Is an album a more substantial work of art than a single? Or is a well-crafted single all we need? There were always singles, but in the days before the Internet, fans were sometimes "forced" to buy albums to get the music they wanted, even when most of the album's tunes weren't great. The hugely entertaining "The Great Debate: Singles vs. Albums" held last Monday at the New Music Seminar in NYC covered the issue in depth.
Robert Christgau, one of the first generations of professional "rock critics," was there to defend the album as an art form, but his admiration for great singles was never in doubt. He's always been drawn to "smart, catchy songs with a good beat," and an album is a collection of good songs.
He rates James Brown's 1965 single "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" as a game changer because "that's when funk went pop and rhythm established itself in the pop realm, and it was every bit as significant as Bob Dylan's lyrics and the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's' concept album." In that time the most adventurous bands like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane were making Top 40 hit singles, played on AM radio. The bands and their record labels had bigger ambitions than that, and saw the LP as a way to make more money.
Christgau has written more than 13,000 album reviews, and for each one he listens to the album between five and 10 times.
DigSin's CEO, Jay Frank, noted that singles outsell albums 11 to 1, and songs are the way people have wanted to hear music "since the dawn of time." He said people in churches didn't sing the entire hymnal front to back, they sang individual hymns. Today attention spans are shorter, and no one has time to listen to entire albums. He thinks that releasing more singles, spread out over time, keeps the fans better engaged.
Niles Hollowell-Dhar from the group Cataracs said that if a young band invests a year into making an album, they were insane; a great single might make a bigger difference, and he admitted he is biased because he credits all of his success to singles. His biggest one, "Like A G6," was a huge seller.
Billboard magazine's Bill Werde was quick to point out that there is a major generational divide aspect to the album vs. single story; the people listening on Spotify or YouTube rarely listen to albums. The over-40 set rarely listen to singles, and Christgau reminded the crowd that older people still buy albums.
Anand Wilder from Yeasayer was definitely on the pro-singles side. He said he thinks that CDs and LPs are outdated and no longer necessary. He won't shed a tear when the day comes and physical formats roll over and die, but I spotted LPs for sale on his Web site.
Jay Frank again took a more pragmatic tone, and pointed out that merely typing in an artist or band name into Pandora will unleash an endless string of singles, and that's why the album is on its last legs. Frank said he thinks that if artists focus on making great singles, they'll "win" because it's never been easier to access only the most popular songs on YouTube or other services. He summed up his argument by saying the business doesn't understand the music consumer and the business side needs to "wake up," and more fully embrace the singles market.
The thing I love about albums is that sometimes the songs that at first didn't jump out later become my favorites. Those tunes would never click as singles, but not everything has to be designed to catch the ear in just a few seconds. If the band has real talent, it should be able to put together 10 or 12 worthwhile tunes. What do you think? Do you prefer singles or albums? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.