According to popular theory, the age of digital downloading spells the death of the compact disc and thus, by default, the death of the album. If so, then what's left? If the new model for distribution and consumption of rock/pop is now just song files purchased randomly for mp3 players, then it's not unreasonable to expect a rebirth of the single.
While disc sales have been in decline for several years, music download sites have proliferated, largely as legal "for profit" sites due to the aggressive arm of the major labels crushing peer-to-peer file-sharing sites. These pay-to-download sites seem eager to promote hit tracks, usually featuring their list of the week's top 10 downloaded songs. The home page of Napster.com, for example, has a hot button going directly to fully listenable versions (not just samples) of their top 10.
Historically, singles have never been a profit center for the record industry, but rather a tool for marketing albums. In the '60s and '70s, consumers enjoyed the A- and B-sides of vinyl 45 rpm records, but radio stations often received singles pressed with only the label's chosen hit A-side. Sometime in the late '80s, after the compact disc replaced the vinyl LP, the industry stopped manufacturing singles altogether (on vinyl, cassette or disc) except for specialty markets like club DJs. As product, the single has often been the bridesmaid and not the bride.
Though there haven't been substantial sales numbers for singles in the last 15 years, downloading has suddenly returned the sale of hit songs to a place of power on the charts. Singles are poised to be an essential profit engine that's much greater than ever imagined. Downloads of singles are now crucial to the Billboard charts, where the mighty Hot 100 has always been an amalgam of radio play and sales.
The single song file itself is today's driving mode of consumption. Even the indie obscurities of MySpace are presented and buzzed about as songs and demos. In the mainstream, American Idol finalists, like rocker Daughtry and country songstress Carrie Underwood, are guaranteed to have top-selling (that is, top-downloaded) songs.
Even with this reborn potential for sales, the single is still being viewed as a mere promo. Billboard notes in its explanation of chart data that "while the consumer's decision to purchase is a significant vote of popularity, singles have a job that extends beyond being a sales vehicle: to capture radio play and, hopefully, stimulate album sales." In a recent marketing ploy, iTunes begin offering reduced prices on full albums from which consumers had already purchased at least one track.
So this means the album isn't dead after all? More likely, the new music market model simply reaffirms the value of the hit. How else did we all get so much from Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," the first song to hit No. 1 based on downloads?
In his 1989 survey of 1,001 classic singles The Heart of Rock & Soul, music critic Dave Marsh noted, "In our society, there's an essential cultural need for a unitary, memorable musical motif. At some point . . . this desire may have been consciously manufactured by shrewd entrepreneurs or some other stratum of cultural manipulators, but it hardly seems eradicable today. There may have been societies in which people preferred long compositions evolving into one coherent theme . . . but that's not the case in any of the urban, industrial societies in which rock and roll is created and consumed."
That communal desire for immediacy anchors the opposing reactions my family had to a disc I burned last week of the top 10 downloaded songs on iTunes. "There isn't a 'Satisfaction' or a 'Born to Run' on there," my wife complained, sharing my generational bias toward significance. "I don't buy albums," commented my 19-year-old daughter. "I just download songs I hear that I like." They both want songs with impact. I enjoy top 10 singles like Akon's sensitive reggae-lite hit "Don't Matter" and Fall Out Boy's rocking "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race," knowing that there are many more strong single tracks, regardless of format, waiting to become hits.