Singles Strategy Radiohead Style

The album is dead. But, isn’t that old news? Tell that to the music industry.

As a music artist – and one who develops thematic albums – the death of the full-CD is something I’ve come to terms with. In fact, I’m all right with it. Really. Only thing is, try to exercise a business strategy based on singles. The industry, overall, just hasn’t caught up. Sure, there’s iTunes, but attendant parts of such a strategy are nonexistent.

Radiohead – a leader in music marketing – recently declared their allegiance to the single-versus-album strategy. As reported the other day by the New York Times, Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke said:

None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Mr. Yorke told the Believer, a literary magazine based in San Francisco. “Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with ‘In Rainbows’ because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.

I’m not sure if Mr. Yorke is dedicated to the modern methodology behind the single-release strategy or is just tired of making whole albums all at once.

Personally, I’ve come to terms with the single-release strategy by seeing it as a kind of serialization. After all, it’s nothing new. Serialization dates back to the “Arabian Nights” and continues into 19th century literature with Mark Twain’s novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” which was serialized in Century Magazine. Other authors who have employed the practice include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen King.

Nevertheless, when it comes to music tracks, there’s a kind of “Catch 22” regarding single releases that are independent of the album form. Let’s examine CD Baby’s policies on the subject, since they are a big player among indie artists.

In its FAQs, here’s what CD Baby tells its members, in response to the question “Can I release just a single into digital distribution?”:

It would have to be treated as a 1-song album. Everything at CD Baby and at the big digital-download services is still based around the ALBUM. So you’d have to set it up as a one-song album at CD Baby, pay the $35 setup, have it for sale in our store, then sign it up into digital.

The digital download services CD Baby is referring to, include iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Amazon, Napster, Liquid Digital, Nokia and Zume, among others.

So that leaves the forward-thinking indie artist in a kind of tech purgatory. Yes, I can release singles-only on my Web site and post videos on YouTube and elsewhere. That’s good for exposure, but leaves me out of the digital mainstream, so to speak.

I’ll be interested to see what Mr. Yorke actually comes up with in practice. I do hope he turns the digital industry on its head, and shows them the way. On the other hand, CD Baby, which has done a great job for indies otherwise, may take the lead.

Let’s face it, both fans and artists are way ahead of the curve. The industry needs to catch up.
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2 thoughts on “Singles Strategy Radiohead Style

  1. Yes, it is sad about the state of the album today. It took awhile to face up to the realities of today’s fan habits, but I have come to terms with it. Nevertheless, with serialization, I see a kind backwards strategy regarding the album. By that, I mean releasing singles-only first, then, eventually collecting them as an album, but at the end of the process, rather than at the beginning. It’s kind of like what what some authors have done with novels, having chapters published in a major magazine prior to the release of the book. That can actually build audience along the way, creating a pent-up demand for the book.

    Let me add that this is all an experimental strategy. Derek Sivers, in his article, “Learning” on Music Think Tank, says that no one in the industry really knows what the future of the music business really is. Over the past several years, music biz strategies have been about trial and error, from the major labels to the indie artists. We just have to take a deep breath and keep trying. And just one more thing: we need to have fun along the way, or we risk losing our creative spirit and energy.

    -Allen

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