Instep Today: Why Musicians Don’t Release Singles

September 7, 2009

With such a variety of great songs out there, why can’t musicians just release them as singles instead of letting them languish until they make it to an album? Instep Today takes a look at why flying solo may be a better option for Pakistani musicians.

Singles_StringsThom Yorke of Radiohead dropped quite a bombshell recently, announcing the acclaimed band may never do another album again: “None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Yorke told US magazine The Believer. “Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with In Rainbows, because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”

“It’ll kill us” may sound very dramatic, but Yorke has a point. The process of creating an album is an incredibly taxing one for musicians – from the concept and flow to the song writing to arrangement- and then going into a studio to record it is yet another creatively difficult process (albeit fun, as one hears). In a nutshell: it requires months, sometimes even years, of work to create, produce, release and promote an album. Add to that, musicians then take off for concert tours abroad (if they’re one of the big names) and by the time they’re done and over with it, two years have gone by and fans are clamouring for new material.

This may still be an easier process for seasoned musicians, but spare a thought for those that are struggling. The financial investment that upcoming artistes have to make into all of this could easily turn them off music altogether; and to boot, they may run the risk of having their completed album rejected at the hands of a record label or an audience that doesn’t like their work.

One isn’t the loneliest number

Singles_Sajid-ZeeshanThere are a lot of factors at play, but the album format has a lot to do with it. Because that’s the only format Pakistani musicians use, there is a lot of great material that they have created that doesn’t get the mileage it deserves. Take for example songs like ‘Beirut’ by Strings, ‘Armaan’ by Siege, ‘Dil Nahie Manta’ by Yousaf Rizvi and Nauman Bari, ‘Mehr Ma’ by Hadiqa Kiani and Khiza, ‘Chup’ by Zeb and Haniya and ‘Aadat’ by the ‘original’ Jal. These were great songs that could have easily been released (as they would have been in the west) as singles. By definition, this would mean that a CD would be released of the song, featuring related artwork and production credits.

This is how musicians release one-off songs abroad; so that they hit the market right away, they can control piracy by releasing it officially themselves, and it works for musicians who have royalty-based deals with their record labels. What happens in Pakistan though, is that the songs get leaked onto the Internet or their audio is ripped from the video (such as ‘Beirut’), and by the time the song makes it on to an album, it has long been forgotten.

Singles are a huge market that Pakistani musicians and record labels are losing out on, and will continue to do so with the proliferation of music on the Internet. While musicians worldwide are working towards having their music released legally (and as paid content) via the Internet, Pakistan is still light-years away from doing so.

There is a culture that has been built up over decades abroad, of artists first releasing their music as singles before the actual album comes out. They are highly awaited with fans queuing up outside music stores to be able to get their hands on it first. Led Zeppelin did it with ‘Stairway to Heaven’, Coldplay did it with ‘Viva la Vida’ and Britney Spears did it with ‘Womanizer’. By the time the actual album rolls out, there is enough hype about the artist for it to translate into album sales, and the album is also a space to rework the original hit single.

Singles_Mehr-MaBut Radiohead’s declaration takes this to an all new level, one that could work very well in Pakistan. Often artists feel this compulsion to produce ten to twelve songs for their album, when in fact they really only have five to six good songs and the others are basically fillers. Take for example Shehzad Roy’s album Qismat Apney Haat Mein, which contained a number of great, satirical songs and the rest of the album was a mish-mash of love ballads that rendered the album directionless.

Pon de replay

Yet another fact, which music critic Sasha Frere-Jones rightly pointed out in The New Yorker, is that people rarely listen to full albums in a go. “But that kind of perfect chain comes along only once in a while, and even when it does, how often do you listen to it in the original order, without interruption?” he wrote. “Unless you’ve got lots of free afternoons or long rides, you probably don’t. And most people with more than a few albums like to mix those public documents into private orders that reflect preferences and personal associations.”

From the ‘mixed tape’ phenomena to compilation CDs to iPod play lists, people rarely, if ever, listen to an album start to finish. Anyone who has ever reviewed an album will tell you how repeatedly hearing an album from start-to-end will not only leave you fatigued, but you miss the gems on the album because the overall ‘sound’ of the album is the same. Zeb and Haniya’s Chup is an example of this: an album that contained fantastic songs but listen to it in a go and you’ll miss out gems like ‘Rona Chorr Diya’ and will compulsively keep changing tracks because each song ends up sounding like the other.

Singles_Thom-YorkeGoing the Radiohead route may change this: putting out singles as and when musicians choose to, of work that they feel passionate about (as Strings did with ‘Beirut’) or live versions of songs (such as EP’s fantastic cover of Sajjad Ali’s ‘Bolo Bolo’) and they’ll build a better fan base.

This has rewards for record labels too – they’ll be able to sign on a larger number of artists without having to make the heavy investment in lump sum deals and just put out singles out there. Ultimately, this could also help avoid the catastrophe of the one-hit wonder bands, whose albums fail because they can’t match up to the brilliance of that one song that made them click in the first place. They would be able to actually hone their skills instead of heading into the studio right away to latch on to the fame they’ve garnered from their one-off hit.

And there’s a long tradition of work as ‘serials’, as Jones wrote. “Dickens’s novels were released in installments; only later did they become those delightful bricks. If Radiohead finishes four EPs and decides a larger shape has emerged, there’s nothing to stop them from recognizing that shape, calling it an album, and packaging it as such. Future audiences may never know how the material was first released, but it hardly matters. The work will be there.”

Source: Instep Today