Album Artists, Single Artists & Why Both Need to Ditch The Old Rules

Everybody likes to talk about the genre divides in music today and how this places creative restrictions on artists, but to me there’s an even greater divide and it’s causing a much greater restriction on music creators: artists who focus on albums and artists who focus on singles.

Artists who focus on albums are usually independent/independent-minded artists (with occasional exceptions in the mainstream like Adele, Chris Stapleton, Beyoncé, etc.) that don’t get radio attention or rack up a lot of streams. Albums are meant to draw people to live shows, where they make their money. Typically their fans are more hardcore music listeners. Think artists like Kacey Musgraves, Cody Jinks, Carly Rae Jepsen and Freddie Gibbs.

Artists who focus on singles are usually mainstream/mainstream-aspirant artists that have had radio/mainstream success and/or do really well on streaming platforms. In other words they’re really popular. While they also make most of their money off live shows and hope to lure fans with big singles to them, they make a good chunk of change off the singles sales and streams too. Typically their fans are more casual music listeners. Think artists like Drake, Luke Bryan, Shawn Mendes and Post Malone.

(And yes not everyone will fit exactly into one of these two groups. But for most music listeners, if you think about your listening habits, you know you mostly fall into one of these two groups most of the time.)

This wasn’t always like this in music. It used to be purely singles driven. It wasn’t until the 1960s with artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Beach Boys started to take their albums seriously front to back that it prompted a wide-spread attitude change towards the concept of albums. It was standard practice up until this point to put out an album with a few singles and then literally put filler in the rest. Listen to early albums from The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as even they engaged in it. But then they put out legendary records like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and everybody decided to put out serious albums, at least for a little while.

Through the 70s and 80s this died down and more artists started to focus back towards singles, while there were still plenty who focused on albums too. But both still pushed albums equally. Then we get to the 90s and early 2000s, where album and music sales reached their absolute peak. Also known as when you had to drive to Walmart and pay $20 for a CD and you only knew two songs on it, praying that you didn’t just flush $20 down the drain (often times you did). Then along came Napster and the Internet and then everything in music changes. It became much friendlier towards fans, as we could now listen to music before buying and led to the streaming-driven music world we have today.

I give this little history lesson to demonstrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But also how some things haven’t changed, yet should. I’m referring to the fact that album artists are still being forced to release singles and singles artists are still being forced to release albums. It’s a huge hinderance on creativity. Why is the music industry forcing these artists to fit a square peg into a round hole?

On one side you have album artists like Sturgill Simpson, who don’t give a shit about singles because they know they’re not going to get enough attention from them to generate the amount of sales and streams needed to justify it, yet they’re forced to do the standard single release plus album announcement, followed by a month or more of PR and other unnecessary bullshit before finally dropping the album. All while the album has been ready for release for months.

On the other side you have single artists like Drake and Post Malone, who really don’t give a shit about albums because they know their bread and butter is made by releasing catchy singles that net huge airplay and streams. But yet they’re still forced to release so many hit singles before announcing an album that’s like 20 songs long that they know is just a lot of filler, but the label knows they can exploit this for streaming and chart purposes. Oh and they still do the whole PR thing for a month or so and talk about how they really “care” about the album before finally releasing it.

In both scenarios, the artists and their fans are being screwed over by having to follow this archaic and traditional method of releasing music. Why aren’t labels adapting around these artists and their fans?

Album artists should announce their albums on a Monday and then release it that Friday. Or just drop it. There’s no need for all the waiting around and picking out singles to release when they ultimately don’t matter. Single artists should just release singles when they’re ready and after releasing so many, just put them on a playlist and call it an era instead of forcing them to release albums they don’t even want to make.

I know why this traditional method is still used and it’s because it’s how many people who work at labels justify why they have a job. But really the continual use of this method just proves why their jobs aren’t needed. Many in marketing don’t want to wake up and realize that 2/3 of today’s marketing is by the end user/customer. This is why I advocate for more artists to go independent, but I digress.

Many album artists have been beating a similar drum for years, but not so much single artists. Fortunately that might finally be changing for the latter, as in country music Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton have both said in interviews recently that they’re now just releasing singles instead of albums. I applaud both of them for acknowledging the type of artists they are and serving themselves and their fans the way they should.

There are many artists unhappy with the way they’re being compensated for their music and the first step that needs to be taken in them seizing more control of this is acknowledging and changing how music is distributed. Not only this, but it could also create a fairer playing field when it comes to crowning what’s popular. Right now we have a chart system in place that heavily leans towards rewarding singles artists and streaming, while ignoring album artists and those with fanbases that prefer buying physical albums. I find this funny because labels know this, otherwise why would UMG keep Kacey Musgraves and RCA sign Freddie Gibbs and Tyler Childers? It’s because their album sales demonstrates a strong and consistent fan base, which in turn translates to steady concert sales.

The third thing this traditional release method is doing is creating unfair expectations and judgement of artists. It leads to dismissal of album artists for releasing a lead single that is only a small part of the greater picture they’re trying to show you, while single artists are getting slammed for releasing bad albums they don’t even want to make because at the end of the day they just want to release catchy hits.

No matter what side you fall on, neither are right or wrong. But both are being screwed over by the system. I know we could just keep going along with the current system (just ignoring the albums of single artists and patiently waiting for the album artists to release a record), but when there’s a better way of doing things staring you in the face, why ignore it?