The Singular Rollercoaster

Joe Shearer

The success of the single in the American music industry is on the rise, but history tells its own story about any guaranteed trend.

I t all happened pretty quickly. In 1997, alternative rock was on its way out, giving way to Britney, ‘N SYNC and the Backstreet Boys. What would follow was the pop explosion, a saturation of danceable radio-play singles, teenybopper music videos and something fresh altogether: Online file sharing.

Ironically enough, at about the same time, CD singles in the United States all but ceased production, making it easier for record companies to cash in a whole album: An album, the whole shebang, tracks one through whatever. Sure, it all looked swell for the recording industry, but consumers were looking to the future.

Fast forward to 2007. Bands are now realizing the potential of the Internet, downloading and venues such as MySpace. Radiohead is basically giving away its latest album, In Rainbows, letting fans download all of the songs at whatever cost they choose. Irish indie-rock group Ash announced its album released earlier this year would be its last, instead focusing on downloads and singles. Danish duo the Raveonettes let MySpace users preview almost every one of the 12 songs on its forthcoming album as each track was written.

International fad, you might ask? Probably not. CD sales have been slipping since 2001, and it was only a matter of time before artists began using the downloading frenzy to their advantage. After all, why should iTunes have all the fun?

Late last week, a Reuters news article reported retailer woes over poor CD sales for the Thanksgiving weekend, citing a lack of major releases this holiday season. According to Nielsen Soundscan, album sales were down 18 percent from last Thanksgiving weekend. But retailers are missing the big picture. A new Gwen Stefani or Justin Timberlake album would’ve definitely bolstered sales, but this is part of a trend that continues to point to the demise of physical formats.

As one might expect, artists’ reactions are mixed. On one hand, they can experiment and maybe not rely so heavily on CD sales to get by. But without a format like a CD to carry songs, the idea of making an album like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Nirvana’s Nevermind could become extinct.

Though some might argue this has already happened, some artists have released interesting albums as of late. Christina Aguilera’s two-disc 2006 album, Back to Basics, and the last two Outkast releases demonstrate at the very least a willingness to keep the concept alive.

Indie-pop duo the Pierces — which appeared on last night’s episode of “Gossip Girl” — seems to welcome the digital route music is taking. With very little record label support, sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce are getting used to the idea of controlling their own future.

“We are pretty much doing everything on our own,” Catherine says. “We shot our (music) video for $500 with our friends, (and) we’re having to cut down on our band just to be able to tour.”

Self-promotion can be expensive, and lesser-known artists are looking for the cheapest, most efficient way to get their music to the public without going broke. Other musicians may look at Ash’s route of killing the album-making process.

“I could see us just doing digital releases because people aren’t buying (CDs),” Catherine says. “I think that’s a cool idea.”

While some are praising new methods of releasing music, others prefer the old, proven practice of releasing an album. New and upcoming artist Nicole Atkins is eager to jump on the issue before I can even get the question out, expressing her views on the current state of music.

“I think it’s horribly sad,” Atkins says. “The thing I like best about music is getting a record and living with it for a while — records that play from beginning to end. But now, everything is just singles; it’s like the ’50s all over again.”

That’s an accurate assessment. Early rock and rollers like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry frequently released singles; albums (or LPs) were more of an afterthought. The question now is whether this is the direction musicians will continue to take, or if there’s room in this digital realm for bands to make albums.

“I think that there’s enough good bands out there now that are getting popular with the music industry deteriorating,” Atkins says. “It’s opening up more opportunities for bands that are actually good. that still do make records from beginning to end. I think there will be a turnaround, if not now, within a few years. I don’t ever want to make a record that is in pieces. I just need to make records that document a certain part of time, that make sense to listen to from beginning to end and to tell a story.”

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the issue, but there’s one aspect that cannot be ignored: The Internet will continue playing a role in the way music is released. Whether or not that leaves room for CDs and albums, well, that’s an other story.

Contact all correspondent Joe Shearer at [email protected].