will sell itself, but a good single on a mediocre album will not sell that album. Yet the remnants of the major record labels are going back to the same sort of product promotion that they did in the early days of “rock” music: trying to push whole records that are formed around a couple of catchy tracks and a lot of repetitive filler that poorly apes those few catchy tracks. Even worse, in order to try and sell more CDs, record labels are now repackaging the same records, adding a couple of bonus tracks and/or remixes, and putting them out as “new” product. Or they’re putting out multiple versions of the album at different locations. I remember the Smashing Pumpkins Zeitgeist having something like four different versions, with two tracks exclusive to the iTunes version, two tracks exclusive to the Target version, etc. But either way, they’re trying to resell the same product to the same people multiple times. Why? No other reason than CDs cost more than singles, and almost all singles are sold via iTunes now, which means they have to split the pot with Apple.

The simple fact is that we are back where we started in the early days of rock in more way than one: singles are the dominant unit, and record companies are trying to financially take advantage of it in the most asinine way possible. They are so tied into the concept of having those Gold and Platinum records on the wall that they still can’t fully comprehend the fact that the paradigm has shift with the technology, and that it’s not going back. So we have the Hot 100 dominated by the same few acts (thanks Clear Channel!), and the album charts in total disarray, where the artist with the big single debuts high, and then usually drops off into the lower regions of the chart within a month or so, with very few exceptions, because as David’s nephews pointed out, there’s not much on the albums that’s worthwhile except the singles that have already oversaturated the market.

What should be done? I think the Beatles approach would still work: Make the singles separate from the albums. If you’re a label with a crap artist but they have a catchy track, don’t waste money by having them record more music than is necessary. If the artist or band is a self-contained unit that has a track record of being able to produce singles and albums, have them do both, but don’t make it necessary that the single be the promotional tool for the album.

Ken – I don’t know how old your niece is Dw. but if she’s never known anything else, it’s not surprising that she listens by the track. For someone my age, and I suspect some of you, the album was everything, and it wasn’t necessary to have a concept either. An album was a communication from an artist like a postcard from a friend. Here’s where I am, and this is what’s been on my mind lately.

Medsker – With my friends, owning albums was a badge of honor, since in many cases they were simply hard to find. The digital revolution pretty much killed that notion dead, for better and for worse.

Jack Feerick – And the pendulum swings the other way… my daughter is thirteen, and she’s grown up being very used to having individual mp3 tracks at her disposal. But with a band that she really loves, she’ll get the physical album and invest the time in absorbing it as a whole — be it Achtung Baby or Plastic Beach.

Remember, part of the reason the album became so important as a medium in the 60s is because the LP itself was a fairly new invention. It was all about singles and EPs.

Thought: Now that YouTube allows uploads of up to 30+ minutes (as opposed to the previous 12-minute limit), will we see a revival of interest in the longer musical forms? Because a LOT of kids use YouTube to play music in one tab while they browse in another, almost like streaming radio…

Rob – I question the worth of the Billboard charts anymore.  In fact, with their “Social 50″ chart, Billboard itself is apparently questioning the worth of the Billboard charts.

But Wayne Coyne — we started with Wayne Coyne — is essentially saying that he’s finished with the album as a form. THAT is a shame.

I agree with you — if you’re a label and you have someone on your label with a catchy single or three in him/her/them, making a 15-track album with 12 filler cuts is not a smart or even very nice thing to do, simply because your audience is able to cherry-pick what they want and discard the rest, and they feel gypped if they buy a full-length album and get 80 percent garbage.  But if that singles-based paradigm becomes the industry standard, I fear more artists like Coyne — artists with vision and skill to pull off full album-length statements — will opt for ditching the LP in favor of EPs or singles, which I don’t think bodes well for music as a whole.

Which brings up a whole other set of issues, with regard to how artists make a living. Is the LP or the single the chief product they sell, or are these merely teasers for or components of other income streams (concerts, merch, etc.)?  That’s probably out of the scope of this discussion, but might be worth getting into some other time.

And I’m done buying Hendrix and Elvis Costello reissues, “bonus tracks” and extras be damned.

Michael Fortes - I’m with Ken on this one. I’ll believe Wayne when he follows through.
Radiohead said something similar after they finished their EMI contract, and then what happened? A new album, and one that was a game changer on top of it. Elvis Costello too just recently said that the album is a dying art form and that National Ransom may be his last, but again, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Matt makes a great point too, which Jack’s daughter’s habits perfectly illustrate. And guess what? In the ’60s, that’s exactly how my mother and her friends and cousins consumed music. They mostly bought singles. But for their favorite artists, they sprung for the full albums.

Another factor to consider here is all the kids (and adults, lets face it) who rip and download for free. I believe most of them do it for one of two very simple reasons: either they’re cheap, or they just can’t afford to buy what they want to buy. As a lot of these folks find themselves in better economic situations over time and become more comfortable with the idea of parting with some cash in exchange for some tunes, I’m sure we’ll see the album format experience a resurgence.

One thing is for certain though – you cannot deny the power of the album to survive. It may end up being just a cult thing someday, but it won’t ever go away. Young bands who make music for music’s sake first and foremost still aspire to make actual albums, and on vinyl too when they can afford it. Remember, they said the vinyl record was finished in the early ’90s, but those things never went away, and now we have a worldwide holiday in their honor that generates real dollars.

Anthony Hansen – I think the most serious ramification of this current cultural shift is the idea that the music community at large has never been more fragmented – and in some ways I’d argue that that’s a good thing. Mainstream music has never been less relevant, simply by virtue of how easy it is to tune it out and find something you DO like – whether it be a local band who managed to record a snazzy-sounding demo in their basement for 5 bucks or that weird old R&B record you downloaded by chance off of somebody’s blog. You can customize your tastes to the point where trying to pinpoint the cultural zeitgeist borders on absurd – culture itself is now dictated by a sense of aggressive individualism as opposed to any sort of collective consensus.

Now, does this spell the end of the album as a cultural signpost? Not necessarily. There will always be a small community of hardcore fans and music geeks to keep the album-as-art-form mythos alive, even if the casual listeners who used to help push sales into the millions are slowly dwindling. Hopefully though, this will finally put a stop to all the “next-big-thing” hype that follows any new and promising band like a bad smell because, really, who even cares anymore? No one needs to “save” music, contrary to what a lot of music mags have been trying to convince us for years, and if there are still bands putting out albums for the sheer love of it then no one needs to “save” the album format either.

For more information on this, Billboard ran a story regarding album sales here, and one regarding vinyl LP sales here.

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  • http://twitter.com/farrakhanfaucet Farrak Kahn

    You bring up some very good points here. I am a die-hard album collector – but lately I’m beginning to think perhaps it’s not the way to go. Maybe Robyn had it right with Body Talk 1, 2 and 3. Her steady releases kept the momentum going all year long – and since no NEW tracks were released on the year-end compilation, fans who went for the EPs did not feel cheated (in fact, they had more tracks). I noticed a similar thing when Lillix released Tigerlilly – a stellar album that clocked in around 30 minutes. At first, I felt cheated. But it’s one of the few albums I listened to in its entirety with every single play.

    I was one of the suckers who bought every version of Zietgeist – never again. That’s why I am upset British Sea Power are punishing fans by only releasing a bonus-disc EP with their upcoming album to UK indie stores. It renders the version I can buy in the states incomplete – and therefore – inessential. The Coral recently did the same thing, but at least offered the complete 2CD version on Amazon. When Franz Ferdinand tried the same thing with their last album, I skipped purchasing it altogether in protest. For the same reason, I am not buying Duran Duran’s wonderful new album until it comes out on deluxe CD this Feb. If record companies truly want to encourage first week sales, there would be no multiple versions – they should release deluxe “first editions” to all outlets on Day One – and once they’re gone – the CD is out of print, but the bonus tracks will still be available online for late arrivals.

  • http://twitter.com/farrakhanfaucet Farrak Kahn

    You bring up some very good points here. I am a die-hard album collector – but lately I’m beginning to think perhaps it’s not the way to go. Maybe Robyn had it right with Body Talk 1, 2 and 3. Her steady releases kept the momentum going all year long – and since no NEW tracks were released on the year-end compilation, fans who went for the EPs did not feel cheated (in fact, they had more tracks). I noticed a similar thing when Lillix released Tigerlilly – a stellar album that clocked in around 30 minutes. At first, I felt cheated. But it’s one of the few albums I listened to in its entirety with every single play.

    I was one of the suckers who bought every version of Zietgeist – never again. That’s why I am upset British Sea Power are punishing fans by only releasing a bonus-disc EP with their upcoming album to UK indie stores. It renders the version I can buy in the states incomplete – and therefore – inessential. The Coral recently did the same thing, but at least offered the complete 2CD version on Amazon. When Franz Ferdinand tried the same thing with their last album, I skipped purchasing it altogether in protest. For the same reason, I am not buying Duran Duran’s wonderful new album until it comes out on deluxe CD this Feb. If record companies truly want to encourage first week sales, there would be no multiple versions – they should release deluxe “first editions” to all outlets on Day One – and once they’re gone – the CD is out of print, but the bonus tracks will still be available online for late arrivals.

  • Russ

    I love singles. I like albums. I FUCKING HATE GODDAMNED DOUBLE ALBUMS!!!

    Every Lips album up thru Yoshimi (ok, forget Zaireeka, it was an experiment) was a really good single album, it is hard for an artist to have a run like that. Sure some were better than others, but none sucked. Mystics was a too damned long double-album but it had a single-album’s worth of good music on it. Embryonic was an absolute piece of garbage, I traded it a week after I got it. If embryonic is any indication of what Wayne Coyne’s got left, a single is beyond his reach.

  • NobodyInParticular

    Another factor to consider here is all the kids (and adults, lets face it) who rip and download for free. I believe most of them do it for one of two very simple reasons: either they’re cheap, or they just can’t afford to buy what they want to buy.

    OK, I’m going to get my nerd on here, but I take free downloads to replace radio.

    There was so much good radio in the 70′s and 80′s (an incessant dial twirler) I bought tons of music because of it, most of which I quickly filed away and hardly ever played again. At some point you just can’t afford to do that anymore.

    In the 90′s the number of commercials in a hour on radio more than doubled and it killed the listening experience with 7-minute commercial breaks. But PC’s and mp3 quickly came to the rescue so I ripped all my CD’s and made playlists of MP3′s with the rudimentary (in relative terms to today) audio players on the PC. I’m not talking about mere lists, I’m talking about formatics a la radio – the hits play more often than the obscurities etc. In those days the track ratings really didn’t do much algorithmically so the “playlist” usually had to be something like 500,000 “tracks” long even though there were only 2,000 individual songs in it. Put “London Calling” in the list 35 times, and “Revolution Rock” in it once for example and you get London Calling playing often enough and Revolution Rock comes up maybe once every 10 months. I had to file each track into a folder for each kind of frequency I wanted and then tweaked it enough times so that I got a halfway-decent simulation of radio (sans air personalities and commercials).

    The only problem with that was I never heard anything I didn’t know. That’s where the downloads from the original napster helped. Grab those new albums and stick em into the gigantic playlist and you can ease your way into hearing new tunes surrounded by old ones which makes music discovery more pleasant (the way radio did it). In fact I could get exposed to more new music this way, and anything I up-rated became an eventual purchase, down-rating stuff usually meant I heard it once or twice a year (which means it’s not really worth buying) or was simply deleted because I didn”t care to ever hear it again.

    Maintaining that megaplaylist was sort of a monthly maintenance job – a job somewhat alleviated by iTunesDj where higher rated songs play more often. Not the best replacement with a hard drive of 40,000 tracks, but once you learn the nesting tricks of smart playlists (especially making smart playlists of smart playlists of smart playlists) you can practically create a formatic clone of any radio station you want. (CHR is a little tough because iTunes smart playlists can be controlled by elapsed days but not elapsed hours so you can’t get the #1 song to play every two hours). I’ve had visitors in the house assume I had WXRT on in the background until they realized they heard no commercials or DJ breaks. (And if one wanted to download audio station ID’s and commercials and stick them in the smart playlists you could really get an exact radio simulation.) You can’t really do that with Pandora or Slacker or Rhapsody.

    And now maintenance is hardly time consuming at all. Takes 20 minutes to download a hundred tunes a week. Every week I look to see what I’ve up-rated and buy the singles or albums. If I down-rate it, it’s not worth buying. In my opinion, music I’m going to listen to 6 times in my life doesn’t deserve a purchase, but music I’m going to listen 6 times a month after a couple weeks of sampling deserves my money. But the idea of “taking a chance” on a $12 album is over – I can listen to MORE music this way and purchase a little bit more too because I haven’t wasted money on music I quickly decide isn’t for me.

    Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying that I believe downloading from torrents and whatnot do not represent lost sales at all, I think 90% of it is merely serving the function radio USED to serve.

  • EightE1

    See, I like goddamned double albums, even bad ones. Got a real soft spot for ‘em. I love the fact that an artist first of all must have the arrogance/confidence to believe that a single record cannot hold the full scope of his/her/their genius. When he/she/they do indeed have the goods to pull it off, all the better. And I’m not even talking about Exile on Main St. or Songs in the Key of Life; I’m thinking, like, Benji Hughes (A Love Extreme) or Ryan Adams (Gold) or Jenny Toomey (Antidote) — debut records or second records where the performer doesn’t feel a single disc can do justice to his/her ruminations and proclamations.

    Today, in fact, I was listening to Adams’ Cold Roses. Could that have been whittled down into a better, more concise single album? Absolutely. Probably shoulda been — Adams can use an editor sometimes. Would that single album have been cooler than the sprawling, messy thing he actually put out? I argue that it would not. There’s genius in them thar shambles.

    And yes, Embryonic sucked. I liked Mystics, though.

  • Anonymous

    I’m all for someone trying something different in these changing times in the industry. I have a lot of faith in Wayne so I look forward to see what he does. I give him credit for trying a new method…it’s the only way to figure out how to get music out there during the “era of the track” because that’s how people are listening these days. If people are too afraid to move out of their comfort zone to try something new, the music industry can’t survive. Wayne’s methods have always been out of the ordinary. Truly alternative music. Someone has to try to blaze some trails to keep it alive!

  • JT

    First off, I liked this piece alot..

    Secondly, I echo Matthew’s belief that “a good single on a mediocre album will not sell that album”. Further to that, you can’t tour and make money on a single alone and isn’t that where they money is at these days?

    I couldn’t afford all the albums I wanted growing up, so I would usually invest in those Various Artists Albums… Big Hits of 86.. Top of the Pops 89, etc so that I can get the songs I want and avoid some of the filler on some of the alums. Greatest Hits were to me was where the true value was. All 4 albums greatest songs on 1 tape..it was wonderful. As I grew older, I invested in albums..some were worth it and some weren’t but I was grateful for the option of those various hits albums and atleast buying the music I needed to have, vs shelling out megabucks for 2 or 3 good songs with filler. Im not sure if Itunes is that different.

    What has died, to me anyways, is the EP. I only ever see these “live at itunes” EPs now-a-days. I can recall Alice in Chains releasing Jar of Flies, a short, but still awesome collection of songs. It’s a good way to keep the fan base interested without having to commit to an album.

    Im not sure if the album is really dead or dying.. . it sounds like this war has been going on for a while…if anything the war of the album vs single saw a defeat with Beatles not only allowing their albums to be sold on Itunes, but as individual songs. I think the relationship between the artists, the distributors (Apple or record label) and the consumers is shifting.

    EMI, which is considered one the largest labels (and historically hated by artists) is soon going to be own and run Citibank. Some artists are distributing their music directly to Itunes and bypassing the record label all together. Some of the mega artists (Madonna/U2/Prince) are much more focusing on touring then on album creation which has lead, to some, mediocre output by the artists. It will be interesting to see how the art form and industry pan out over the next decade.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=515687448 Anthony Hansen

    My last name has an “e”, not an “o”. I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but come on…

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Oh, come on. You know you flaunt those lovely long golden locks like your brothers have!

    (We’ll fix the typo.)