The Localist: How to Write an Album, Part 7 – The Importance of Singles for Emerging Artists
Parts 1-6 have focused more on the theory of writing albums for public consumption, but I wanted to talk a bit about practical matters that affect artists that are starting to pitch records to the public or people in the industry. And so I thought it would be helpful to talk about the concept of a “single” – a concept that has unfortunately become significantly muddled over the past decade.
At present, the concept of a single means nothing more than any single track that is released – with the implication that the single is not released as part of a larger record or EP release. The concept as it has been used in recent times by struggling artists, is part of a general strategy of gaming the Spotify algorithm. The idea is that single releases receive a “bump” in streaming metrics, and as a practical matter, it makes more of an effect on one’s streaming metrics to release 12 singles as opposed to releasing 1 album.
Even as far as a decade back, however, a “single” meant quite a bit more than any single track that was released. A single, circa 1990, referred to one of a small number of tracks that were released prior to the release of an album, where those singles (1) immediately hooked the listener as one of the, or the, hookiest track on the record, and (2) gave listeners a preview of what they might look forward to in listening to the record. (It’s true that artists would sometimes release a standalone single, but these events were more rare).
Because of the function that a single had, in the past, artists would make sure that they had written a single in order to be able to pitch a record. That is, they would try and write a track that could immediately hook the listener, and gave some indication of what was on the track as a whole. In some sense, the writing of a single is part of an album writing process, because you have to at least have some conception of what is on the record in order to conceptualize what the single is – whether you wrote the single first and wrote the album second, or vice versa. In general, though, single-writing could be an opportunity for a songwriter to exercise their writing prowess, and show off some of their skills in song and hook construction. And relatedly, especially for emerging artists, singles were an opportunity for an artist to show off a sound that was uniquely and distinctly theirs.
This all sits in stark contrast to how many struggling artists treat singles now – essentially, as as tool to increasing streaming numbers, where the quality of the tracks is by their own light below a standard that they would release on any album. In many cases, I’ve seen musicians release tracks on Spotify, where they don’t even believe their friends will enjoy the tracks – they simply want friends to just click on the track, in order to increase spins and hopefully game the Spotify algorithm into making them go viral. (Or so the theory goes).
The problem that is generated by this historical adjustment is that while a lot of struggling artists have opted for success in streaming, by releasing singles (read: individual tracks), the process of trying to make genuine connections in the music industry still requires pitching singles (read: standout tracks). This is especially frustrating as many of these same musicians want connections in the industry. What can happen is that a struggling artist trips at the starting line, by affirmatively putting out a series of sub-par tracks, which serve as their first impression to the public – and the first impression that shows up when an industry person looks up the artist on Spotify or elsewhere. Alternatively, an artist can create a record that is nothing but non-singles, and have no singles (read: standout tracks) that can be effectively used as part of marketing for the release of a record.
Keeping this in mind, as you are putting the record together, you should be asking yourself: Which tracks are the singles on this record? Do the tracks serve as a good representative for what is on the album? Do the tracks immediately hook the listener? Are the tracks what you would consider the standouts on the the album? Do the tracks put on display a sound that is uniquely or distinctly yours?
The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. In 2021, St. Lenox was named one of Rolling Stone’s Artists You Need to Know, with comparisons to Mt. Eerie, The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times” was placed on Best Albums lists at AllMusic and Ghettoblaster. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”