When I started heavily purchasing music in the early 1990's, most songs on the radio (and plenty that weren't in favor with the Top 40 radio programmers) had singles available. If I liked a song on the radio, I could buy it in the record store. By the early 90's, the old-fashioned 7" single (the single on one side, the B-side on the other) was essentially dead in America. The most common singles available were cassette singles (two songs, just like the 7" single) and CD maxi-singles (which normally included multiple remixes of the single, plus a B-side or two). CD maxi-singles were fairly expensive, typically running about $6 then. Cassingles were cheaper, but then, they were cassettes. I bought quite a few of both.
Later, in the mid-90's, CD singles became more prominent, with two or three songs, and about half the price of the CD maxi-single. A promo CD single might run $1.99 or even less, clearly as a loss leader for the record company.
In the late 90's, singles began to fall out of favor with the record companies. A number of hit songs did not have singles available, which distorted the Billboard Hot 100, which had a policy that a song must have a commercial single release to be eligible to chart. For example, No Doubt's Don't Speak
didn't chart at all, even though it likely would have been a #1 song. The Rembrandts' I'll Be There For You
, another should-have-been-#1, had a lower chart position than it should have, due to it being released as a "B-side" of a single off the album LP
as the song's airplay was declining. Another common tactic was for a very limited single release to be done, less than 200,000 copies, just to secure chart eligibility. This tactic was used with Chumbawamba's Tubthumping
and Aqua's Barbie Girl
. It got so bad that a particularly evil corporation, Under the Covers
(Jerry Salerno), began releasing K-Tel-esque soundalikes with similar band names (all performed by Adam Marano), to IMO
cheat consumers who only wanted to buy a single or two.
Eventually, so few singles had single releases, Billboard changed their policies. And now, in the 2000's, very few singles not tied to the American Idol franchise sell. Those limited single releases I mentioned before? Selling half that amount would make it one of the best-selling singles of the year.
What was the rationale for the change? In addition to record companies not wanting to lose money on the average single, they feared cannibalizing album sales. What happened? The music industry entered a downturn. (Of course, the bigger problem was KaZaA and similar P2P programs exchanging .mp3s.)
One song I liked on the radio recently was No Doubt's It's My Life. This fine cover of a Talk Talk track I have on several 80's compilations was a new single from their greatest hits album, and the main reason for someone who already has No Doubt's albums to buy the greatest hits album. Had the song been available as a single, I would have bought it. Instead, I bought... nothing. It happens all the time. Without a single, I'm inclined to eventually forget about a song I like on the radio, not having bought anything from the artist.
And now, what do I get for Christmas, but a NOW compilation with that song included? So, instead of the record company getting money from me for the single, they get... well, not nothing, but whatever flat per-sale arrangement they have for the compilation.
Don't get me wrong. I love the NOW compilations. I owned several before the series came out in America, buying some of the British year-end compilations. I get a handful of songs I like, and a lot that I didn't know about, but end up liking. The American releases are not as good, in my opinion, probably because of the heavy focus on R&B that is not to my tastes.
I'm sure with multiplatinum sales, the record labels like the NOW compilations. But consider this: the argument against releasing singles could also be used to argue against contributing songs to these compilations. Why should I pay $16 for an album, to get one song, multiple times, when I can wait a few months, and buy a $16 album with five or six songs I like?