Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Historically Important Format: Singles Then and Today

My adoration will never run out for this single.
Today, singles, regardless of medium, serve very little purpose for anyone but the diehard fan, and the likelihood of a purchase is usually based on any extra material included in the package. Unique cover art adorning each release is often fantastic and another reason to occasionally indulge in a nearly dead format, too. Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast 2005 re-press is an excellent example of this, with no silly sterile paper sleeve surrounding the record. But sadly, the majority of contemporary singles never find their way to a tangible setting in the first place.

For modern day, digital distribution is the single's new home. In the past--notably the fifties and sixties--the format enjoyed a brief renaissance, as rock bands pressed their music to 45s, making it easy to consume and spread. Nonetheless, musicians later began to focus on albums--essentially portfolios showcasing a greater body of work--as a creative outlet and left singles to gather dust in attics across the globe. Presumably, the format would never enjoy popularity again, but taking a look at the current mainstream industry proves otherwise: with the creation of digital stores like Apple's iTunes, individual songs have surged in popularity thanks to ease of access, videos promoting specific tracks, and a cheap admission price.

Singles make the radio go round and are ideal for quick digital distribution at a mere 99 cents per song. For metal and other music outside the mainstream eye, they serve another purpose as holders of bonus material or, at their best, standalone tracks separate from an existing discography. In this case, justifying a purchase is a much less stressful proposition because the centerpiece song is not found on an album, and bands consciously craft a quality product rather than clutter shelves for the sake of procuring money.

One of the more recent Iron Maiden singles, El Dorado.
Admittedly, I don't own many singles on vinyl or CD, but the ones I have are either classics or include B-sides that trump their spotlight-swathed counterparts. While not metal, Aya Kamiki's single, loosely translated as "Temptation Left You," holds an additional cut that obliterates the main track. For mainstream music, this is more common because the A-side is normally cookie cutter in nature with a backside song (if included at all) that sets foot outside the box.

For metal and other adventurous genres, the single can be quite different. Musicians involved in this type of music rarely release for the sake of releasing--the format is typically home to previously unreleased material or live cuts that cater to hardcore fans. The main distinction between the conventional single and ones by more focused groups are small details that make the vinyl, CD, or you-name-the-medium worth adding to the collection.

Iron Maiden is a perfect example. From golden oldies like The Number of the Beast to The Trooper, the bonuses lining each release serve as a support to an already strong song base, and a purchase often becomes a necessity. Even newer tracks like "Different World" are decent and go as far as a DVD single to promote the music video, song, and additional material. Volture's Rulebreaker is another excellent instance with a poster and two colorful vinyl choices to choose from. If a band and a label are creative enough to offer an innovative, unique package, I'm ready to line-up and purchase said product.

To all but serious music lovers, though, the single in the physical sense is non-existent in today's musically-confused world. In the foreseeable future, I see myself amassing a small collection of quality releases filled with only two to three tracks--and that's just the way I want it because they're a breeze to listen to and refreshing to pop in the CD player or spin on the turntable. And, of course, because they're incredibly fun to flip through and gaze at neat artwork.



  1. Nice piece (aside from Focus' "Hocus Pocus" - my hatred for that yodeling mess runs very deep). Would also be interesting to delve into what makes up notorious historical B-sides. I recall reading something on Queen and how, when they knew an A-side would be a hit, band members fought intensely for the B-side as its authors would receive matching royalties (their song having sold as many copies as its flipside) - back when B-sides existed and royalties happened...

    1. Thanks for reading.

      Queen is definitely an interesting band, and one I'd like to delve into more. In my eyes, the single is an invaluable format because it allows for a small sampling of material and can turn people into full-blown fans that purchase an album. And, as you said, give small perks like B-sides that often blow the main track away...

      As for royalties, well, I suppose artists benefit ever-so-slightly by having their music scrobbled to Last.fm or played on a variety of online radio stations. The pay might not be significant, but it's definitely still there, no matter how minute...