Singles vs Albums

Two different views of the same issue are in my inbox this morning.

My friend Steve sent me this New York Times article which says labels are considering cutting back on singles to protect the sale of their albums.  The article cites two records, one from Ne-Yo that sold over 300,000 copies in the first week, and one from Chris Brown that sold half of that, about 150,000 in the first week.  The difference supposedly was that Ne-Yo’s label, Island Def Jam, did not sell the single, So Sick, digitally before the release of the record.

Steve Bartles of Def Jam is quoted in the story saying:

"If you know you have something of depth, you have to be careful about
how you bring it into the marketplace," he said. "We’re in the business
of having consumers believe in an artist. If everything is up and gone
before you have a chance to listen to the album, what do you have?"

Contrast that with Bob Lefsetz’ post on singles which was also in my inbox this morning.  Bob says that CDs are dead and aren’t coming back.  To quote from Bob:

The reason people no longer want CDs is not because they can steal the
music but because they no longer want the DISCS!  They’re superfluous.
Made to be almost instantly thrown away, like the CD longbox of yore.
They serve no purpose other than as a device from which songs are
transferred from the record company to your computer.

That is certainly my experience. We have a bunch of boxes full of CDs in our basement that are driving The Gotham Gal crazy.  She wants me to throw them out.  And its hard to argue with her (although I do).

Strictly as a consumer of music, I don’t agree with Bob or Steve from Def Jam on this one. I grew up listening to albums (on vinyl).  I love the album format and almost always purchase and listen to the entire album whether its in bits or atoms. And my kids also listen to albums.  Maybe because we listen to a lot of music in our house and we taught them to listen that way.  Who knows?

But holding back on the music to force consumers to buy the record is a dangerous place to go.  I have a friend who has been in the music business for years and he really dislikes the online channel because it allows consumers to purchase singles.  He says it is destroying the album format.  He has advised his artists at times to avoid putting their music online.

That doesn’t work because, like Led Zeppelin, if I can’t get the music in mp3 format legally, I certainly can get it in mp3 format illegally.  When the consumer wants the music, they’ll find it online.  Ideally in a legal manner.  But witholding a legal copy of the music from a fan is going to force them to get it another way.

As Tim Quick, from the Rhapsody music service says in the NY Times piece:

"The labels are shooting themselves in the foot, every single track that you are worried about is
available for free whether you want it to be or not. You need to take advantage of every possible opportunity for people to pay in legitimate ways."

Exactly.  I thought we had learned this lesson.  Apparently not.

UPDATE: Jason Chervokas has a good post on the same subject up on this blog.