Once More, With Loathing: Are Labels Moving To Kill The Single Again?

americanboy.jpgLast Friday, one of the regular commenters on my “100 and Single” column poured cold water all over my prediction that Estelle’s “American Boy” might finally creep into the U.S. Top 10. Noted regular reader ukidol, “Estelle’s song has been removed from iTunes since the start of the week, so she’ll drop sharply in the next chart. Think they’re hoping for a Kid Rock-style album boost.”

We won’t find out how Estelle fared until the new Hot 100 appears later today, but yesterday’s release of SoundScan figures bears out ukidol’s prediction. “American Boy,” which the prior week was the sixth-best selling digital song in the country, fell to 64th, as its sales took a 78% tumble from 86,700 copies to 19,100 copies. (Presumably, virtually all of those 19,100 copies sold in the first day or two of the tracking week before the song got pulled from iTunes.)

As of last week, “American Boy” was at No. 11 on the big chart. While the radio half of the Hot 100’s sales-plus-airplay formulation might keep the song from falling out of the Top 40, no amount of radio growth will keep it from dropping at least a double-digit number of slots–if not this week, then the next.

But that’s a small price for Estelle’s U.S. label, Atlantic Records, to pay if pulling the single has the (presumably) desired effect: giving her a gold album. So far, in the States, Estelle’s album Shine has sold 95,000 copies.

Kid Rock is exactly the right comparable to invoke here, especially since both Estelle and the Kid are on the Craig Kallman-run, Edgar Bronfman-owned Atlantic. Warner Music Group told the Wall Street Journal that the removal of “American Boy” from iTunes was part of a digital-release plan where the label honchos would figure out strategies “uniquely tailored to each artist and their fan base in an effort to optimize revenues and promote long-term artist development.”

Of course, when labels toy with a new sales-and-promotional model for one act, it’s not a stretch to assume they’ll try it again with another. Consider EMI Records in 1990. They were behind the year’s biggest pop breakthrough, in crossover dance-rapper M.C. Hammer; and the second-biggest, in Hammer’s tourmate and pop-rap contemporary Vanilla Ice. Each enjoyed a chart-topping album with blockbuster sales–Hammer’s on Capitol, Vanilla’s on the now-defunct SBK, both distributed by EMI. Each act achieved those sales via a massive rap-pop hit fueled by an instantly recognizable classic-pop sample. And finally, each topped the album chart, in no small part, thanks to EMI’s strategic withholding of those two big hits from the singles market.

As I explained in a recent “100 and Single,” Capitol forced fans of Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” to buy his Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em album by only releasing the song in the spring of 1990 as a 12-inch vinyl single. The result: a 21-week-chart-topping, 10-times-platinum album. Their tactic that fall with Vanilla Ice was different, but similarly diabolical: the Queen/David Bowie-fueled “Ice Ice Baby” was released in the popular cassingle format and charged up the Hot 100, but once SBK knew the song was poised to top the chart, the “Baby” single was deleted. The result: the song spent only one week at No. 1, but on the album chart Ice’s To the Extreme shot to No. 1 and stayed there 16 weeks, shipping 4 million copies out of the gate and eventually going septuple-platinum.

In short, EMI produced two back-to-back smash albums, first by withholding the big hit from the most popular singles medium altogether, and the second time by pulling the big hit from the market just as it peaked.

I have long posited 1990 as the year that launched the Great War Against The Single, a decade-long campaign that saw endless casualties (not least, the consumer’s wallet) and didn’t end until the Rebel Alliance that was Napster and the Versailles Treaty that was iTunes.

Now, in 2008, it appears that Atlantic is attempting to start the War all over again, and they’re doing it by replicating EMI’s first two strategic moves from 1990, verbatim. (Insert joke about history repeating as farce here.) If Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” never released on iTunes, is Atlantic’s new “U Can’t Touch This,” then “American Boy” is their new “Ice Ice Baby.”

I am deeply depressed by the prospect of repeating the 1990s pattern again. As a public service, I thought I might warn you all what we have to look forward to, assuming all the other phases come to pass during the 2010s–here’s how the 1990s went down:

The Market-Test Phase (1990-1991): Embodied by the Hammer and Vanilla Ice singles, as described above.

The Rockers as New Zeppelins Phase (1991-1994): In which the labels use the advent of a new rock genre, alternative, as an excuse to exhume 1970s rockist practices and not release new rock songs–even the biggest radio hits–as singles. During this phase, every leading grunge and post-post-punk act, from Pearl Jam to Soundgarden to Alice in Chains to Smashing Pumpkins to Green Day, released no singles. (The exception: Nirvana.) The result: Ten becomes the biggest-selling album of the grunge boomlet, outselling even Nevermind. (Dookie comes close.)

By the mid-’90s, fan-friendly rockers like Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan realize their U.S. fans are getting fleeced, often paying top dollar for import singles, and insist that their labels release their new radio hits (and some catalog) as singles. Relenting at the rockers’ insistence, the labels then move on to…

The Big-Pop Phase (1996-1998): In which more obviously Top 40-bound acts with insanely catchy singles are withheld from the singles market. Big game starts to appear during this phase, songs so ubiquitous on pop radio–”I’ll Be There for You,” “Don’t Speak,” “Killing Me Softly,” “Lovefool,” “Fly,” “Iris”–that consumers are bewildered to find themselves forced to pony up $16 for a full-length CD. It starts with developing pop acts (respectively, the Rembrandts, No Doubt, the Fugees, the Cardigans, Sugar Ray, the Goo Goo Dolls), but by 1998, even long-established pop acts like Janet Jackson are having singles withheld on a case-by-case basis.

The One-Hit Wonder Phase (1997-2000): In which the labels get so successful at their no-singles tactics, and so greedy, that they begin thinking, Maybe we can get a multiplatinum album from an act for whom we have no intention of ever releasing more than one single. Amazingly–and due in no small part to a booming U.S. economy–it works: millions of consumers willingly pay just shy of a Hamilton for full-length CDs from Chumbawamba, Natalie Imbruglia, Aqua, Everlast, Lou Bega and Eiffel 65. (Say what you want about the boy bands during this phase, at least most of them had multiple hits. In retrospect, Backstreet Boys’ Millennium was a far better value than Tubthumper, the album.)

After 2000, the commercial single was essentially dead for everyone except American Idol winners, until the launch of iTunes in 2003. You know the story from there.

The sad fact of all these phases in the War On Singles is that the labels were, if craven, also correct: withholding singles does force a certain sucker-subset of your audience to pay for the full-length. It’s a truism that holds to this day, as Kid Rock’s Rock N Roll Jesus moves up to No. 2 on the album chart, nearly matching the No. 1 peak of the disc’s debut week last fall.

As for Estelle, Atlantic’s tactic doesn’t appear to be working, at least not yet: the same week her single became unavailable, her album Shine fell 24 spots on the album chart and sold 16% fewer copies (about 4,200) than it did the week prior. That said, these things take time to be reflected in the market, and we might see the Estelle album stage a comeback and reach a new peak in the weeks to come.

Whatever happens to her and the Kid, the labels can’t go home again to the iron-fisted control they enjoyed a decade ago. Not just with file-traders, who are doubtlessly sharing millions of illegal copies of “All Summer Long” and “American Boy” as we speak. No, I mean even iTunes will trip them up this time: remember that tacky remake of “All Summer Long” by quick-buck cover group the Hit Masters? Last week, it sold 95,000 copies, making it the fifth best-selling digital download in the country.

So much for reigniting the war.


  1. dyfl  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    I firmly believe they need another hit off that Estelle album if there’s even a hope that people will go out and buy it. I honestly think iTunes has blown enough holes in the “might as well buy the album” mindset that it can be considered completely dead. The same demographic who would’ve just bought the album ten years ago are now the demo who will leave one-star reviews on the album’s listings, headlined ITUNES WHY CANBT I BUY AMERICAN BOY?!?????!!!!!!!

    Anyway, why the hell haven’t they pushed “So Much Out The Way” yet? That song owns.

  2. the rich girls are weeping  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    I just read the WSJ article and knew there would be something brewing over here — thx Idolator.

    I smell something about race/class/geography brewing here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. To whit:

    A Warner Music Group spokesman, Will Tanous, acknowledges that the label removed the album from iTunes. In a written statement, he called the removal part of a broad range of digital-release strategies “uniquely tailored to each artist and their fan base in an effort to optimize revenues and promote long-term artist development.”

    Her fanbase? For reals? Read: Black people don’t buy music on the internet. Get with the program, Warner — I’m no statistician/market research guru, but I think this is probably not true.

    Anway, I guess we can all agree that it was absolutely stupid, stupid, stupid to remove Estelle from iTunes (especially when “American Boy” was in the top-10 there) and potentially damaging to her sales overall. I don’t see this leading to a Vanilla Ice sales blowup for her album — even though the thing as a whole is rather good.

  3. jetblackturd  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    Wow – the chonology of the death of the single is really something when you see it laid out in point form like that…The more evidence i see of the web of deceit woven by the record industry, the more I think the illegal downloading crisis is deserved… I still buy whole albums on iTunes tho.

  4. Al Shipley  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    [i]During this phase, every leading grunge and post-post-punk act, from Pearl Jam to Soundgarden to Alice in Chains to Smashing Pumpkins to Green Day, released no singles. (The exception: Nirvana.) [/i]

    Acknowledging that your overall point is true, I have to argue this: Pearl Jam definitely released domestic CD singles for some of their early hits. I remember buying a lot of them at non-import prices, and Wikipedia verifies that they were released in the U.S. But they were also the band that turned their backs on MTV, which led to radio playing whatever song they wanted off of some of their albums, since there was no video for any of them anyway (especially Vitalogy, which had 3 official singles, none of which were its biggest hits, “Better Man” and “Corduroy”).

  5. Chris Molanphy  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Al Shipley: Acknowledging that your overall point is true, I have to argue this: Pearl Jam definitely released domestic CD singles for some of their early hits. I remember buying a lot of them at non-import prices

    You did-in 1995 or thereafter. Not in 1992.

    Around the time of Vitalogy, Vedder rebelled over diehard U.S. fans paying $10 and up for import singles and told Sony (a) that radio songs like “Spin the Black Circle” should be released as U.S. singles, and (b) to mass-release all of PJ’s early singles, complete with their original European/Asian cover art (remember the “Jeremy” photo of the little girl holding the gun?), to U.S. retailers.

    What that Wikipedia article fails to mention is that “Jeremy” made its bizarre Hot 100 appearance (peaked at No. 79, on the chart for nine weeks) in 1995, entirely because of the belated U.S. single release. It was eligible to chart then, because it had never charted on the Hot 100 before (obviously, it made Modern Rock in ‘92) and Billboard considered it still current enough.

    Sorry, I didn’t want to belabor that point, but that’s what I meant by the Vedder-and-Corgan paragraph. The Pumpkins also had Virgin go back and reissue Siamese Dream-era songs as singles later. And starting with Mellon Collie/”Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” you could buy SP songs as regular-priced U.S. singles.

  6. Ned Raggett  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @dyfl: I honestly think iTunes has blown enough holes in the “might as well buy the album” mindset that it can be considered completely dead.

    I don’t know, I actually think this is suggesting (at least with Kid Rock, so there is that) that it ISN’T completely dead, that there can be coexistence.

    This whole piece was so good I started writing a comment for here and then realized I was turning it into a huge blog ramble, so I just put it up on my site.

  7. Chris Molanphy  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Ned Raggett: Just read your blog — great counterpoint, and touché on a couple of your conclusions. Thanks a million.

    (Also, I loved this: “In a strange, disconnected way, this is almost the highest profile incarnation of the supposed rush back to vinyl releases going on, the implication that music must have value in the strict sense of physical possession of the object, paid for as released and priced in the current market.”)

    While I’m back here commenting, an update, which I’ll delve into tomorrow in the column: “American Boy” plummets from No. 11 to No. 37 on the new Hot 100. And debuting at No. 85 is a new digital insta-cover of “American Boy”! This one’s by the “Studio All-Stars.” (Back in 1997, they probably would’ve called the artist “Esteva” or “Estrella” or something like that.)

  8. Al Shipley  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Chris Molanphy: Oh OK. I thought something like that happened, but Wiki was pretty unclear about that.

  9. Ned Raggett  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Chris Molanphy: No worries! Glad you liked it.

  10. revmatty  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    I worked music retail in the late 80’s and earl/mid 90’s. In our chain at least (Wherehouse) the product managers and store managers were constantly pestering the label reps for more singles and asking why we couldn’t get more copies of this or that song in a single rather than full album format. The reps were generally loathe to give a straight answer and were even cagey about handing out promo singles to play in store. They were perfectly happy to give us the full album to play in store, but not a single even when I could see a stack of them sitting on the shelf behind their desk.

    This was also the period when Wherehouse started dealing in used CDs and Sony declared that they would not accept ANY opened returns from us anymore claiming that their manufacturing process was flawless and they produced no bad disks (typically labels allowed between 5-10% RTV for defects at the time). The same week Sony recalled several hundred thousand units of several big albums for manufacturing defects.

    To summarize: In the 6-7 years I worked music retail I learned the labels are evil and not to be trusted.

  11. Chris Molanphy  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Al Shipley: Cool. One last thing I think you’ll find interesting, which I should’ve mentioned in the comment above…

    For the entirety of its brief, strange 1995 chart run, the PJ single was listed as “Jeremy/Yellow Ledbetter.” Which, I’m totally confident, is the real reason that single sold enough copies to chart all those years later–it was the first time “Ledbetter” had ever been available at normal-priced U.S. retail, and in the subsequent three years, as I’m sure you know, it had become not just a fan favorite but a huge radio-gold rotation monster.

    In fact, I kind of don’t know why Billboard didn’t list the single as “Yellow Ledbetter/Jeremy,” as per their A/B-sides policy in the mid-’90s of listing whichever song was receiving the most airplay first.* I mean, I remember pretty firmly that by 1995 or so, on my local radio stations, “Jeremy” was a rock-radio recurrent but “Ledbetter” (and “Black”) were getting played like near-new hits even on my Top 40 station. Anyway, go figure.

    * – For example, in 1997, the big smash Elton John song for Princess Diana started its life listed on the Hot 100 as “Candle in the Wind 1997/Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” but then flipped the other way halfway through its No. 1 run, because A/C and Top 40 radio were actually playing “Something” but had long stopped playing the Diana-tribute tune.

  12. Anonymous  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    The thing with Estelle is, they didn’t just make the single album-only – they deleted the album from iTunes altogether. Given the declining popularity of CDs, do they really think this going to increase album sales?

  13. Maura Johnston  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @therighthandofnixon: And doesn’t allowing the album to sell for $6.99 as an Amazon download make WMG look like it’s just throwing a tantrum, and not really interested in maximizing profit?


  14. Maura Johnston  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Maura Johnston: (also, according to a reviewer, the version on amazon is the clean version, although that isn’t marked anywhere on the product page)

  15. the rich girls are weeping  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Ned Raggett: Good entry — and thanks for the cite.

    What I kind of chickened out from saying in my original comment is that would follow that the other thing that isn’t being said here is that the white, blue collar audience (er, Kid Rock listeners) don’t buy music online either. The difference, of course, being that this assumption has apparently been part of the strategy from the beginning (I’m sure someone somewhere has numbers that break down iPod ownership, car stereo buying habits, etc. for this demo — or I guess they do). I wish I could see a breakdown of where Kid Rock’s sales are coming from, though I can make a pretty good guess given the limited number of places left to buy an album that’s not iTunes. By which I mean: Wal-Mart.

  16. the rich girls are weeping  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    Weird aside: does anyone have any numbers (solid or anecdotal) about the rate of iTunes sales to soldiers stationed in Iraq?

  17. the rich girls are weeping  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @the rich girls are weeping: and Afghanistan?

  18. Anonymous  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Maura Johnston: Yeah, I noticed that, too. It’s possible that they just haven’t gotten around to deleting in on Amazon yet, or that they consider Amazon’s download service marginal and don’t think it will affect CD sales much. Whatever the case, I’m at least glad that this affair might lead a few more iTunes users to DRM-free alternatives.

  19. Chris Molanphy  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Maura Johnston:

    I’d actually throw it into the large pool of things the labels are doing to boost Amazon at iTunes’ expense, from no DRM (18 months after Steve Jobs’s let’s-drop-the-DRM letter) to cheaper pricing. I bet Atlantic keeps the Estelle album on there for a while, as an experiment at best, a fuck-you to Jobs at worst.

  20. loudersoft  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    @Chris Molanphy: I’m bookmarking this post so I can refer to it through the progression of artists that get milked out of the major label system. It’s stunningly accurate in its assessment of the time line and the procedural backroom dealings by those running the show.

    The labels are (as always) just playing games as they wait out the birth of some new technological revolution, one in which they control the means and method by which music is distributed and, ultimately, played by consumers. The question I have is whether or not the game they’re playing is one in which they are maximizing their profits based on consumer trending or, conversely, attempting to manipulate consumer trending based on the projects (or products, to them) that they have the most financial control over. That is to say, projects where the artist has been paid so little and relinquished enough front-end control over the finished recordings that labels can afford to sink much more money into the marketing & promotion..

    Anyways, now I’m going to go read Ned’s post on the matter.

  21. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    Where does the “Now that’s what I call music” series fit into this recent history of the single? Isn’t the series just a way of selling a whole bunch of singles on one cd (and promoting some lesser-known artists in the process)?

    Of course, maybe the series started this decade, in which case, nevermind.

  22. D.R. Mosby  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    I think that one factor that differs significantly from the situation in the 90’s (as laid out in the Chris’ timeline) is that the consumer has so much more access to critical opinion on albums now than was the case back then.

    In those days (and before), if you heard a song on the radio that you liked, you might want to know whether the whole album was just as good (= worth buying) – especially if the song was not released as a single. The primary sources of critical opinion back then were largely newspapers and magazines, and even with these you might only get the opinion of a handful of reviewers. The smaller the pool of reviews, the less information you had go by, possibly leading to some regrettable purchases (First Band on the Moon, anyone?)

    So, with such little information available to the consumer, record companies were more capable of sneaking a one-hit wonder past an ill-informed public. Now, of course, mp3 blogs and sites like Metacritic allow us to sample the opinion of a lot reviewers at once, and we can get a better sense of whether an entire album is worth purchasing.

    Which brings us to the case of Kid Rock – I’d say he’s fairly critic-proof, so for him, it may be a smart strategy to put the consumer in an all-or-nothing position with regards to buying his album. The person who digs “All Summer Long” probably isn’t going to wonder what the Village Voice has to say about Rock N Roll Jesus.

    For emerging artists (like Estelle), however, perhaps this approach isn’t such a bright idea, since a consumer might do more research to find out whether the whole album is worth buying. If the collective critical opinion is that the single is the only bright spot on the album, then the consumer might just skip it and spend his or her entertainment dollar elsewhere.

  23. Dick Laurent is dead.  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    Good article- I have nothing further to add that hasn’t already been addressed in the comments.

  24. baconfat  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    Another factor to consider during the rise of the alternative 90s: there was no MAP in place until 1995, meaning it wasn’t too difficult to pick up hot new releases at big box retailers for anywhere from $8-11 per disc. Lots of people did this, figuring that no matter if the rest of the disc sucked, they hadn’t spent too much coin on it. These people (and their younger siblings) got into the habit so much that by the time of the Big-Pop and One-Hit Wonder phases, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal that no singles were available and the prices had crept up to $13-19/disc. Only the die-hard R&B and Country listening contingents seemed to raise too much of a stink about it at the time as I recall.

  25. Captain Wrong  |   Posted on Aug 28th, 2008

    I really like this column. Thanks.

  26. Anonymous  |   Posted on Aug 29th, 2008

    great column. I admit when the Kid Rock track was held, I dismissed it as a fluke, since he hadn’t released any of his music via iTunes. The Estelle thing is the kicker.

    I bought “American Boy” actually at the Zune Store (yes, I have a Zune, and yes, I love it). It still shows in the store, but as “in collection”, so i’m not sure if it’s available there (though the remixes definitely are). It’s a stupid marketing concept (the retract of singles) because,

    1) I did buy the single then bought the physical album..
    2) others won’t really give a hoot to buy in unless they’re a rabid Estelle fan, otherwise they’ll forget the song in 2 weeks when the next pop thing is out.

    It’s a cheat to force up album sales despite any quality (not saying Estelle’s album is unworthy), since at least in the 80s albums “earned” their sales by having 3-5 singles on them.


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