A brief history of the single
As the oldest format for distributing recorded music, the single is something of music industry royalty. To review what we discussed in our look at the EP, the single was the only format for the first 50 years of recorded music, first sold on wax cylinders and brittle shellac discs and eventually on sturdier vinyl. This was simply out of necessity, as early disc-cutting technology and the limitations of the formats on which they cut music prevented more than one song per side.
It was the rock revolution of the 1950s that solidified the 45 rpm (revolutions per minute), 7-inch single’s status in music history. After the format’s introduction by RCA Victor in 1949, the quickly emerging teenager demographic began snapping up 45s at a steady clip due to their portability, pushing megahits like Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to millions of sales. One of the most enduring images of the ‘50s is a group of teens huddled around a portable RCA record player, listening to the era’s latest rock hit.
The LP arrives
After the introduction of longer vinyl formats like the extended playing (EP) 10-inch and eventually the long playing (LP) 12-inch record, the good ol’ 45 rpm single remained the format of choice for both new artists looking to release their first few songs, and for established artists to submit their hits to radio stations. The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the rest of the British Invasion bands all introduced themselves to the music world on 45 rpm singles.
Even after music went digital with CDs, indie artists used the 45 to launch their careers. In 1988 a Seattle garage band called Nirvana released their debut single “Love Buzz” (a cover originally recorded by Dutch band Shocking Blue) on humble hometown label Sub Pop’s new Singles Club series. Just three years later their sophomore album Nevermind catapulted the trio to superstardom. And even after the MP3 began its rise in the late ‘90s, bands like the White Stripes chose to release their first recordings on 7-inch singles.
The single in the digital age
But now that the music industry is almost entirely digital and most revenue is coming from sources like streaming and downloads, what even constitutes a single anymore? Isn’t the term just an antiquated holdover from a bygone era? Not quite!
In the digital age, the single is reclaiming its status as the dominant format. As music consumption has shifted towards streaming, releases have gotten shorter and shorter, with some artists treating albums as an afterthought or eschewing them altogether. Artists are no longer required to release just one or two singles in advance of a big album release. Billie Eilish released more than 15 singles before her 2019 debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (She even released “Party Favor” on 7-inch vinyl!)
Why are artists reverting to a release model from 70 years ago? In a 2018 Rolling Stone article titled “Why Your Favorite Artist Is Releasing More Singles Than Ever,” Warner Bros. exec Larry Mattera explains that listeners’ time is the most important commodity in the age of streaming. When listeners have infinite options and attention spans continue to shorten, releases shorten to match. A steady stream of 10 or 15 singles over a few years keeps an artist in their fans’ minds much more efficiently than one big album release with the same amount of songs.
What is a single now?
But what even is a single in this new world of on-demand music? Much like the “extended play” EP, the name has been misleading over the years. In the analog days, a 7-inch single record was rarely a single song. There are two sides to vinyl, so the main song would go on the A-side and the B-side would be a sort of “anything goes” spot. Sometimes it would be a cover the band recorded that didn’t have a place anywhere else, or maybe a live version of one of their previous hits. To this day, the term “B-side” refers to a song of lesser importance than the rest of an artist’s discography.
Nowadays, major streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify determine what constitutes a single. But their designations aren’t that much different from each other and really aren’t that much different from what a single was in the ‘50s:
On Apple Music and iTunes
Releases that meet the requirements below will automatically have “- Single” inserted in the release title within Apple Music and iTunes Store.
- The release is one to three (1-3) tracks.
- The entire release is 30 minutes or less and all individual tracks are less than 10 minutes.
Your music will be classified under the “Singles and EPs” category if:
- The release is under 30 minutes.
- The release has three (3) or fewer tracks.
Why should I release a single?
Singles are quickly taking back their spot as the major format in modern music. This reason alone is enough to inspire new artists to release a standalone song or two. But what about experienced artists? Or artists who have been away for a while? There are reasons for them and all other artists to release singles.
And if you’re set on distributing a single and are looking for release strategies, we’ve got you covered there too.