May 18, 2007
Digital singles

Back when vinyl ruled the world, I was never much for buying 45s instead of regular LPs, so I never really noticed as the record industry killed them off. But it's still amusing to see the format get resurrected in a modern form.

Almost a decade after virtually eliminating 45s and cassette singles, thereby forcing fans to spend more money on whole albums, the digital single is largely responsible for the industry's woes.

Consumers no longer need to buy an album if they want that cool jam they heard on the radio -- and in growing numbers, they're choosing 99-cent downloads over $15 CDs.

Some worry this trend is worsening the quality of albums as a cohesive musical work, and that label executives are more and more interested in quick hits than lasting music or artists.

Given the sorry state of pop music in general lately, it's hard to imagine how.

While the vast majority of music consumers still buy CD albums, they are buying less of them, while digital tracks are exploding: According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of physical CDs this year have declined 20 percent from the same point in 2006, from 112 million to 89 million. Digital tracks are up to 288 million from 242 million at the same period last year. And that's not counting the millions of singles that are illegally downloaded.

"Now, we're in a very difference place in terms of the single business," Jim Donio, president of National Association of Recording Merchandisers, said in an interview. "The single business is alive and well, and it's in the form of track downloads."

The same cannot be said, however, for albums. Even counting albums that are downloaded along with physical CDs sold, album sales are down 10 percent from the same period last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, continuing a decline that has been growing for several years.


"We tried to stop selling a commercial single because people were making great, great records and albums were selling like hot cakes," says longtime music industry executive Steve Rifkind, founder of Street Records Corp., home to platinum singer/producer Akon, and

But removing the option of purchasing a single may not have helped the album much, either -- and may have actually boosted the original illegal downloading services like Napster, says [Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine].

"The notion that someone would jump to an album-length purchase because they couldn't find the one song they wanted available was a naive one," he said.

Not completely - I know I bought a few albums back in the day because of one or two songs. Of course, most of the time I came to regret those purchases. Not always - among the many unexpected joys I've found of ripping all my CDs has been hearing some of the stuff I'd avoided because I was reluctant to play a whole CD just for the one song I recognized - but enough times for me to feel burned by it. I haven't transitioned to buying digital-only music yet - I still have CDs to rip - but when I do, I expect I'll be much more choosy, just because I can.

And at 99 cents or so, singles bring in much less profit than albums (which is why iTunes has been pressured by record companies to raise its prices).

Yeah, well, news like this is going to apply some counterpressure to that.

Amazon is finally taking on Apple.

The Seattle-based online retail powerhouse said Wednesday said that it would open a digital music store with a consumer-friendly twist that, Amazon hopes, will give Apple's iTunes a run for its money.

The difference: Customers can do anything they want with the songs they buy.

It's a good time to be a music consumer, isn't it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 18, 2007 to Music