"Chart Beat" columnist Fred Bronson answers readers letters regarding the state of commercial singles.

LOST BUSINESS

Dear Fred,

You hit the nail on the head a couple of weeks ago when you mentioned singles. I used to buy singles every week, at least $20 worth. But now I never go to the record store. No singles means no business for the record companies from me. I hear all kinds of music on the radio and I like a variety of songs. I have three that I really would buy right now but I'm not about to purchase three CDs by three different artists. That's about $45. If there were three singles it would [cost] much less and I would buy them.

Record companies have ignored the singles buying public and they're the ones losing my business. Just because [a song is] not available as a single doesn't make me want the album. It just frustrates me even more and so I just tape it off commercial free radio.

For example, Alan Jackson's hit "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" -- the record companies thought that by holding out on the single it would build up demand for his new album. Wrong. By the time the album did come out, people who would have bought the single just didn't waste their time. They probably rushed into the store hoping to purchase a single, but nothing, so they leave frustrated. My sister did! Did she buy the album when it finally came out? No.

You would think that since singles are almost gone, albums would be selling twice as much as they did 10 years ago. The sad truth is that they are not. "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, one of the all time best-selling albums to date, issued all the hits from the album on single. I will spend my money on something else if there isn't a single available. When are these record companies going to wake up?

Greg Coleman

Dear Greg,

"Chart Beat" readers really had singles on their mind this week, as you'll see when you read the other E-mails in this week's column.

During high school and college, I worked in a record store in my hometown of Culver City, Calif. Anyone with any retail experience knows that if you frustrate a customer over and over, eventually they will stop being a customer. How many times will people be willing to go into a store and ask for a single, only to be told that there isn't one available? Or, how many times will people be willing to go into a store and ask for a song, only to be told there is no single, and the album won't be released for another six weeks? Maybe some of those people will come back in six weeks to buy the album, but most will not. Those lost sales quickly add up.

Piracy is a huge problem, but it's not the only reason sales are down. As I've said many times in this space, we've trained a whole generation of potential consumers to NOT buy records.



SEE ME, HEAR ME

Fred,

Here's an idea for boosting single sales: Add enhanced-CD features such as a music video. I've noticed this and bought the single of Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" just for the video. The quality was stunning.

With all of the data storage available on a CD, you could easily fit two or three audio tracks AND video components. Links to exclusive content on the web site, interviews, and "making-of" segments could also be included.

I believe fans would be willing to pay $5 or more for something like this!

Sincerely,

James Walsh

Dear James,

This does work well in other countries, and could certainly be a good marketing tool here. If record companies could find a price point where singles would be profitable, and give people a reason to buy those singles (such as the ideas you've suggested), perhaps the record business could be revitalized.



SUSPECT NAMED IN SINGLES' DEMISE

Fred,

Could I weigh in with my two cents on this whole singles controversy? I'm not addressing whether record companies aren't producing singles because they don't sell, or whether they aren't selling because record companies aren't producing them. That's chicken-and-egg as far as I'm concerned. But I do think there's another cause for the disappearance of the single that not many people are talking about.

I think to some extent Billboard magazine is responsible for speeding the demise of the single. Granted, when Billboard opened the Hot 100 to airplay-only tracks, it was only doing what it had to do to keep its flagship chart relevant. It had to have been a difficult decision to make, and it was probably the right one given the circumstances. But in making this change in its chart policy, I think Billboard sent a very clear and strong message to U.S. record companies -- a message that told them it was okay to stop manufacturing singles for public consumption. Sure, the single had been declining for years before this decision was made, but Billboard's new chart policy was probably the final nail in the single's coffin.

It's a fact that record companies still like seeing their artists near the top of the Hot 100. It's still a great gauge of an artist's popularity, and it tells the business world that the record company is doing things right. Even so, record companies are in business to maximize their profits, and conducting business as efficiently as possible is one of the ways in which they can do this.

So, if a record company can send a track to radio and see it go top-5, or even to No. 1 on the Hot 100, then why should it release a single? Why should it have personnel on hand to manage the manufacturing and marketing processes? Why should it purchase the necessary raw materials and pay for additional graphic design and product promotion? Why should it record a loss on the books in the event that retail returns the unsold product back to the record company? Why should it take on any of these risks in the pursuit of an apparently dubious return, i.e., a profitable single? Especially when the record company's goal of seeing its artist's tracks become popular -- as evidenced by high chart positions -- has already been attained. It seems to me that in this instance, sending a single to retail becomes more trouble than it's worth.

My argument assumes, of course, that the singles format is generally unprofitable for most record companies, which apparently is still being debated. However, if it is true that singles are not big moneymakers, then in the absence of Billboard's requirement for retail availability for a song to chart, there is just no legitimate business purpose for record companies to release singles anymore.

Any thoughts?

Sign me a longtime reader ... and singles buyer,

Phillip Lane
Philadelphia

Dear Phillip,

I guess you won't be surprised that I don't think Billboard is responsible for the demise of the single - you've awarded us far too much power.

When the chart policies were changed in December 1998 to allow airplay-only tracks to appear on the Hot 100, it actually boosted the release of singles. That's because record companies discovered they could only get so far up the chart with an airplay-only track. The release of a commercial single -- even one in limited supply -- sent songs flying up the chart, often to No. 1. That's why there were so many dramatic moves for a time.

The recent sudden rise of the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone" had a similar cause -- a song with considerable country airplay was released as a commercial single and sold enough copies to jump 30-13-7 (and then fall 7-20 this week, as sales declined).

But record companies have been determined to kill the single, and unless the tide changes, they are well on their way to accomplishing that goal. As fewer and fewer singles were released, some retail outlets stopped making space for them. Also, fewer and fewer copies were sold each week, allowing airplay-only tracks to dominate the Hot 100 as sales became less relevant.