CHART BEAT CHAT

"Chart Beat" columnist Fred Bronson answers readers questions about the state of commercial singles and the U.S. music market.

SINGLE AGAIN

Hello,

There is so much disgust that I have for the record companies these days regarding singles, these are just some of my thoughts on the matter.

Luckily singles thrived when I was a teenager and I was able to purchase all my favorite songs with money from my allowance and my low paying entry-level job. I used to cover my walls with the record sleeves of my musical heroes. I used to spend hours listening to the most recent singles that I bought, lying on the floor with both speakers at my ear. If I only had the option of buying an expensive album, I probably would have spent my time cleaning the garage and basement!

I also miss being able to buy my current favorite singles as some of them came with remixes that I could bring to the gym and listen to to keep me motivated on the treadmill. Now, I have to listen to the same old remixes from 5+ years ago. Hearing the same remixes day after day, year after year is not very motivating on the treadmill. I guess I can blame the record companies for the extra pounds. Where is my lawyer when I need him?

Being in my early 30s I still stay current with what is on the radio these days and would like to purchase some of the songs that I hear daily (more like hourly on some stations). However, I cannot see myself buying a Nelly CD (hey, I am an accountant!) and therefore hope that "Hot in Herre" is available on a compilation CD later this year when it is cold in here.

I recently read in Billboard that record companies are thinking of reintroducing the single. I live north of Boston where the record companies are doing a test on singles "cannibalization" of albums, and I am trying not to laugh too hard at the travesty! The past two weeks the local record store has begun selling singles again (maybe six of the top 40). So guess where I went during lunch break today? To the local record store of course, to see what new singles were available.

After selecting Sheryl Crow's "Steve McQueen" (I have this album as well; there was a bonus track on the single) and Avril Lavigne's "Complicated," I browsed the album section. What do you think happened? Lo and behold I bought a full-length full price album! So there we are, I bought two singles and an album today. If I had not been anticipating new weekly singles, I might have spent Friday lunch hour not spending money on music and listening about how many points are in food items instead.

Why are [record companies] whining about loss of revenue, when they have shrunk the availability of music to buy? I have absolutely no sympathy for them. My biggest gripe with them is why are they manipulating me into buying something that I don't want? A few years ago I liked the song "Blue" by Eiffel 65, so like a trained rat, I ran through the maze to get the cheese and bought the whole album. Can you guess how many times I played the whole album? Zero! So I spent $17 for one song that I may have listened to for a month. Hmm, where is that album anyway? I think it may have been used for a coaster and tossed away.

Needless to say I learned my lesson and do not buy an album unless it is from a favorite artist, not a one-hit wonder. Not being independently wealthy, I need to budget as I have other things to spend my money on!

As the music industry is manipulating consumers, it's no wonder music listeners are getting music off the Internet and burning CDs! So it appears to me that the record companies would rather make no money off of me for not buying an album than make some money off me by selling me a single. I think that it is great that despite reports, record companies are having such a great year that they can turn away sales by deleting the single.

Another gripe that I have is why are the American consumers being manipulated and the rest of the world is not. Excuse me, but why would buying a single in England not "cannibalize" album sales in England? Do the English buy the single and album together? Are they Crazy Glued together? Why can consumers in Europe have the option to buy a single, album or heck both, while the Americans are forced to buy the album or nothing?

Stop manipulating me! I want the freedom to buy a single or an album in America!

Brenden Craven

Dear Brenden,

I don't know how to tell you this, but there were a few good tracks on the Eiffel 65 album. Maybe you should have listened to it at least once!

On a more serious note, some readers may be tired of the singles debate, and I had planned to move on to other topics this week. However, my inbox is full of E-mails on this subject, and people had lots to say. So we'll explore the issue of singles for one more week.

Because there were so many letters about singles, I've just selected a few representative missives. Thanks to everyone, though, who took the time to express their feelings.

While I made light of your Eiffel 65 purchase, the song "Blue" was a perfect example of a song that should have been available as a single. The same is true of Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5." If these two songs had not been available as singles in Europe, they would have never become hits in the first place, and wouldn't have been released in the U.S. in any format.

In Europe, singles are priced higher, so record companies do earn a profit from them. One option would be for U.S. companies to charge more for singles, although that might hurt their usefulness as marketing tools. A hit single can certainly help promote a hit album. We're liable to see an example of that when the "American Idol" winner, Kelly Clarkson, releases her first single. I expect it to be one of the best-selling singles of 2002, if not the best, and then I expect the multi-artist "American Idol" album to sell in the millions, along with Clarkson's solo debut.



FIND A JOHN MAYER SINGLE? NO SUCH THING!

Hi Fred,

I see the singles debate has become an issue again, and would like to offer my buying habits as food for thought.

Since Jan. 1, 2002, I have purchased NO music from any record store. Would the reason be because I'm downloading the music online? NO! The reason is that I can't find what I need the few times I've gone to the record stores this year. My favorite song right now is "No Such Thing" by John Mayer. But do you know what? I'm going to live without owning the song because it is not available as a single. The few singles that are available such as "A Little Less Conversation" I can't even locate, which provided me with several wild goose chases to area record stores.

Singles or no singles, my buying habits are not going to change. What I can't figure out is why there was never any "cannibalization" nonsense when 45s were available. How did record labels make a profit on $0.99 singles 25 years ago? But really, what's the use? The labels never listen to a word the consumer says anyhow.

So, singles will keep declining until there is absolutely no market, and that will be the end. But I guess I can look on the bright side. Look at all the money I'll be saving by never going to the record store again!

Bob Ring
Appleton, Wis.

Dear Bob,

You've touched on one of the main reasons record sales have declined. People aren't going into record stores as much as they used to, and one of the reasons is they can't find the music they want in the formats they desire. Some people have turned to buying records online, and some have simply stopped buying them period.



WHY BOTHER WITH SINGLES?

Hi Fred,

I am getting pretty tired of hearing about the "single" demise. I am a gigantic music fan, but I have always bought the album. I figure why should I spend three to five dollars on a couple of songs when I can spend 12, 15, or maybe 18 dollars on 10 to 15 songs.

If one really likes the song they hear on the radio enough to buy it, why not just buy the whole album and introduce yourself to a bunch of other songs that will never be heard on radio? I've found many gems on many albums that way. And some of those songs I end up liking even more than the ones I heard on the radio. I imagine that's happened to you as well.

I'd also like to say thanks for all your wonderful info week after week.

Tyler Leckington
Centerville, Utah

Dear Tyler,

I have been an outspoken proponent of the single, but that doesn't mean I don't love albums, too. Some of the happiest days of my life have been the days that albums by some of my favorite artists were released. There is nothing like waiting for the new Kate Bush album to arrive and playing it for the first time. I also love discovering new artists and finding hidden gems on their debut albums.

I enjoy getting recommendations from friends about new albums and seeing if their tastes match mine. I still remember back in 1996 walking into my local record store and having the owner tell me he found a new album he thought I would love. It was by an artist I had never heard of, and I was a bit wary, but he threw the disc into his player and I listened while continuing to shop. In a few minutes, I had to walk back to the counter and confess I loved what I was hearing. The artist was Lucy Lee and her album, released on a private label, turned out to be my No. 1 album of the year.

But we have to remember I'm at a point in my life where I can afford to buy albums (yes, I still buy a lot of albums, even though I also receive promotional copies from record labels). When I was 15, my budget allowed me to buy a bunch of singles every week, but not a bunch of albums.



WHAT'S TO BE DONE

Hi Fred,

I agreed with all of the letters in last week's column. It's obvious that there are many of us who are frustrated with the fact that we cannot buy singles at our favorite retail outlets. But what are we to do about it? We all think of you as our resident expert because we've been reading your "Number One Hits" books and reading you here every week. We turn to you for guidance, so now I'm asking you directly, who should we direct our concerns to who can actually turn this all around? Is it the marketing department at record labels?

It seems like the record companies are really just lying down and letting free online trading and downloading take away all of their retail business. You hit the nail on the head when you said: we've trained a whole generation of potential consumers to NOT buy records. I've heard from many friends that they do not even set foot in record stores anymore.

I disagree with you about the impact of Billboard's choice to change the chart policy regarding airplay-only tracks. Because of this change, there is absolutely no way the Hot 100 can be an accurate reflection of the public's taste in music on any given week. It is merely a reflection of what the small handful of program directors have decided that they are going to allow the public to hear on the radio. By Billboard changing the chart policy they handed the decision making power to the program directors on a silver platter. It is a completely unbalanced process.

I am very thankful that the labels of my two favorite artists are still allowing their fans to buy singles. Both Mariah Carey and Leann Rimes have benefited on the charts because of single availability when program directors were ignoring them. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this will remain true with their upcoming releases.

As I see it the only way that the Hot 100 can once again be a true reflection of the public's tastes is for record companies to make all singles available again and to let the SoundScan numbers speak for themselves. They should have a huge advertising campaign that singles are back. Singles should go back to having previously unavailable B-sides and hot new remixes. If this rare material is easily available on singles, people will be less inclined to download. The key words are "easily available."

So who should I tell? I really want to see a change and I don't want to keep dumping my frustration on you. I'm sure it must get tiresome for you.

Thank you for listening.

Bill Piechocki
Chicago

Dear Bill,

It doesn't hurt to appeal to the very top, so if I were going to write to someone to let them know how I feel about the issue of commercially available singles, I would write to the presidents of the various record labels.

As for the Hot 100, in a world of declining sales, the only way left to measure the popularity of songs is by radio airplay. I know that some Elvis Presley or Mariah Carey fans might disagree, but to be fair, radio stations play what they believe the public wants to hear. They do an extraordinary amount of research in order to accomplish this.

If stations were playing songs that their audiences didn't want to hear, ratings would plummet, so their very survival is as stake. As individuals, or as fans of particular artists, we might not agree with the program and music directors of those radio stations, but their mission is not to force the music they personally like down people's throats.