Feeding the Machine: Are You Releasing Enough Music to Have a Real Career?

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This story first appeared in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, October 7, 2013.

Welcome back to singles culture. A survey of history reveals a familiar pattern. And a few good ideas about what musicians should be focusing on now.

An early "Record Album." In this case, Bing Crosby's White Christmas. Click to buy.

Early “record albums” were actually collections of previously released singles. Pictured here is Bing Crosby’s best-selling 1945 album, White Christmas. Though it consisted of ten songs on five 78 rpm records, all of which had been already been released, it went on to sell 15 million copies anyway.

For about 40 years, the full-length album has been assumed to be the “default” method for releasing music in the minds of most musicians and fans.

At first glance, the numbers seem to back this up. When you look at gross sales, it’s easy to see that albums—not singles or EPs—kept the record industry afloat for as long as most of us can remember.

But wasn’t always that way. Back at the dawn of the vinyl age, and for many years afterward, sales of recorded music were driven by singles.

This is a dynamic that’s reemerging today in the world of digital music. As young music listeners continue to flock to web-based streaming services for their music fix, a strategy of releasing a steady stream of singles is likely to be a better approach for new artists than releasing full-length albums all in one go.

If anything, this seems to be a natural stage in the development of almost any mass-market artistic medium. Ambitious, full-length albums may once again become a sustainable place for new artists to start in the future. But if history is any guide, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Fortunately, history also offers a few suggestions about what new artists can do now to have a decent shot at launching their careers in today’s musical economy.

The “Album” as a Collection of Singles

Most of today’s music fans aren’t even aware of just how literal the term “album” was in the beginning.

When they were first introduced, a record album was much like a photo album: It was a multi-page, hardbound book or box set, comprised of a collection of several 45 or 78 rpm singles.

Most of these singles would have been previously-released hits, but there was a small market for these “record albums” anyway. Artists knew that many fans might have missed out on some of their singles when they were first released. And to sweeten the pot, artists soon began including a few extra bonus songs that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

This kind of pattern shows up again and again throughout the history of media. In the digital age, many successful popular artists are taking an almost identical approach to that of the early recording artists: They’re focusing on creating a steady stream of short, immediately available works, and then bundling the best of them together, adding a few key extras, and offering them up for sale.

If you decide to re-frame your thinking in this way, you’ll be in good company. Early on, all the major hits by The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Motown, Elvis and Bing Crosby were distributed successfully as singles long before they were bundled together into albums. They then targeted those multi-disc “record albums” at hardcore fans who were created by their steady stream of great singles.

Analogs are Everywhere

We can see this kind of pattern emerge in any number new media formats, from antiquity right up into the internet age.

The rise of feature films piggybacked on the success of short films and newsreels. Those shorts in turn, grew out of the popularity of the super-short one-offs featured in coin-operated nickelodeons.

Without the appetite created by the nickelodeons, and without the distribution channels and movie theaters created by the shorts and newsreels, there would be no eventual Citizen Cane, no There Will Be Blood, no Star Wars or E.T or The Departed.

Similarly, the great novels of Charles Dickens were serialized in newspapers long before they were ever bundled into “books.” This turned into the default approach for popular authors of the Victorian age because it was the only thing that made any damn economic sense at the time.

Authors would publish new chapters of their books weekly or monthly in the growing newspapers. This gave them a regular stream of income, the ability gauge readers’ interest, and the opportunity to keep their work incredibly timely and relevant.

Later on, publishers would repackage the best of these serialized works into “book” form, and sell them to a larger audience.

However, it was only after the creation of this new, paying audience for long-form works that artists began flocking in droves to write new full-length novels, ultimately bypassing the serialization process entirely.

But that took at least a full generation, and even then, serialization didn’t disappear completely for some time.

History Repeating

Image by Flickr User "Dave Nicholas"

Image by Flickr user “Dave Nicholas”

We can see this same pattern emerging in today’s blogosphere. Looking at the latest generation of best-selling authors, we see that many of them turn out to be bloggers who found ways to make their day-to-day writing sustainable, and then repackaged their early work into book form.

Examples of this are everywhere, from the comics of The Oatmeal, to the financial self-improvement books of Ramit Sethi, to the marketing guides of Seth Godin.

That great works on the literary side of things are as of yet, late to the party, should be as unsurprising as it is unfortunate.

Dickens didn’t begin writing his first major work, The Pickwick Papers, until more than a decade after ad-supported “mercantile newspapers” became widely available, and three years after the subscription-based “penny papers” began to take off.

If you can’t see the parallels to the internet age in that, I don’t know what I can say to help you figure all this out.

The Evolution of Recorded Music

Music wasn’t immune to this dynamic back in the heyday of physical recordings, and it’s not immune today, either.

When it came to physical albums, the industry’s first step was to create an infrastructure to distribute, promote and sell low-cost singles. This helped grow a new audience for recorded music, and paved the way for the rise of the full-length albums many years later.

If you wanted to get involved in the recorded music world from its birth up until the late 1960s, you needed to try and make your way in by feeding the machine with a steady stream of singles.

Only once you were successful at this could you even begin to think about going through the expense of packaging your material into full-length albums. There’s little sense in making a career investment of that scale if you have no realistic chance of earning it back in some way or another.

And that’s exactly the stage that digital music is in now.

Today, we’re still creating and figuring out this new infrastructure. In the physical era, a long time passed between the creation of the old infrastructure and the point at which anybody could expect to make a dime by focusing on full-length “albums.” (Especially at the start of their careers.) Why should we expect it to be any different in the digital domain?

Soundscan reports that in 2012, there were about 1.4 billion digital music purchases in total. Roughly 100 million of those sales went to digital albums. That’s a ratio of about 13 to 1 – and that’s not even counting the huge footprint of singles-driven streaming services like Spotify and YouTube which are arguably among the dominant music “newspapers” of today.

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