The first time you entered a music store, chances are it was because there was one song you had to have. Maybe it was 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' by the Beatles, or Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine'. Perhaps you obsessed over 'Night Fever' by the Bee Gees, 'Hungry Like the Wolf' by Duran Duran or 'N Sync's 'Bye Bye Bye'.
These days, finding that song - without buying many more you don't want - is becoming increasingly difficult. The music industry is killing off the single. Once the backbone of the business, singles sales totaled 31 million last year, down a whopping 41 percent from 2000, according to Soundscan. It's believed to be the lowest sales figure since the late 1940s, when singles were introduced on vinyl.
Singles aren't even made for many of the most popular songs because music companies think they're so unprofitable. Among Billboard magazine's 40 most popular songs the week of February 23, only five were available as singles on compact disc. Eighteen were on sale just as vinyl records. Seventeen songs, including Creed's 'My Sacrifice', No Doubt's 'Hey Baby', Enrique Iglesias' 'Hero' and Alanis Morissette's 'Hands Clean', were only available if you bought a full album.
Record retailers complain this alienates fans, particularly young ones, by forcing them to spend more than they want or - worse yet - retrieve songs online. 'I think they're losing a whole generation of record buyers,' said Carl Rosenbaum, chief executive of Top Hits, a Buffalo Grove, Illinois, company that supplies music to 15,000 stores nationwide. 'You either have to steal it off the Internet or you just don't buy it at all,' he said. 'The other option is to buy a full CD for $18. If you're just introducing yourself to an act, you don't want to do that. It's hard to figure out what their thinking is.'
Music executives, in turn, blame retailers for discounting singles so heavily it's impossible to make money. 'We can't work it out,' said Val Azzoli, co-chairman of the Atlantic Group of record labels. 'We're not an industry that works together.' If the single dies altogether, the beginning of the end can be traced a decade back to the start of Soundscan, which provided the first precise measurements of music sales.
Executives who long suspected that singles cut into sales of the more profitable full-length CDs now had evidence to back that up, said Jordan Katz, senior vice president of sales at Arista Records. There's some debate about the extent to which that's true, though.
Bob Higgins, chief executive of the Albany, New York-based Trans World Entertainment, which owns 950 music stores, said he believes singles hurt album sales in only about 15 percent of the cases. Nickelback's 'Silver Side Up' album is currently in the top 10, seemingly unhurt by the CD single for the song 'How You Remind Me'. And Santana sold boatloads of its most recent album despite a succession of singles, he said.
In the late 1990s, there was a brief period when record companies put singles by singers like Mariah Carey on sale for a money-losing 49 cents, artificially boosting sales to secure flashy chart debuts. To avoid manipulations of its charts, Billboard changed the way it computed the Top 40 to reflect radio airplay as well as sales. Therefore, it was possible to have a hit 'single' without a song ever being released as a single.
CD singles, which usually have two or three songs, generally retail for between $3 and $4. Many retailers routinely discount them by 50 percent or more, Azzoli said. And there are still music companies that encourage this by secretly giving singles away to retailers to inflate sales, he said. 'If I could get $5 a single and sell a million of them, hey, there's a business there,' Azzoli said.
The demise of the single means more of music's romance is disappearing, just like when colorful album covers were replaced by tiny CD booklets. In a song being released this spring, Elvis Costello waxes nostalgic about collecting stacks of 45s (a phrase already consigned to history, since it refers to the number of revolutions a 7-inch disc made each minute on a turntable). 'Nine-year-old puts his money down,' he sings. 'Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat. Every breath that I held for you.'
Music companies recognize the danger, but 'their short-term motivation is to get as much profit as possible,' said Ed Christman, retail editor at Billboard. 'The fact that young kids aren't buying records is a long-term worry.'
It's not easy to find the section where singles are sold at the Virgin megastore in New York's Times Square. Walk past the display of top albums, go down the escalator and wander to the dance section in a back corner. It's close to where Jeannie Imperati of North Haven, Connecticut, was grumbling one recent day when she took her 15-year-old son shopping. 'I'll spend $100 on CDs just so he can get one song out of each of them,' she said.
Her friend, John Cas, said he found the lack of choices in the singles section frustrating. 'Most of the CDs have only one good song out of a dozen,' he said. 'At 18 or 20 bucks a pop, you want to be able to enjoy the whole CD.'
The space that music stores used to devote to singles is dwindling, or disappearing altogether. One worry for Rosenbaum's Top Hits is that the chains he supplies with music, like Eckerd Drugs, may simply use the space for non-music products. Now he's distributing golf balls as well as music.
At Arista, Katz is sensitive to concerns on both sides and is among executives experimenting with ways to make more singles available, though maybe not in the way many consumers would want. In some cases, singles are made available before an album's release but pulled from stores when the album comes out. Arista also makes singles for songs after they have cooled off as a hit. Pink's 'Get the Party Started', currently in Billboard's Top 10, isn't a CD single now but may be in a couple of months.
Labels are also experimenting more with so-called maxi-singles. They may contain five or six songs - often different remixes of the same song - and are sold for between $7 and $8. The cost of manufacturing them are similar to regular singles, so profits are higher. Some artists also release DVD singles with a video included with the music. 'We have to get kids in the habit of buying music,' Katz said. 'I'm trying to figure out innovative ways to have singles and albums co-exist.'
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