Feeding the Machine: Are You Releasing Enough Music to Have a Real Career?

Welcome back to singles culture. A survey of history reveals a familiar pattern. And a few good ideas about what musicians should be focusing on now.

An early "Record Album."  In this case, Bing Crosby's White Christmas. Click to buy.

Early “Record Albums” were collections of previously released singles. Pictured here is Bing Crosby’s best-selling “White Christmas” album. It consisted of ten songs on five 78 rpm records, all of which had been already been released. It went on to sell 15 million copies anyway. (Click to buy on Etsy.)

For about 40 years, the full-length album has been assumed to be the “default” method for releasing music in the minds of most musicians and fans.

At first glance, the numbers seem to back this up. When you look at gross sales, it’s easy to see that albums – not singles or EPs – have kept the record industry afloat for as long as most of us can remember.

But wasn’t always that way. Back at the dawn of the vinyl age, and for many years afterward, sales of recorded music were driven by singles.

This is a dynamic that’s reemerging today in the world of digital music. As young music listeners continue to flock to web-based streaming services for their music fix, a strategy of releasing a steady stream of singles is likely to be a better approach for new artists than releasing full-length albums all in one go.

If anything, this seems to be a natural stage in the development of almost any mass-market artistic medium. Ambitious, full-length albums may once again become a sustainable place for new artists to start in the future. But if history is any guide, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Fortunately, history also offers a few suggestions about what new artists can do now to have a decent shot at launching their careers in today’s musical economy.

The “Album” as a Collection of Singles

Most of today’s music fans aren’t even aware of just how literal the term “album” was in the beginning.

When they were first introduced, a record album was much like a photo album: It was a multi-page, hardbound book or box set, comprised of a collection of several 45 or 78 rpm singles.

Most of these singles would have been previously-released hits, but there was a small market for these “record albums” anyway. Artists knew that many fans might have missed out on some of their singles when they were first released. And to sweeten the pot, artists soon began including a few extra bonus songs that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

This kind of pattern shows up again and again throughout the history of media. In the digital age, many successful popular artists are taking an almost identical approach to that of the early recording artists: They’re focusing on creating a steady stream of short, immediately available works, and then bundling the best of them together, adding a few key extras, and offering them up for sale.

If you decide to reframe your thinking in this way, you’ll be in good company. Early on, all the major hits by The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Motown, Elvis and Bing Crosby were distributed successfully as singles long before they were bundled together into albums. They then targeted those multi-disc “record albums” at hardcore fans who were created by their steady stream of great singles.

Analogs are Everywhere

We can see this kind of pattern emerge in any number new media formats, from antiquity right up into the internet age.

The rise of feature films piggybacked on the success of short films and newsreels. Those shorts in turn, grew out of the popularity of the super-short one-offs featured in coin-operated nickelodeons.

Without the appetite created by the nickelodeons, and without the distribution channels and movie theaters created by the shorts and newsreels, there would be no eventual Citizen Cane, no There Will Be Blood, no Star Wars or E.T or The Departed.

Similarly, the great novels of Charles Dickens were serialized in newspapers long before they were ever bundled into “books.” This turned into the default approach for popular authors of the Victorian age because it was the only thing that made any damn economic sense at the time.

Authors would publish new chapters of their books weekly or monthly in the growing newspapers. This gave them a regular stream of income, the ability gauge readers’ interest, and the opportunity to keep their work incredibly timely and relevant.

Later on, publishers would repackage the best of these serialized works into “book” form, and sell them to a larger audience.

However, it was only after the creation of this new, paying audience for long-form works that artists began flocking in droves to write new full-length novels, ultimately bypassing the serialization process entirely.

But that took at least a full generation, and even then, serialization didn’t disappear completely for some time.

History Repeating

Image by Flickr User "Dave Nicholas"

Image by Flickr user “Dave Nicholas”

We can see this same pattern emerging in today’s blogosphere. Looking at the latest generation of best-selling authors, we see that many of them turn out to be bloggers who found ways to make their day-to-day writing sustainable, and then repackaged their early work into book form.

Examples of this are everywhere, from the comics of The Oatmeal, to the financial self-improvement books of Ramit Sethi, to the marketing guides of Seth Godin.

That great works on the literary side of things are as of yet, late to the party, should be as unsurprising as it is unfortunate.

Dickens didn’t begin writing his first major work, The Pickwick Papers, until more than a decade after ad-supported “mercantile newspapers” became widely available, and three years after the subscription-based “penny papers” began to take off.

If you can’t see the parallels to the internet age in that, I don’t know what I can say to help you figure all this out.

The Evolution of Recorded Music

Music wasn’t immune to this dynamic back in the heyday of physical recordings, and it’s not immune today, either.

When it came to physical albums, the industry’s first step was to create an infrastructure to distribute, promote and sell low-cost singles. This helped grow a new audience for recorded music, and paved the way for the rise of the full-length albums many years later.

If you wanted to get involved in the recorded music world from its birth up until the late 1960s, you needed to try and make your way in by feeding the machine with a steady stream of singles.

Only once you were successful at this could you even begin to think about going through the expense of packaging your material into full-length albums. There’s little sense in making a career investment of that scale if you have no realistic chance of earning it back in some way or another.

And that’s exactly the stage that digital music is in now.

Today, we’re still creating and figuring out this new infrastructure. In the physical era, a long time passed between the creation of the old infrastructure and the point at which anybody could expect to make a dime by focusing on full-length “albums.” (Especially at the start of their careers.) Why should we expect it to be any different in the digital domain?

Soundscan reports that in 2012, there were about 1.4 billion digital music purchases in total. Roughly 100 million of those sales went to digital albums. That’s a ratio of about 13 to 1 – and that’s not even counting the huge footprint of singles-driven streaming services like Spotify and YouTube which are arguably among the dominant music “newspapers” of today.

Of course, the significantly higher price tag of albums means that we can’t discount their role in the industry as a whole. It’s a huge chunk of revenue – Almost as significant as the income from those 1.3 billion in sales of singles. But just like in the film and game industries, those album sales have become increasingly concentrated around a few major blockbusters each year.

If small and independent artists are to pick up a piece of the pie right now, it may be a good idea for them to start out by focusing on those 1.3 billion sales of singles as well as the trillions of monetized digital streams, instead of that measly 100 million album sales. That’s less than one digital album sold each year for every living American.

What to Do Now

Unless you’re an established artist, it’s our recommendation that you focus on slowly building an audience before you even think about releasing a full-length album. With any luck, you might even be able to make a little bit of money while you’re at it.

To do this, I recommend that you start thinking like a blogger. From now on, consistency is key. Be like Dickens or Motown or Sinatra: Start serializing your releases. Start feeding the machine.

Unless you end up with a huge influx of capital you can use to market your work, growing an audience can only be done one way: Song by song, post by post, show by show, until you eventually reach a critical mass of fans that can help support your career.

So set a steady goal for yourself: What kind of schedule can you commit to?

One new song each month = One album’s worth of material each year. One song every other week = One album, a couple EPs and a whole bunch of bonus tracks.

There are plenty of other commitments you can make: Could you write one blog post or give one virtual music lesson each week? Could you release one EP or one videotaped live performance each season? Could you commit to playing at least ten, twenty, or fifty shows each year? Could you put out one little intimate YouTube video every other week?

If this sounds at all daunting, remember that it’s just like learning an instrument: Regular discipline and devotion has a way of adding up to stunning results over time. Start with small, achievable goals, keep hitting them, and you’ll be amazed at where you might end up.

The blog you’re reading right now started with zero readers back in July 2011. It slowly grew, issue by monthly issue, until one morning in July 2013, I awoke to find that 70,000 people had visited that month alone. Presuming that kind of growth continues, it might not be long before I think about releasing my first full-length book.

Musicians, take note: If, after a few years, you could attract 70,000 potentially interested listeners each month, and then sell just 0.5% of them each month of an average of $25 worth of music and swag, you are talking about a pretty damn sustainable level of income, even after your expenses.

(Want to break it down? 0.5% of 70,000 = 350. So, 350 listeners x $25 x 12 times a year = $105,000. That’s not bad at all. Even if you halve one or more of these figures, and then factor in expenses, you’d still be doing pretty damn well by most any aspiring musicians’ standards. And that’s not counting live performances, ad revenues from streaming plays, teaching, guest performances, sync licensing, merch and retail sales, etc.)

This kind of reach will not come overnight. For many people, even if they are diligent, it might not come at all. But with the right mix of aptitude, outside help, hard work, research, and planning, it is possible.

Just like with a band, remember that there can also be strength in numbers. If you join forces with other artists through a label or musicians’ collective, your combined growth might quickly outpace whatever you’d be able to accomplish in isolation.

Imagine for instance, a website where you could discover a new song by great artists you already love, each and every week. Would you sign up? I would.

In fact, this very arrangement is what has driven the astonishing growth of sites like Pitchfork and NPR Music in recent years.

Isn’t it time that musicians and labels started taking matters into their own hands? Media outlets like these should be a supplement and a way to grow our own followings further. They shouldn’t be able to decide our fates.

Successful Serials

TV and serialization go hand-in-hand. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that while the rest of us have been lamenting the downfall of recorded music, book publishing, and commercially successful indie games and films, serialized television has entered something of a golden age.

Television is an art form that is perfectly adapted to thrive in today’s economy: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, The Wire – Anyone who likes TV has been very happy with the quality of the stuff recently, and anyone making TV has been pretty happy with the income, too.

Streaming video sites like Netflix and Hulu have recently begun re-investing in new, high-concept programs thanks to the outstanding success of their serialized approach. Serialization has been so profitable for them in fact, that they are now even playing around with the very format itself, creating larger, more ambitious works all at once.

First they got the basic distribution going. Then when that started working, they took it the next level. Now, shows like Arrested Development and House of Cards are being released as mega-features: Full series developed and put out all at once. Consider it streaming TV’s version of the concept album. This is the kind of ingenuity we need in the music world right now.

Some day in the future, we’ll be able to focus on creating larger, more ambitious music works as a matter of course once again. But first we need to start focusing on making songs sustainable again. And the way to do this is song by song, day by day, month by month, year by year.

The Fade Out

When the newspaper industry exploded in the 19th century, it helped create a huge new market for written words where there once was nearly none. But that new market had to be nurtured.

First, a new generation of readers got started with short articles and chapter-length bites of fiction, and then slowly began to appreciate longer and longer works.

It’s time to realize that we, as a species, are just now become digitally literate. We are the first generations to figure out how to live with this new level of technology.

If you want to start a career in music today, it’s time to think like the early newspaperman, the blogger, the TV writer or the vaudevillian-turned-silent-film-star.

How will you know when you’re successful? You’ll know that you’re successful when your regular output of music becomes so great a part of the lives of others, that if you stopped releasing it, people would notice, and they would complain about it. When you get there, you will be doing something that matters. You will be doing something valuable, and something that you can negotiate with.

You won’t get there overnight, but you can make a commitment to start heading in that direction now.

The truth is that full-length albums, like any other product, are a mere economic construct and nothing more. They became the dominant form of music sales in the late 20th century, not because of their intrinsic merit over all other forms of music, but because of a very precise set of incentives and rewards.

At the current time, that set of incentives and rewards no longer exists. But the incentives haven’t disappeared. They’ve merely shifted. For now.

Some day, they’ll shift again. Right now, you have one of two choices: Adapt, or sit back and watch others do so for themselves.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, journalist and educator

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Industry Trends, October 2013. Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Sign up for our Email Newsletter


  • E-news and Updates

    Subscribe to Trust Me, I'm a Scientist Find me on Facebook Find me on Twitter Email Trust Me, I'm a Scientist