#166: The singles vs. album release debate

Singles vs. AlbumsOnce upon a time, the single ruled. Then, for almost half a century, the album dominated. Now that the means of distribution are in YOUR hands, which format makes the most sense for your music? In this episode, Kevin and Chris each pick a side of the argument — singles vs. albums — and discuss the pros and cons of each. Plus, some big news from SoundCloud!

  • Hey Kevin and Chris- thought provoking podcast as always! Hate to be the resident Beatles pedant but what Chris said about the Beatles albums being just collections of individual songs is a little confusing. They did record a song at a time (as opposed to tracking ALL the drums, then ALL the bass etc) but albums were always albums and singles (and B sides) were always singles. In fact they would earmark a a song as the next single BEFORE IT WAS EVEN WRITTEN! (as opposed to writing a bunch and then picking the most commercial). The view of their recording/release strategy is highly skewed in the US by the fact that every American release prior to Sgt Pepper is only one step removed from a bootleg – the band/George Martin/EMI had no control over running order, release dates, mixes or artwork. Singles were released in different markets by different labels simultaneously, album tracks were pulled for singles, tracks were held back from albums and added to different albums etc

    But what they DID do (in the UK) is highly instructive for your discussion. In the first few years they released a new record EVERY THREE MONTHS.

    2 track single
    14 track album (including up to 6 cover versions)
    2 track single
    14 track album

    Generally every track was new content (as opposed to say Michael Jackson releasing Thriller and then every single being taken from the album). Sometimes the ‘single’ was an EP.

    I think they achieved of the things you guys were advocating with this strategy but it’s worth pointing out they could do this because they had a ‘team’ they wrote and recorded the songs, but once that was done they had no further involvement – they weren’t even present at mixing sessions, had no hand in artwork, track listing etc sometimes they left George Martin to complete overdubs after they’s gone. Everything changed in the later years of course but they also a) drastically reduced their output and b) stopped touring.

    For me the take away is to find people you can trust to handle part of the process and then let them do it (even possibly giving them final say). For me that’s at least mixing, mastering and artwork. The danger is that a DIY artist will become a DEY artist (Do EVERYTHING Yourself) and then produce very little.

  • Ah – your reply made me realise/remember that the Beatles have probably the most confusing discography of any major band! When I started Beatles Songwriting Academy it literally took me 2 month of reading to come up with a sensible way of ordering the songs.

    Here goes – Past Masters 1 and 2 are a (post split) collection of every song they did not release on the original official albums – there are a couple of tracks from compilation albums, alternate versions, two german language singles (!) etc but the majority are unique singles and B sides – almost 2 CDs worth!

    Magical Mystery Tour was originally (wait for it) a DOUBLE EP! comprising 6 previously unreleased songs. In the States they bulked it up to a full album with extra singles and B sides from the period. The US version is now the one that exists everywhere including the UK.

    The Yellow Submarine Soundtrack had 4 previously unreleased songs, 2 previously released songs (Yellow Submarine from Revolver and All You Need Is Love – a single) and a whole side of George Martin’s instrumental score. 30 Years later they released ‘Yellow Submarine SONGtrack’ with new stereo mixes and a totally different track listing (replacing Martin’s score with other previously released songs that had been featured in the film itself).

    Lastly Hey Jude was only released as a single even though it was recorded at the same time as The White Album. It was backed by a totally different version of Revolution than the one that appears on The White Album).

    So contrary to what our CD collection’s might lead us to think, the majority of Beatles singles, b sides and EP tracks did not appear on albums.

    Which is all to say the Beatles kind of took your advice! They released new ‘content’ every few months which I’m sure is one (of the many) reasons for their success.

  • Great episode guys. Always great listening to you.
    Just a little note about playing in Canada. Last time I went, about a year ago, Canada actually made it easier for bands to come and play. You didn’t need a work permit like before. A good place to get in touch with is the Musician Union (in the US or in Canada). There are some in every state and everywhere in Canada. They are always up to date and very helpful about the laws in place. I’ll try to find the band you talked about in the podcast and will shoot them an email. 😉

    On a side note, last I’ve heard, it’s actually getting harder and harder for musicians to come and play in the US. It takes months to get a work permit. I booked a tour 2 years ago for a friend of mine from France and myself on the West Coast and the US Boarder guys didn’t let him in coming from Vancouver BC…. sad story. Maybe some other time…

    Keep up the good work, thanks for everything you do.

    Eric John Kaiser
    “French Troubadour”

  • kbreuner

    Thanks for the update Eric!

  • Just a note to help clarify this excursion into the Beatles’ singles and albums. Producer George Martin wrote about this subject in his 1994 book, With a Little Help From My Friends. Discussing the making of Sgt. Pepper, which he says began with recording Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, When I’m Sixty-Four, Good Morning Good Morning, and A Day in the Life, Martin wrote:

    “It was simply part of the process that had become established by then—four singles and two albums a year. …There was the 1966 Christmas market to take care of. We had to have something strong for that. Brian [Epstein] came to me and said, ‘We need to have a single out, George, fast. What have you got? I want the best thing you’ve got.’ Realizing how desperate Brian was feeling, I decided to give him a super-strong combination, a double-punch that could not fail, an unbeatable linking of two great songs: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’. These songs would, I told him, make a fantastic double-A-sided disc—better even than our other double-A-sided triumphs, ‘Day Tripper’/’We Can Work It Out’, and ‘Eleanor Rigby’/’Yellow Submarine’.

    “It was the biggest mistake of my professional life,” Martin wrote, noting that “the weekly sales figures showed that the two singles ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ were selling well” but “they were being counted separately!” Had their separate sales been combined, the total would have topped Englebert Humperdinck’s Release Me, which prevented either of the Beatles’ A-sides from reaching Number One in the UK.

    What’s instructive for the discussion of albums vs singles here is George Martin’s conclusion:

    “From the outset, Brian and had been determined to give the buying public good value for money. We had agreed that if a song had been released as a hit single, we should try not to use it as a cynical sales-getter on a subsequent album. To our way of thinking, this was asking people to pay twice for the same material. I know it seems ludicrous these days: now a hit single is frequently used to sell a whole album; but we thought differently then. This was why ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ did not make it onto Sgt. Pepper as originally intended. … It’s fun to imagine what a re-edited Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with those two crackers on it might be like!”

    This shows that any distinction between tracks destined for the singles market vs those earmarked for albums arose well after the notion of the album as a conceptual unity came into being. It was, as Martin said, about giving the buying public good value for money, regardless of whether a song was destined for a single or album release.

  • Rich Mahan

    One thing I don’t think I heard in this discussion was about Radio Promotion. Certain album based radio formats, such as Americana or AAA Non-Comm, will only consider albums for airplay, they won’t consider singles.

  • kbreuner

    That’s definitely true.

  • Yes and even my family!” well let’s keep that secret, lol, but why I cannot do show??? , lol

  • Deborah Magone

    Hi Guys,
    Thanks for the great podcast. On the subject of Canada, post 9/11, I wanted security for myself and my equipment heading up north from the U.S. to Canada to gig. So I became an American Federation of Musicians Local 66 Union member here in Rochester,NY for legal protection. At that time Canada required a permit. I did the paper work and I must’ve been the first legal Indie musician they encountered crossing the border, because they didn’t know what to do with my permit paper work. LOL
    We’ll my Union membership came in handy when I picked up the phone to call a lawyer for assistance and a real person answered the phone on a Saturday afternoon at AFM ! SO , the result was, ….no worries at all. The small AFM membership fee was well worth the security and legal support. I gigged in Canada quite often to great music loving, money spending crowds. Now they’ve removed permit fees and its even easier. Its actually more difficult coming home to the states than it is leaving now. 🙁

  • Casey Turner

    Aloha. Solid Advice Kevin / Chris on touring through other countries. It still amazes me how much resistance there is for fulltime musicians when playing other countries. But even more so…is the issue with the new airline regulations in Asia and Australia (baggage limitations and weight). I had to cancel an entire tour due to new weight regulations. So make sure you do your homework on the airlines rules..each one is different. You might get on a plane in USA w your guitar and then land in Asia and inside the airport they tell you, “Sorry sir..this guitar will require the purchase of another ticket in order for you to board your flight”. what? haaaa. Yes it is real.

  • kbreuner

    Interesting. Thanks for weighing in. That’s definitely helpful for artists to know.

  • kbreuner

    Very true! I’ve seen that happen as well. When flying to Ireland they were giving our lead singer a hassle over the size of his tiny carry-on backpack. I was standing right next to him with a much larger REI backpack (still totally within normal US carry-on sizes). I just backed away from the counter slowly. Of course they didn’t say anything to me which made the whole thing just seem arbitrary and random.

  • Casey Turner

    Kevin, Yeah..that seems to be the norm these days regarding airlines. It appears to be selective also and dependent on each agent at each airline. Its so random and unpredictable. One agent lets you on the plane with a guitar and the next does not. Due to having to cancel my tour due to weight limits this year, I had to figure a solution. So I designed my own light weight high strength cases in order to fly. I fused together lightweight plastics and nylon straps to hold my gear. SKB and Gator cases will no longer cut it for air travel. Most of them will start out weighing 30 lbs empty. Which leaves you no room to bring anything. Clothes? Whats that? haaa. I fortunately tour warm tropical places so can get away with a few items. Anyway…thanks for sharing that backpack microphone story. All of this is 1st world problems I suppose…but none the less it is all something to be awayre of when traveling with music gear.

  • RebbeSoul

    Regarding a question written in toward the end of the podcast about playing in Canada and coming in the from USA… Canada is one of the toughest borders to cross as a musician. Make sure that the venue has filled out all the appropriate paper work to permit you to come and and perform professionally. Canada is extremely protective of their own artists and labor and so every “i” must be dotted and every “t” must be crossed in order for you to come into their country and work. If you have loads of gear, it’s possible you may have to unload everything, showing the contents to the border police but that is merely dependent on the officer in charge and what kind of person you appear to be.

  • Glenn Smith

    I think it would be important to do both. You put out a couple of singles while developing your album. Then you add the singles to your album. I like the idea of an physical album cover with pictures and text etc. I think an album defines the artist in a defined period. I think it encourages listeners to listen to more music from one artist. Having said that, I am curious why CD baby calls a single an album online and I think this needs to be addressed. ( “Info about this album” when it is a single) I think it is useful for singles along with a video clip on YouTube to promote an album.

  • K Bezzy

    Does the music sales report you discussed apply to the u.s. or is world wide, I noticed you didn’t mention the numbers for cassette tapes, as I still sell a ton of cassette tapes in japan.

  • kbreuner

    It was for the US. Are you selling cassette tapes at your show?

  • Awesome that you have so many new listeners. I feel like such an old timer 😀 Just passed this episode on to a new friend who is releasing his first album and was just asking me about singles!

  • Keith Wint

    My opinion on this is, things have changed in regards to how music is distributed, but the old school system still remains in place. Release an album, then release singles from the album and space them out over the period of 3 years to generate more interest in the album. This has been my experience. But things have changed and the industry has become hungry for new music.

  • Tombé Kemayo

    One person that comes to mind is Rihanna, who has a great deal of success with her albums. But on multiple occasions, she has also released a series of about three non-album singles in between albums. I wonder what her (or her team’s) perspective on this subject would be. That said, most of her albums are known for being collections of commercial music as opposed to a connected artistic experience.

  • kbreuner

    I think it’s different for a pop star like that. It all becomes about commercial tracks. I doubt they spend much time at all considering the “album” experience.

    I think for major label artists they are starting to use singles as the appetizer. It’s a way to start generating buzz and get fans thinking about the artist leading up to the bigger event.

  • Leigh Warren

    Unfortunately where I am at the moment I cannot stream the podcast but reading the comments I’m curious people talk about the beatles releasing singles then albums and some agree either way which is the best…

    I remember long time ago (70’s) that you bought the single or if it was on the album you saved and bought the album. These days tho you can buy individual tracks online from the albums and if that single is on that album you buy it from the album as you can then later buy the rest of the album at a reduced price (iTunes).

    As I said I cannot listen to the podcast (damn) but if you can buy the song both on the album and as a single (digital release) which then is better way?? releasing a single or releasing an album with that single as a bonus track if they purchase the album?? or release both??


  • Julius Coxswain

    It would be cool if you all let the listeners know where each segment of the podcast begins and ends. That way, the people who want to hear the episode’s main topic can go straight to that topic.

  • John Zambrano

    In the 60’s, when I was a preteen/early teen, singles were mainly released in mono, until “Get Back/Don’t Let Me Down” (the first one I remember being issued in stereo, anyway). Me, being a “stereo sound” fanatic, I very much anticipated the album release with the singles on it to hear the stereo masters of the songs! That was magical anticipation to me back then, always waiting for the album with the stereo mixes of the hit singles to be released! The music market has really changed. Singles have vanished, and most stereo mixes today are narrow, not like the awesome stereo sound of the late 50’s through the 70’s.