Once More, With Loathing: Are Labels Moving To Kill The Single Again?

Chris Molanphy | August 28, 2008 10:00 am

Last Friday, one of the regular commenters on my “100 and Single” column poured cold water all over my prediction that Estelle’s “American Boy” might finally creep into the U.S. Top 10. Noted regular reader ukidol, “Estelle’s song has been removed from iTunes since the start of the week, so she’ll drop sharply in the next chart. Think they’re hoping for a Kid Rock-style album boost.” We won’t find out how Estelle fared until the new Hot 100 appears later today, but yesterday’s release of SoundScan figures bears out ukidol’s prediction. “American Boy,” which the prior week was the sixth-best selling digital song in the country, fell to 64th, as its sales took a 78% tumble from 86,700 copies to 19,100 copies. (Presumably, virtually all of those 19,100 copies sold in the first day or two of the tracking week before the song got pulled from iTunes.) As of last week, “American Boy” was at No. 11 on the big chart. While the radio half of the Hot 100’s sales-plus-airplay formulation might keep the song from falling out of the Top 40, no amount of radio growth will keep it from dropping at least a double-digit number of slots–if not this week, then the next. But that’s a small price for Estelle’s U.S. label, Atlantic Records, to pay if pulling the single has the (presumably) desired effect: giving her a gold album. So far, in the States, Estelle’s album Shine has sold 95,000 copies. Kid Rock is exactly the right comparable to invoke here, especially since both Estelle and the Kid are on the Craig Kallman-run, Edgar Bronfman-owned Atlantic. Warner Music Group told the Wall Street Journal that the removal of “American Boy” from iTunes was part of a digital-release plan where the label honchos would figure out strategies “uniquely tailored to each artist and their fan base in an effort to optimize revenues and promote long-term artist development.” Of course, when labels toy with a new sales-and-promotional model for one act, it’s not a stretch to assume they’ll try it again with another. Consider EMI Records in 1990. They were behind the year’s biggest pop breakthrough, in crossover dance-rapper M.C. Hammer; and the second-biggest, in Hammer’s tourmate and pop-rap contemporary Vanilla Ice. Each enjoyed a chart-topping album with blockbuster sales–Hammer’s on Capitol, Vanilla’s on the now-defunct SBK, both distributed by EMI. Each act achieved those sales via a massive rap-pop hit fueled by an instantly recognizable classic-pop sample. And finally, each topped the album chart, in no small part, thanks to EMI’s strategic withholding of those two big hits from the singles market. As I explained in a recent “100 and Single,” Capitol forced fans of Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” to buy his Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em album by only releasing the song in the spring of 1990 as a 12-inch vinyl single. The result: a 21-week-chart-topping, 10-times-platinum album. Their tactic that fall with Vanilla Ice was different, but similarly diabolical: the Queen/David Bowie-fueled “Ice Ice Baby” was released in the popular cassingle format and charged up the Hot 100, but once SBK knew the song was poised to top the chart, the “Baby” single was deleted. The result: the song spent only one week at No. 1, but on the album chart Ice’s To the Extreme shot to No. 1 and stayed there 16 weeks, shipping 4 million copies out of the gate and eventually going septuple-platinum. In short, EMI produced two back-to-back smash albums, first by withholding the big hit from the most popular singles medium altogether, and the second time by pulling the big hit from the market just as it peaked. I have long posited 1990 as the year that launched the Great War Against The Single, a decade-long campaign that saw endless casualties (not least, the consumer’s wallet) and didn’t end until the Rebel Alliance that was Napster and the Versailles Treaty that was iTunes. Now, in 2008, it appears that Atlantic is attempting to start the War all over again, and they’re doing it by replicating EMI’s first two strategic moves from 1990, verbatim. (Insert joke about history repeating as farce here.) If Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” never released on iTunes, is Atlantic’s new “U Can’t Touch This,” then “American Boy” is their new “Ice Ice Baby.” I am deeply depressed by the prospect of repeating the 1990s pattern again. As a public service, I thought I might warn you all what we have to look forward to, assuming all the other phases come to pass during the 2010s–here’s how the 1990s went down: The Market-Test Phase (1990-1991): Embodied by the Hammer and Vanilla Ice singles, as described above. The Rockers as New Zeppelins Phase (1991-1994): In which the labels use the advent of a new rock genre, alternative, as an excuse to exhume 1970s rockist practices and not release new rock songs–even the biggest radio hits–as singles. During this phase, every leading grunge and post-post-punk act, from Pearl Jam to Soundgarden to Alice in Chains to Smashing Pumpkins to Green Day, released no singles. (The exception: Nirvana.) The result: Ten becomes the biggest-selling album of the grunge boomlet, outselling even Nevermind. (Dookie comes close.) By the mid-’90s, fan-friendly rockers like Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan realize their U.S. fans are getting fleeced, often paying top dollar for import singles, and insist that their labels release their new radio hits (and some catalog) as singles. Relenting at the rockers’ insistence, the labels then move on to… The Big-Pop Phase (1996-1998): In which more obviously Top 40-bound acts with insanely catchy singles are withheld from the singles market. Big game starts to appear during this phase, songs so ubiquitous on pop radio–“I’ll Be There for You,” “Don’t Speak,” “Killing Me Softly,” “Lovefool,” “Fly,” “Iris”–that consumers are bewildered to find themselves forced to pony up $16 for a full-length CD. It starts with developing pop acts (respectively, the Rembrandts, No Doubt, the Fugees, the Cardigans, Sugar Ray, the Goo Goo Dolls), but by 1998, even long-established pop acts like Janet Jackson are having singles withheld on a case-by-case basis. The One-Hit Wonder Phase (1997-2000): In which the labels get so successful at their no-singles tactics, and so greedy, that they begin thinking, Maybe we can get a multiplatinum album from an act for whom we have no intention of ever releasing more than one single. Amazingly–and due in no small part to a booming U.S. economy–it works: millions of consumers willingly pay just shy of a Hamilton for full-length CDs from Chumbawamba, Natalie Imbruglia, Aqua, Everlast, Lou Bega and Eiffel 65. (Say what you want about the boy bands during this phase, at least most of them had multiple hits. In retrospect, Backstreet Boys’ Millennium was a far better value than Tubthumper, the album.) After 2000, the commercial single was essentially dead for everyone except American Idol winners, until the launch of iTunes in 2003. You know the story from there. The sad fact of all these phases in the War On Singles is that the labels were, if craven, also correct: withholding singles does force a certain sucker-subset of your audience to pay for the full-length. It’s a truism that holds to this day, as Kid Rock’s Rock N Roll Jesus moves up to No. 2 on the album chart, nearly matching the No. 1 peak of the disc’s debut week last fall. As for Estelle, Atlantic’s tactic doesn’t appear to be working, at least not yet: the same week her single became unavailable, her album Shine fell 24 spots on the album chart and sold 16% fewer copies (about 4,200) than it did the week prior. That said, these things take time to be reflected in the market, and we might see the Estelle album stage a comeback and reach a new peak in the weeks to come. Whatever happens to her and the Kid, the labels can’t go home again to the iron-fisted control they enjoyed a decade ago. Not just with file-traders, who are doubtlessly sharing millions of illegal copies of “All Summer Long” and “American Boy” as we speak. No, I mean even iTunes will trip them up this time: remember that tacky remake of “All Summer Long” by quick-buck cover group the Hit Masters? Last week, it sold 95,000 copies, making it the fifth best-selling digital download in the country. So much for reigniting the war.