In October 2020, I planned my release calendar for 2021. I was going to release four singles throughout the year – nothing more, nothing less. “The release cycle of a song is three months,” my tutor said at uni, and that served as my guiding principle. The only flaw in my plan was that the four songs sounded much better together than they did as singles. They were written more or less at the same time, talked about similar emotions of heartbreak, growth, and learning. They were just about good enough to be singles, but they would have been a much better EP.
I know a lot of artists who struggle with this. The other day, one of my musician friends complained about how he felt he had to release all of the songs from his EP as singles, which made me wonder why he bothered to release them as an EP at all. By the time the EP comes out, everyone will have already heard the songs out of context.
I started asking myself that question after recording the demo album I mentioned last week. The songs all talked about one period in my life and went together well, but as standalone songs, they didn’t sound quite right. The album told a story. Besides, the recordings were as lo-fi as they go, and getting into the vibe of the sound would take some time, and if the listener would be jerked out of it after one song, it just wouldn’t have the same effect.
Then I heard another friend talk about how this single-by-single release culture affects our artistic output. We’re expected to release a single every few months at the most, or we’re dead to the world. We’re expected to produce content but we’re not content creators, we’re artists, right? But taking time to ruminate over our work, to experiment, fail, and grow without it being documented by social media and Spotify isn’t a part of our culture anymore.
Art takes time. It takes time to get an idea, get excited about it, work hard, hit a roadblock, start working again, throw it away because it was shit after all, start again. Ideas form over time through experimentation, failure, stagnation. If we’re pressed to produce stuff all the time, we’re excluding vital parts of the process. And that opens up a whole other can of worms: the fear and guilt that come with the idea that we have to be working and creating ALL the time. Who can ever live up to that?
First of all, no office employee ever works the whole time they’re paid for. I grew up with a dad with a 9-5 job. He used to read the paper on the toilet until another employee would come to look for him. My ex-boyfriend hid in the toilet to watch the final episode of GoT during his working hours. My current flatmate comes into my room at least five times a day to chat while she’s technically on shift. I read books behind the reception desk of the hostel I worked at. All this to say that no job ever involves constant effort. There are always breaks, downtimes, coffee chats. But somehow, people are outraged when artists take time off to live.
When I have free time and I don’t use it to work on my music, I feel guilty. Not to say that I work on my music all the time because I don’t. But that doesn’t take away the fact that I feel horrible whenever I turn on Netflix or read a book instead. But to create art, artists need to live first. If I’m not learning or experiencing anything, I have nothing to write about, no matter how hard I’m working on my music.
The single-by-single release culture has affected artists in various ways, but most of them don’t stand out to me as beneficial. Of course, there are reasons why artists choose to release single tracks instead of EPs or albums. I have too, so I’ll explain my reasoning here. First, it’s cheaper to have to pay for the recording and production of one song as opposed to a whole collection of them. Another is that it allows you to reassess and tweak your strategy for the following releases. The last one I can think of is that you might not have enough songs for an EP or an album, but in that case, it’s probably too early for you to release any music at all. But ultimately, most of us are releasing singles because we’ve gotten it into our heads that it’s what we’re supposed to do. And it’s just not.