Singles Going Steady

Songwriters and artists like Charli XCX are writing and releasing music differently because new music platforms free them from record company dependency.

by Marshall Bowden

People speak as though the record album has been the dominant force in popular music for most of the history of popular music. The truth is the exact opposite: the era of the album was an anomaly and the changes wrought by digital technology are returning the distribution of popular music to a singles format.

Writing singles in the digital era: Tips from Charli XCX

Technology has always influenced the way that musicians, songwriters, producers, and others involved in the production of recorded music have operated. For a long time, the constraints of radio format (which were programmatic and not technological per se) pushed music in a certain direction–the direction of creating music that was almost immediately catchy, memorable after a couple of listens (or one listen, if possible) and stuck pretty closely to the optimal three minute running time that was itself a product of how much music early records could hold.

Charli XCX

Some people may bristle when they hear a modern artist like Charli XCX discuss how the streaming platform affects the way she writes: 

“If I’m writing a song that is for another big pop artist, I want to play all the games. Chorus within the first 30 seconds. No weird self-indulgent intro… Hook at the top in the intro, maybe even start with the chorus, under three minutes. I think that radio songs should be two minutes, 20 [seconds]. Get in, get out, everybody just get on with your life, you know?”

Charli XCX Explains How Streaming Is Changing Songs, by Dani Deahl, The Verge, 9/20/2019

But what she says here is no different than the way songwriters were looking at charting hit records at the Brill Building or in a record label stable like that at Motown or in Nashville. 

Songwriting is a craft, and writing hit songs, be it for radio or streaming, is a sub-craft. By the way, when Charli XCX says a ‘radio song’ should be 2:20 she’s talking less about traditional radio and more about streaming. There are differences in format for sure. It’s no longer about the “most pop hit song” but grabbing the listener’s attention in the first five to ten seconds. The biggest success is having the listener add the song to one of their playlists.

Read: In Ten Tracks: U2

So the album is being declared dead right now by many, but like many deaths, its reports have been exaggerated. 

It’s true that the music platforms prevalent today (streaming) favor the singles format and that the convenience of digital streaming and playlists have contributed to a decrease in the focus and attention needed for listeners to immerse themselves in the 33-45 minute length of a traditional music album. 

It’s also possible that the idea of the album needs to be reconsidered and revisited by musicians who are able to engage with the idea while executing it in a way that we’re not used to seeing.

The death of the album as part of the pop music landscape

Dance music of the 1980s introduced the first fatal shot to album culture with the rise of dance music and the 12″ single. Originally aimed at club DJs, the records became the de facto singles of the vinyl world in the absence of the 45 rpm format. Mix Tapes were next, providing the very convenience that people were looking for in picking and choosing the music they could listen to on the go (even though, in retrospect, they were kind of a pain to produce) and dovetailing nicely with the introduction of Sony’s Walkman in 1979. 

So the death of the album format was being baked in from a long way back, even before the introduction of the CD. CDs didn’t change or disrupt the album format since they were really just a different medium for the music, but they did alter things in two significant ways. First, they made it extremely easy to listen to just the tracks you wanted to hear. CD players even made it possible to program individual CDs to only play a specified selection of songs. In addition, they introduced the idea of making a perfect copy without appreciable sound degradation by treating music as data, and that meant you could make a mixtape of CD tracks in much less than real-time.

There was one more thing that CDs did that changed the playing field. CDs could hold much more than the average 45 minutes of music and consumers wanted that space to be filled. In short, they wanted more music for their money. This was provided by including more remixes, outtakes, demo versions, and songs that were cut to the end of the CD release of an album. Some of this music would have been released as B-sides, some would-be singles, and some would probably never have seen the light of day. Regardless, it got consumers used to getting more music for the price.

When Napster and the whole peer to peer file sharing movement came along it became clear that people really wanted all their music for free. It demonstrated that people were willing to listen to music in a compressed file format and it showed that overall people would download the songs they liked–singles–much more readily than entire albums.

The album format is one reason vinyl is back

Just as Charli XCX has suggested, listeners browse new releases on their favorite streaming service, listening to little more than the opening seconds (often 30 or fewer) and decide just as quickly whether the song will be added to their playlists or not.

Playlists are the new mixtape and they substitute for albums nowadays. But they are thought of differently and they are consumed differently, too. Playlists are often made for a purpose–working out, shopping, driving to work–and so are listened to less closely than would have been the case with a favorite piece of vinyl, some headphones, and a comfortable sofa. 

People long for the storyline, the longer arc, the atmosphere that an album, thoughtfully written and constructed by the artist and producer, can bring. It could be one more reason that vinyl records have made a comeback that no one would have predicted ten years ago.

But the album doesn’t have to depend on vinyl to make a comeback. There are a lot of performers and bands out there who still make cohesive, well-constructed albums, which is more difficult today when the average running time of what’s considered an album has risen from an average of around thirty-seven minutes to more like an hour. 

It was a singles world until Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band pushed the boundaries and brought people into another listening space. The digital music landscape is also a singles-oriented environment, which I believe is the natural state of pop music. 

But don’t count the album–regardless of format–out yet. 

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