single-by-single-release-culture

Should We Fight the Single-by-Single Release Culture?

artist, creativity, music, productivity

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.

albums-versus-playlists

Why You Should Be Listening to Albums Instead of Playlists

artist, music, songwriting

When my friends used to ask me to put music on over dinner, I always defaulted to a Spotify playlist. In the mornings, while taking a shower, I would often put on a singalong playlist, or the road trip one when I was in the car with my dad. I make my own playlists, too – songs to dance to, folky tunes that make you cry your heart out, new discoveries. I love playlists. But this hasn’t always been the case. I only got a Spotify account two years ago, but before that, I only ever listened to albums, apart from the occasional music video on Youtube.

I hadn’t noticed how much my listening pattern had changed until I was having coffee with a friend and he put on some music in the background. As I was listening to it, I realised it was all the same artist, and I thought to myself: “How boring.” Only an hour later, as I was walking down the street and listening to my ‘Bad Bitch Playlist’ (obviously), I realised what had occurred.

What was the point of musicians making albums anymore if other listeners reacted the way I did? Did they? Or was I an anomaly? But talking to other friends, I realised most of us didn’t listen to albums anymore, apart from, maybe, some albums we had grown up with and didn’t know how to listen to differently.

I went back to that friend for another coffee, and, while putting on another album, he said: “I never listen to albums on shuffle. It had taken me weeks to figure out what order to put the songs in on my own album. They’re meant to be in a certain sequence.” It’s true. Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage would sound ridiculous on shuffle. The transitions between the songs on Kate Tempest’s The Book of Traps and Lessons wouldn’t sound nearly as smooth. For any musician I listened to, there was a thought process behind the tracklist.

That hadn’t answered my question, though. Why did we still bother making albums? And what was the benefit of listening to an album over a playlist?

I had always been the type of person who would become obsessed with a certain album and listen to it until it made me sick. I got to know the artist behind it, their inner world, by spending time with them and only them for the duration of the ten, twelve, sixteen tracks on their LP. Now, I was the person who listened to a mishmash of different songs, forgot artists’ names, and only vaguely knew what a certain lyric meant in whichever song. I wasn’t diving deep into music anymore, it felt more like window shopping. I wanted to learn to listen to albums again.

I started with Josephine Foster’s I’m a Dreamer. Listening to an album again felt like watching an arthouse film after binge-watching a Netflix show. My attention span was not trained for such a sustained effort. I hated it and told my friend as much. But a week later, over breakfast and coffee, I listened to it again. Maybe the combination of a mellow Sunday morning and Josephine’s voice was a good combination because I couldn’t stop listening. I felt like I was on a journey.

Now, I can’t listen to playlists anymore. It feels like a job half-done. I don’t get to know an artist by only hearing one song. I listen to playlists to find new artists I want to hear more of, but that’s different from never stopping to find out more about specific musicians at all. That’s why albums remain important. A single doesn’t tell the story of an artist. It’s the elevator pitch, the business card. To get to know an artist, to know what they’re worth, what message they’re trying to convey, what they sound like when they’re not trying to get on the radio, you need to listen to the album.

Since I started listening to albums again, I started remembering the names of the musicians I listen to. Not only that, I started listening to more music. Knowing more about the people I listened to, I started feeling more in control, and less like I was being spoonfed songs by Spotify. I became more curious and adventurous in my listening instead of relying solely on the Discover Weekly playlist. Do yourself a favour and listen to an album today. And if you catch yourself thinking how boring it is, keep listening.