What have singles ever done for us?
I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of bands that think it’s necessary to put out half an album in singles before the actual release date. I think it weakens the impact of the final product. However, performers who release as many as four singles from an upcoming album at least provoke some thought about the actual purpose of singles in modern music culture. Historically, singles performed a few different roles. First, they were supposed to market an album ahead of its release. Second, they were a preview of sorts, telling consumers that the upcoming album was worth spending money on. Third, they were convenient. In a musical world far afar removed from the click-and-point availability of songs in the 2010s, a single meant never having to guess where to literally drop the needle to hear a favorite song. In the age of music streaming and youtube channels curated by record labels, what purpose to singles serve in 2017?
It doesn’t seem like singles are produced for convenience anymore. The dawn of digital music curation (Spotify and iTunes playlists primarily, but mp3 music consumption more generally) listening to a single is literally a point-and-click task. Records, literal records, make it extremely hard to just play one song much less play a specific song once. More than that, even those of us who are adept at picking out a single song from a blank 12” disc of vinyl run the risk (the very real risk, I’m sorry to tell you from personal experience) of damaging the record in an attempt to hear one specific song instead of waiting patiently for the B side to run its course to the epic conclusion. My copy of For Emma, Forever Ago (an album, coincidentally, turning 10 in about a month) has spent more than half its life B-side up than anything else in my collection, in no small part due to “re: stacks.” Having a 45 makes a world of difference to an absentminded and easily distracted vinyl collector. Want to play a different record? Wait the three and a half minutes for this song to finish, safely remove the 45, and put the next one on. In this sense, I would pay good money for a copy of “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” on 45 instead of embedded within Deja Entendu. Most people, however, don’t exclusively play their music on vinyl. When most people want to hear a specific song, they ask Siri to play it for them, or they scroll through their Spotify collection, or search youtube for the track. The single, when it’s not a vinyl-only release, isn’t still intended as a convenience for the audience.
It also doesn’t seem that singles are still meaningfully used as a preview for the album as a whole. Very few of us still pay for all our music one album at a time. Between Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, and YoutubeRed there are enough paid music subscriptions for everyone. People who don’t pay for a music subscription are likely to just look up the music on youtube or sit through the adds on spotify to hear the latest album. On the rare occasion that people do purchase music, it’s almost always in physical form and after the listener has heard the album all the way through. Why buy a CD or vinyl if there’s only one song on the album worth listening to? One single doesn’t give listeners enough of an indication that the album is any good. Five or six singles, on the other hand, might. However, five or six singles is often more than half the album. It would be like releasing an hour o fa movie to prove that it was worth watching. Why watch the movie at all after seeing all the highlights without any of the filler? (Now, clearly, an album is more than a composite of the singles. They ebb and flow of an album is often more important than any individual song or group of songs, but for the average listener, the organization is hardly the most important part of a new release.)
Similarly, the problem that plagues movie trailers has begun to haunt single releases: There’s a fine line between releasing enough interesting material to get people to buy a ticket, and putting everything worth watching into a four minute montage. Movie studios have a hard time walking this line, and record labels are following suit. In order to make people spend money on an album, artists need to release enough singles to give the audience the impression that the whole album is worth listening to without actually showing them the whole album. It’s a tough line to walk, and one that artists routinely under or overshoot. Movie studios have a little more leeway because of the drastic quality difference between the genuine article and the pirated copy. Until DVD releases are out, it’s the difference between a shaky, off-color copy with muted sound and the real show in theaters. A two-minute preview can be enough to get people to pony up the money for a movie ticket. Because album releases are so easily pirated, however, releasing a lot of singles doesn’t serve as a legitimate preview to the album. The preview that people want before spending money on an album is the album, and it’s easily available. I doubt that singles really work as a legitimate preview for albums anymore, at least not in the traditional sense.
The real reason for singles, in 2017, is twofold: First, they advertise an album. Second, they give artists an additional creative outlet. Clearly, the important purpose of singles to record labels is to hype an album ahead of its release. Why release four singles? To give the artist four separate chances to connect with their fans and encourage people to buy the album, stream it online, or pick up a physical copy. The more interesting reason to people who are invested in the holistic creative life of an artist, however, is to see what artists produce when they’re not trying to put together an album. The tradition of singles hasn’t changed all that much since 45s were the popular medium for their recording and distribution. Singles can be one-off projects that don’t connect to an album (take, for example, “67 Cherry Red” by Aaron West & the Roaring Twenties). Singles are often an excuse for artists to put together an EP ahead of the full album. The songs that artists put out alongside the album’s single are often the most interesting. They represent the tangential thoughts of the artist, the lines of creative exploration that never really come to fruition the way an album does.
Why singles? Lorde and concept albums.
All of this sounds a little abstract, of course, so let’s talk about one specific example (briefly). Lorde has been hyping her new album, Melodrama for a while now. On March 2nd Lorde released “Green Light” an announced the soon-to-come concept album and it’s June 16 release date. Now, four singles later, the interesting release to me is the Chromeo remix of “Green Light” that was released on Lorde’s Spotify page. Each one of the songs tells us something about the album in a more general sense, but none of them really tell us anything we couldn’t find out from the album.
“Sober”: The frenetic movement of Pure Heroine is back with a polish that you would’ve have expected from the 20 year old.
“Perfect Places”: The longing, melodramatic soundscapes of her last album are back in full force, backed by a better-rounded cast of instruments, with a heavier focus on lyrically and phrasing than pure power in vocals.
“Liability”: Lorde’s talent extends to the soft/acoustic genre, but her voice might not be the perfect match for quiet piano. It’ll be interesting to see what piece of the story this reveals in the concept album.
“Green Light”: This is already a summer hit for 2017, and represents the most radio-ready offering so far. I wonder, however if the rest of the album won’t be overshadowed by this song the way Pure Heroine could sound more like a vessel for “Royals” than a standalone album.
It’s interesting to see such diverse offerings from the upcoming album, but I wonder if anything we learn from these albums is really information that wouldn’t be better placed in context (especially with a concept album coming in just two days). Listeners will want to keep an ear out for the order of these songs in the official release, and for Jack Antonoff’s influence as co-producer of the album. Will we see another penultimate-song disaster? Or will his off-beat influence help to lend a listenability to the new album that Lorde couldn’t have achieved by herself?