Perfect Sound Forever

No Single, No Sale

Steve Cooper (July 1997)

There is something sorely missing in today's music scene. It is something that past generations have not only enjoyed, but have used to define their "time in the sun," their youth. This "something" is the singles market. "45s", if you will. "RPMs," that is.

I mean how do we determine what is a "hit single" today? Not by sales. CD "singles" hardly sell at all--they're used more for promotion for the full-length CDs that they are culled from. The so-called "Top Singles" of today are solely a reflection of radio station airplay, and the only stations concerned with heavy rotation of "singles" are rap/R&B stations. Hence, names like the Spice Girls and Puff Daddy show up on the "Top Singles" list you see in your newspaper. I would wager that 99% of the people in the country have never heard of the Spice Girls, Puff Daddy, nor their "hit" singles.

Now, I could wax nostalgic here (no pun intended) and tell you about the good old days when a kid with a buck in his pocket could purchase the latest Capitol Records, black-and-orange-labeled 45 by a group called "The Beatles" (perhaps you've heard of them). And, that kid would get 23 cents change back. That single would only become a "top single" only if it sold enough units. Therefore, a generation, through its purchasing choices, determined its musical backdrop.

No, my purpose here is not to talk about how much better it was "back then." My purpose is to bemoan the fact that a new, great song today has no way of being confirmed as a new, great song. Oh, yeah, I'm forgetting MTV. The main problem with MTV is that a great video is not necessarily a great song (and vice versa). How many of you have purchased a song based on hearing and seeing it on MTV only to get the thing home and discover that, strictly musically speaking, the song wasn't that good? (Raise your hands if you have "99 Luftballoons" somewhere deep in the nether-reaches of your closet.)

So, who is to blame for this musical marketing dilemma? Better technology? Not really. Beta VCRs are better technology than VHS VCRs and how many of us own a Beta VCR? Was it a lack of demand? Did the demand for singles die before the format was discontinued? No. The 45 singles market, though not as robust as before, still thrived into the late 1980s. Therefore, the culprit has to be (prepare to hiss) the music industry. Discontinuing the singles market was "a corporate decision" and, as with many corporate decisions, the corporations have shot themselves in their collective, corporate foot. Music sales are down. Way down. Of course they are! The industry took its main vehicle for promoting music and scrapped it!

Radio stations have been left out in the cold. That's why they now change formats as often as they change socks. There is no barometer to tell them what music to play. If you have a favorite new song, where do you tune to hear it? How do the radio stations know that you even want to hear it? To connect with their communities, radio stations now have to resort to various promotional gimmicks and on-site broadcasts. The more natural connection of musical supply and demand has been taken away from them.

The solution is simple: bring back the singles market. If that means the industry has to sell CD singles for a buck, then so be it. I understand it's cheaper to make aluminum CDs than it is to make vinyl 45s anyway. So, what's the hold up? Don't they want their business to grow?

I'll close this article full of questions with one final illustrative question: If "Louie Louie" came out today, where would it go?