Paul Jackson Music

Paul Jackson Music

Saturday, 20 July 2013

#13: The Single

So this year I’ve finally realised that I don’t actually know what a single is anymore.
I can still go out and buy a physical single 7”, 12” or CD single, or buy a digital track, but the concept of the ‘single’ release by an artist is, for me at least, a bit of a mysterious grey area.
It’s not so much the choice of format because, be it a digital or analogue release, you are still buying the song you want and it is now far easier and more convenient to do so. Furthermore, the digital format is a more convenient way for people to listen to the song and a cheaper way for an artist to distribute their music.
But I’m quite fascinated by how that convenience has compromised other aspects of the ‘single’ that I’ve been so accustomed to over the years. Be they out of date, no longer relevant or no longer cost effective, it now leaves me wondering if or why I’m bothered as to which song is released as single.

The 7"
In the early days I only really knew about 7” vinyl singles and it was via TV, radio and magazines I would get to hear about these being released. On buying a 7” single you were presented with the main song and then a b-side song, or a remixed version of the a-side. The single would be promoted on the radio and on various TV shows, the ultimate accolade being the Top Of The Pops performance usually once the single had reached the charts. On BBC’s Saturday Superstore, Mike Reid would clutch a bunch of 7” singles telling you how you can win that week’s “Top Ten”.

The 12"
Thompson Twins "You Take Me Up" was released
in 1984 on 7",  2x12", 10" picture disc and 3x
interlocking 7" picture discs
Sometime later I spotted a 12” single at a friend’s house and thought it was an album. A Billy Joel single I think it was. Until that moment, I didn’t realise you could get ‘bigger’ singles. I would then look out for the 12” release of a record and would later opt for that instead of the 7” format. Sometimes I’d get both. The 12” would usually feature an extended version of the song with the main track in the middle of a lengthy introduction, and extra bits at the end. All bonus extras to the song you previously knew inside out. The b-side might feature the same b-side as on the 7”, or sometimes an alternative mix or even a new track altogether. The sleeve artwork would usually remain the same in just a bigger form.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood's
"The Power Of Love' in double
sleeved 7" and 12" plus a gatefold
12" release. 
A single would sometimes come in various limited edition formats. There maybe a gatefold sleeve, or a fold out poster sleeve, or one that came with a set of postcards, or even a picture disc version. I later discovered that more than one 12” single may be released with alternative versions and more experimental remixes.

By exploring discographies of various artists through magazines like Record Collector, I found a pattern emerging with certain record releases by certain artists: 
A couple of singles each with b-sides and 12" mixes, followed by an album featuring those singles, and then another couple of singles of songs remixed or re-edited from the album. Then the pattern starts over again. 

The singles would have accompanying promo videos and TV performances depending on the chart entry.
There may be some deviation from this pattern with some artists but it was one I observed more often than not.

The CD
The KLF released "3am Eternal" in 1989 and
1991 resulting in multiple 12" singles
The CD single later appeared with a smaller sleeve that to me was less exciting than the vinyl packaging. The writing was a lot smaller and it felt more of a pain to play. Well it was for me as I didn’t get a CD player until the early nineties. But the CD single format would usually follow the track-listing of the 12” single with the addition of the 7” a-side.
Later a band would choose to release 2 CD singles with some experiments in packaging by having both singles fit into one box or wallet.
Kraftwerk's "The Robots" on 7", 12"
and cd single
Due to restrictions on the number of chart eligible formats a band could release, some acts chose to release 2 CD singles instead of a 7” or 12" and soon artists would take advantage of the amount of music you could fit on a disc and start filling it up with lots of remixes of the main song onto a CD single.

Usually CD1 would feature the main song and a couple of b-sides (b-side now becomes a loose term) and maybe a remix, while CD2 would have a stream of remixes by various DJ’s sampling bits of the main song over a new backing track. I never always found these to be pleasurable listening experiences . Thirty minutes of remixes including dub versions of those remixes that hade very little trace of the original song became quite hard work to digest.
The ‘line-crossing’ moment for me was the release of The Lightning Seeds’ ” You Showed Me” in 1997. I had been a big fan of the group for a few years and would usually buy both CD single formats for each single release. But I stopped when they released “You Showed Me” for the reason I shall present in the form of the tracklisting for each CD single.
Lightning Seeds single
"You Showed Me"
CD1 “You Showed Me”
1 You Showed Me (Radio Edit)                
2 You Showed Me (Attica Blues Vocal Mix)
3 You Showed Me (Attica Blues Instrumental)
4 You Showed Me (Wiseguys Remix)
5 You Showed Me (Wiseguys Instrumental)
6 You Showed Me (Strike Twice Vocal Mix)
7 You Showed Me (Strike Twice Instrumental)      
CD2 “You Showed Me”
1  You Showed Me (Radio Edit)
2  You Showed Me (Tee's Alternative Mix) 
3  You Showed Me (Tee's Club Mix) 
4  You Showed Me (Tee's Freeze Mix) 
5  You Showed Me (TNT's Frozen Dub) 
6  You Showed Me (Bonus Beats)
7  You Showed Me (Tee's Radio) 

Well over an hour of listening to remixes of a Turtles cover, mostly bearing no relation to the original.
I stopped being, what my record buying friends would term, ‘a completist’ around that point.
The shrinking sleeve artwork and the stampede of club DJ mixes onto the commercial release with little quality control resulted in my affection for the single release diminishing a little.

The MP3
Fast forward a few years and the digital format has now taken precedence. It’s incredibly fast, easy to buy and very convenient to play on either computer or a mobile device. You don’t have to record your favourite tracks onto cassette to take out and about with you in the car or on a Walkman. You can either drag the file into the relevant folder on the relevant device, or even buy the track straight onto your phone. And while vinyl releases have since started growing again with more bands going back to 7” and 12” releases and more collectible Record Store Day releases, it seems the digital release is at the forefront with or without an accompanying physical release. The digital release of several tracks to accompany the main song has the horrible title of “digital bundle” which I’m sure could be improved upon.
A consequence of this is that a track can be made available and chart eligible outside any sort of promoted release date. A few years ago a technical error by one online store resulted in all the tracks on an Arctic Monkeys albums being individually chart eligible and appearing in the Top 40. Although later rectified, this did raise the question of what constitutes a single release if you can make any track eligible for the chart if you want to. Now you get YouTube videos being made to promote a song which you can then buy on iTunes without it being clear if it’s actually a ‘single’ release or not. While Pet Shop Boys are due to release the single "Vocal" from their new album, they had already made one track, "Axis", available to buy as a download prior to the album. However without the usual promotion surrounding a single release, the song is now engraved on their discography listing as their worst chart placing to date. 

Johnny Marr's album 
"The Messenger"
In November 2012, Johnny Marr's song "The Messenger" appeared as a YouTube video to promote his forthcoming album, though it wasn't actually a single. Yet the YouTube video was there to do the same promotional task. 
So whereas years ago the single was created to promote the album, then later a video was created to promote the single, nowadays the lines are so blurred that a track can be watched as a video on the web, or downloaded in a digital store regardless of whether it is promoted as a single release or not.

For certain artists some formats may not be cost effective to produce and sell, or a ‘single’ release may not be as relevant as it once was.
Then again, not only does it allow the artist to release and promote a track on their own terms and in their own time,  it also allows fans to promote a track themselves without any input or influence from a record label or even the artist.
Public Enemy's 2007 single
"Harder Than You Think"
was revived in 2012
An online campaign saw Rage Against The Machine achieve a Christmas number one in an attempt to prevent The X Factor winning single getting there. It also saw a Public Enemy single from 2007 achieve a high chart position thanks to its use in TV coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games and a simple ‘buy this track’ link appearing in the right places. And instead of the one high chart entry and then a sudden drop seen by a lot of singles in the last couple of decades, this one moved upwards and upwards; like records used to do some twenty to thirty years ago. It wasn’t solely dependent on a certain number of physical copies being made available in certain places on a certain date, nor a promotional campaign by the band or label.
Perhaps this elimination of record label control over what records are made available and when, what deals are struck in record shops, or what influence pluggers have with radio stations might be a good thing for a lot of artists and their fans.

While on one hand I like the idea of fans and artists having the freedom to control their own promotional campaigns online and choice of songs to release and chart, on the other I still like record labels putting out a nicely packaged 12” picture disc edition in gatefold, double sleeve with a specially chosen b-side track and a couple of remixes. Perhaps we can have both.