Singles Vs. Albums: Which Does the Public Really Prefer?

Big Data wants the world to believe that the album format is dead and CDs are dying a rapid death. But they have a strong vested interest in this point of view; creating services that sell or find and allow the “sharing” of singles has been the tent-pole that supports much of the internet. Could their bias be infecting our perception? Could it be that albums are actually more popular than singles?

The following is an excerpt/sample chapter from the revolutionary new book on music business survival, 100 Answers to 50 Questions on the Music Business, by industry veteran, Moses Avalon.
Singles VS Albums: Which does the public preferYou’d think the answer to the title question above would be obvious: the public prefers Singles, of course. You hear story after story of people illegally downloading MP3 singles off the Internet. Who steals CDs from record stores anymore? Well, like most things, when you drill down the answer gets more interesting.

A better hypothetical question might be: Imagine two bins: One has CD singles and the other has CD albums. If nobody was watching, which bin would be emptied out quicker due to theft?

Ah . . . rephrased this way, the answer seems a bit more gray. And it is.

There has never been a definitive objective test of the public’s preference. The market research surveys that can help us here tell us that people enjoy buying more than one song at a time, and it makes sense that if they are going to buy several songs by the same artist, then it should be an album — which traditionally means a CD.

Until the mid-1960s everyone bought singles. Then labels introduced collections of singles on one large “long-playing” record, called an LP. But, with the “singles market” revitalized again due to iTunes and P2P, the public, for the first time in history, will get to decide the bundling (or un-bundling) of music instead of Execs, accountants, managers, and even the artists. And what does the public want..?


The votes so far seem to indicate a split decision. While singles are clearly a choice for the young or those new to the technology, as soon as iTunes began to offer albums, people began to buy them with almost the same fervor as singles.

In addition, cloud based digital “music lockers” may create a new need for CDs. Labels are trying to enforce restrictions on the types of files that can be loaded into these new services for fear that these same services might encourage theft. These restrictions will likely include terms stating that only those songs purchased legally, via CD and through approved vendors such as iTunes, Amazon, etc. are allowed to be uploaded on these premium cloud services.

Given the wholesale nature of the music locker concept, people might increasingly turn to mediums that naturally grouped songs together legally under one license, for easy upload — the CD or digital album.


Another influencing factor is that labels are going to begin insisting that marque acts be sold exclusively on CD for the first few months or “album only” in digital stores. In fact, this has already happened, but you probably didn’t hear about it.

In 2008 AC/DC and Kid Rock, two of that year’s biggest rock acts, insisted on CD “album-only” sales. Did this insistence pay off? Yep.

Kid Rock’s label decided to forgo a digital release altogether and released Rock N Roll Jesus only on CD. It wasn’t until a year had past, and over 1.7 million albums had sold, that they finally issued a digital license to Amazon MP3 to sell the record but in an “album only” format. Oddly absent from his chosen digital retailers is iTunes who were excluded by Kid Rock as they don’t allow artists to sell complete albums in the “album only” format. Kid Rock’s Rock N Roll Jesus was one of the top five albums of that year and has sold over 5 million units to date.

And AC/DC’s Black Ice album was released exclusively on CD and was only available at Wal-Mart (in North America), and trailed right behind Kid Rock’s as the fourth best-selling album of 2008, with 1.6 million copies sold. It charted number 1 in over 29 countries and has since shipped over 6 million copies… and not one of those copies was a single or a download.

Okay, that was 3 years ago: a lifetime in the world of digital music distribution. And then here come the hip, Facebook generation “experts.” Many claimed that Rock and AC/DC left a lot of money on the table by denying digital sales of singles. Their consensus seemed to feel that this type of “old school” move is only achievable by larger acts with very strong followings. A newer act wouldn’t dare experiment with this type of strategy.

They were and are still wrong.

In the indie world, sites like Bandcamp claim that their artists albums to singles sales are on a 6:1 ratio in CD albums favor. And in the major label land, thier entire music business economy is based on the album configuration. (Both CD and download) and that will not change anytime soon. Artist advances are inextricably designed around and connected to the album format. A fact kept from the public.

So my money says expect to see more “album only” demands for new releases by those artists that can see the writing on the wall and afford to alienate few die-hard singles-only fans.

Yet, another reason albums will survive for quite some time; albums are cool! It’s a cohesive, 50-minute sound vision. Singles were created as an economic reality of selling albums, not as a substitute for them.

And as for albums in CD form, we can be sure that the CD format is not going to die anytime soon if we just look at the number of new CD players/recorders manufactured every day: well over 100,000! We use these players/recorders to archive favorite releases which helps ensure the formats place… at least for the near future.


Technology innovators like Steve Jobs, don’t care about the integrity of music as art. No human who invented the best way to buy, catalog, and “share” music as individual tracks,can be a real fan of music as an art form. (Sorry Steve, I love your brain, but your heart..?)

I remember trying to get my mother to join the iPod generation years ago by telling her that it could hold her entire Classical collection. She said “But it cuts up the symphony into little bits.” (old iPods/iTunes used to treat movements as if they were singles and wouldn’t play them seamlessly.)
100 Answers to 50 Questions on the Music Business by Moses AvalonI was ashamed. My mother “got it” long before I did: music is about creativity, not the technology you play it on. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a music hater, even if they don’t know it. They have sold their souls to the tech-gods if they truly believe that artists should start making three-minute singles and forget about their album vision just because a digital retailer has decided that music is easirer to sell in bite sized chunks. That’s what radio tried to do to music, but albums survived that effort and they will survive this one too.

Music lives! Albums live! And for now, the sales numbers prove it.

Like this post? Support this site and increase your knowledge by ordering your copy of 100 Answers to 50 Questions on the Music Business today. Click here.

23 responses to “Singles Vs. Albums: Which Does the Public Really Prefer?”

  1. broshow says:

    C’mon, this is ridiculous. The fact of the matter is, resentment over years of being forced to pay $12-14 for a mediocre album with one really good track on it, is what has really fueled the consumer ‘revolt’.

    One could say that musicians themselves have lost sight of the art and creativity involved in producing a stellar album. Or then, perhaps it’s because only the rare artist has this kind of talent. All but the occasional Lady Gaga or Bieber fan acknowledge that few artists can produce a whole album of great music. The Beatles are no more. I don’t care if it’s Norah Jones or Keith Urban, there are only a few artists that interesting and complex. We live for the songs we connect with and that DOESn’t make you a music ‘hater’.

    Now, the fact that you can buy an album on iTunes for $10 certainly takes the sting out of it and at a bargain price it makes sense to buy the album for only three songs, if you love the group. But it isn’t a common occurance.

    As for the CD, I bought 3 in the last year from Amoeba (used) only so I could download them into my ipod. They weren’t available on iTunes.

    Anybody seen a Discman in a store lately, I have a friend looking for one? Sony is down to their last US disc mfg. site. Why cling to some fantasy that the cd is perfectly healthy when the evidence points to the contrary? If we are to lament technologies impact on a music delivery system, let it be vinyl.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      @broshow. I wonder if the aritsts who create those albums feel at there is only one good song on each? Or, the co-writers, producers, A&R people, managers and the hoards of people at the lable who have to agree on the quality of an album before they decide to put money and resources behind a new release.

      The fact is, you can never know that there is “only one good song” on an album until AFTER the record is released. Albums like St Peppers, Dark Side of the Moon and many others had “hits.” does that make the rest of the album crap?

      Every album can not be Rumors. But doesn’t every artist deserve the chance to have such success? According to you, NO? They should just release one song at a time, hoping for lightning to strike.

  2. Randy Lee says:

    A last request: Please read this and then I regretfully request that you remove my name from your list.

    Geez Moses. I had a lot of respect for you, back when you were teaching musicians how to not get screwed by the labels. Now, though? You rant and rave about “big data” and your fantasy that pirating music is the “tent pole that supports much of the internet”. You probably have no idea how ludicrous that sounds: I work in “big data” and I know: if there were no such thing as digital music, the internet would still be 97% of what it is now. I and hundreds of thousands of other big data and IT workers are busy doing what we do ever day, and guess what? For a huge percentage of us, NONE of it has anything to do with music! Really*. Do you know what kind of data I am involved with? Scientific data. I work for a company that is doing the scientific research that will cure aging. Music? My company doesn’t even have a theme song! I personally have bought thousands and thousand of dollars worth of goods on the internet, and of that almost none of that was music. No, I am not a pirate! Frankly, I don’t really care much for recorded music any more. If I am not at a live show, I don’t listen much anymore. Be that as it may, my point is that huge amounts of non-musical commerce takes place on the internet. That commerce pays for the internet, not “file sharing”. Even if there was a perfect internet copyright protection scheme in place so that no one could “download” at all, and even if, on top of that, it was illegal to buy music on the internet, everyone would still need an internet connection just to communicate and buy all the other stuff that people buy online. The internet would still be almost every bit as big as what it is right now. Again, take away internet music sales, and the rest of internet commerce could still easily pay for the internet, no music sales *or* piracy needed!

    The making and selling of recorded music was once a very large industry – it is now much reduced, and will never return to its former level. The reason is simple, for about 100 years it was relatively easy to make a recording, but relatively difficult to copy that recording. The difference between the difficulty levels of those two activities is what made the industry such a huge profit center. Digital technology has eliminated that difference. It is gone, over, done, and so the profits from recordings are going away too. Not from music, no, music is timeless. But from recordings of music? Yes. For god’s sake, get over it, and go back to teaching musicians useful skills and knowledge they need further their MUSIC CAREERS in 2011. MUSIC CAREERS, get it?? Not recording careers, that was never the main point, the music itself was always the main point. Ranting and raving about “big data” is not helping anyone’s MUSIC CAREER, and it makes you look like a nut, thereby derailing much of the good stuff that you could do for musicians like you used to. Please, let it go about big data, pirating, and all that noise, and get back to teaching!


    * Oh hell, as long as you’re talking about tent poles: about 7% of all internet traffic is what? That’s right, SPAM! The only well designed study ever conducted was in 2005 by Sprint. Their conclusion: file sharing of all types, (some is legit, you know), only accounted for less than 6% of internet traffic.

    With hope that you someday outgrow your obsession with the business of recorded music,

    Randy Lee

    • Moses Avalon says:

      @randy lee uh… I never said “piracy is the tent poll of the Internet.” i can see why you think I’m wrong if you’re reading comprehension is that off. Read it a second time and don’t forget to breath while you’re reading things you’re predisposed to disagreeing with.

      Maybe I am a nut in your eyes, but you’d be amazed how much I am paid and by whom to give an “expert” opinion on these subjects.

      Make you a deal: you stick to being an expert in your area “Scientific data,” and I’ll stick to what I know best– protecting artists and their rights.

      In the past this meant talking about the lousy deals being offered by labels. Today it includes reversing the propaganda that pedals hopelessness to artists; that their industry is dieing and they have no choice but to give away their music. I can see why push-back from that point of view would offend and even frighten someone like you. You’re very invested in your position. You’d probably just prefer a person like me that is articulate and has a large audience just shut up and stay in the nice, safe corner he was in ten yeas ago– bashing labels for being greedy. Yes, let’s just keep talking about label greed as if that is the real problem. That would make you comfortable, right?

      Fact is, label-greed is a serious problem, but it’s not the main problem today. The main problem today is misinformation about the state of the industry, or even how the industry is defined.

      But if you respected me once and traveled with me all these years, then perhaps you’d be willing to come a few more steps. Things will evolve before the end of the coming year that will unmask a great deal about music and it’s role as an internet “tent poll.”

      I don’t want to give away the end of the story, but watch Warner Music’s transformation after the merger.

  3. Darragh says:

    Very interesting disscussion,
    Your both right of course, from a tech point of view the golden age of selling music is done, but we still need ppl like Moses protecting the value of music, which also has gone as a result of things being taken for free! Its such a nessessary thing in our lifes and musicians need to be loved and respected just like Scientists!
    Rock on!

  4. Tomas Sunmo says:

    @randy Lee & Moses: quite reliable sources estimate that close to half of the internet traffic is porn. Yes, porn.
    As for the album format I can see this in my own kids and their friends that if they like a band, which is based on hearing one song, they also get the whole album, and they listen to the whole album.
    The album format is (luckily) not dead.

  5. Shirley says:

    I tell my students all the time that the CD is not dead. Of course because they are in their late teens or early 20’s they mostly download singles or albums from the Internet. A few still go to the indie record stores and purchase product(cd or vinyl) but generally it’s not their preferential format.

    This time Moses I mostly agree with you (except about the haters).

  6. Glenn Romano says:

    Gee, I thought I was the only person still buying CDs. And yes I get it. I have three kids. They buy both digital downloads and CDs. One actually prefers vinyl. Sometimes, I get a dog with only 2 or 3 songs that I like. But most times I am buying a product from an artist I already trust to produce good music, i.e. Derek Trucks, Radiohead. Or I preview the album on Amazon. Sadly, there are too few record shops anymore where I can just browse the racks.

  7. Tom August says:

    Moses – I do not believe the album format is dead. Yes, there may be only one track that really stands out; but, that one track is really subjective. It’s the listener that decides which track is the stand-out.

    I am a former broadcasting professional at a major AM/FM radio station. And for a good number of years, I was the music director. I used to get hundreds of albums a month; and I had to listen to all of them in order to find the tracks that would fit our format. The job wasn’t always that easy; but it was subjective to what our listeners would enjoy. If there was a track in question, I would gather the other DJs and we’d vote on the track.

    Out of all of the albums I have auditioned, only one stands out for multiple hit tracks: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

    No, albums are not dead; however, it’s difficult to find an album that can garner the same results as having multiple hit tracks.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      @tom Yes, well thank you for posting this. I think some of the cynics who have posted the comments above do not really understand the porcess whereby a song becomes a hit. They think the label has one hit and the says let’s make 9 other crappy songs as filler so we can sell it for $12. That’s just a joke. If labels knew which songs were gonig to be hits they would only finance those recordings and then put all of them on one album. That is a far more cost effective way to make money.

  8. I love your reply, almost as much as the article!
    The tech industry IS the enemy of creators (yes and recorders) of music.
    I don’t consider what I do for a living “making content”

  9. Dan Peek says:

    Dear Moses,
    I was thrilled to hear that the death of the CD has been greatly exaggerated.

    As a recording artist and a consumer, for my 2 cents, the CD is the greatest medium to EVER come down the pike.

    As an original member of the band AMERICA, after years of stalling WB finally released our catalog on CD’s. I was blown away when I played “Homecoming” our 2nd album on CD. It was just like sitting in the control room of the Record Plant where we made the album.

    Also, for my solo work done on Digital equipment, when I finish a recording and listen back to the work on CD, there is absolutely no loss. Back in the day, months of work ended up on cheapo cassette tapes or vinyl albums which of necessity had to have all the highs and lows damped down (otherwise the needle would jump off the record on low end stuff or hiss like a rattler on the high end).

    Anyhoo, great to hear that CD’s are going to be with us for a long, hopefully very long time.

  10. The CD album itself has alot of life in it. It might have been Moses where I read that each day around the world there are tens of thousands of new machines being made (DVD, BluRay, XBox, PS3, Car stereos, etc) that still play the CD format. It’s not like 8-track or cassette that just didn’t have players around anymore.

    Let’s also not forget that the CD is still the preferred way to buy an artists material or body of work at a live show, and millions are still sold this way. The trick is getting the CDs to the fans.

    As far as singles vs. albums, work harder as an artist and sell more. Yeah you may only sell one dollar to a fan, but now you can reach millions easily over the internet without almost spending a dime.


  11. Steve Weaver says:

    Thanks for the article Moses. The only people that seem to be that critical of the article seem to have either not read it correctly at all – or are upset that you confused them with the facts.


  12. TC Smythe says:

    My group’s fans definitely prefer the physical CD over a download, and so do I! Once in a while I get a check for a measely twenty bucks from iTunes, but I make my living from old-fashioned, bejewelcased, CDs sold from the edge of the stage. Vending music online only gives pirates easy access to my work, which they repost illegally on thousands of other sites. (Don’t believe me? google the term “Smythe and Taylor”. Only outbound, mytexasmusic and iTunes are authorized to vend our music – all the others are thieves.) In retrospect, I wish I had never let the digital toothpaste out of the tube. As an experiment, we’ve decided to release our next album in physical form ONLY – those bastards’ll have to at least pay for the first copy if they want to resell it.

  13. sal says:

    Selling track by track was what i considered as the only competetive option untill i read moses avalon’s article.

    now i realise that is dumb for an independent musician. we are not trying to compete with lady gaga, tho the industry (esp itunes) would have us squabble amongst ourselves for scraps

    im sticking with the whole album sale option even if it is on-line, . i want the listeners to make some comitmment to the music.

  14. Great article that, as a retailer, makes sense and frankly, coincides with what is happening on the street/net.

    I want to throw a quick thought out there that I believe is an issue in the digital/CD world – the length of CDs. Pre-digital bands had ~ 35 minutes to fill in a single album – now they have double that. Chances are that there is a lot of filler that doesn’t represent the talent or growth of a musician.

    What have the folks here found – is this a legit finding?

    Richard Flynn, President
    Tower Records, Inc.

    • Ana von Bunners says:

      Mr. Flynn,

      I had no idea about the 35 minute time slot. You’re right…seems to me that when cd’s came out, artists/bands tended to have a lot more tracks per album (~avg. of 12-18, as opposed to ~avg. of 8-10 tracks per cassette/vinyl)than on the previous formats, which to me justified the ~$14 cd cost (as opposed to the ~$7-8 cassette/vinyl cost)at the time.

      But in answer to your question, I don’t believe I have ever felt that the quality of the songwriting or music on the cd’s was any less than on the prior formats. Like someone above pointed out, whether or not an individual song in a collection of works is “good” or mere “filler” is often a subjective opinion of the individual consumer…unless of course, none of the other 13 songs on that disc sound anything remotely like the “hit song” people generally buy it for. But who does that? o_O

      By the way, good to know Tower Records is still in existence. Used to be my favorite “mainstream” record store back when i was a surly teenager 🙂

      Kind regards,

  15. Wing says:

    What kind of question is this? If I am a fan, I buy every single single and album I can find, local or overseas, even if the content is identical. IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE.

    That’s until I spot a single/album I don’t have and then notice the DRM (this is OT but this really includes DVD region codes—the stupidest anti-consumer thing ever invented). Then I won’t know what will happen when I put it into my computer. If I might end up buying a piece of useless junk, then even though I’m a fan I’ll just say “Sorry, no thank you”. What puts people off is the DRM. How can you not get that?

    Wrong question…

  16. Joe says:

    When I have some spare cash, I’ll buy your book. You’ve hit the nail on the head about something I’ve been pondering for a long time!

  17. Ana von Bunners says:

    Back in the day when i used to use a *quite personal* p2p music service in order to find new music (whilst subsequently pirating it), I was the only one out of my tight-knit group of “peers” that preferred to download singles. I remember this because the shared files on my hard drive reflected this phenomenon and used to drive these peers crazy that i never had “full albums” of artists for them to download.

    Though I am not trying to justify my behavior at the time, my reasoning for downloading singles (because i too preferred entire albums from artists i liked)was simply because i was only using this file sharing service to find new music in a specific (and somewhat underground) genre that i had been out of touch with for a while–thus it made more sense to just grab a couple singles from this project/artist and that project/artist here and there in order to get a feel for what’s out there. Did it *stay* that way? Well, that’s another off-topic confession…:/

    But my point is that I have personally never known anyone (self included) to actually prefer “singles” over “albums”–either by legal or illegal means.

    Kind regards,

  18. Hey Moses!

    Excellent points, but I have to admit I disagree with you on a few of them. According to Nielsen Soundscan, 2011 saw 1.374 billion digital transactions, only 103 million of which were for albums. This equates to about 1 in 14 for albums to singles ratio. Not exactly strong evidence in favor of albums. There is also the marketing factor to think about. Internet shelf-space is becoming more and more oriented towards all things “fresh and flashy.” As consumers we have ever shorter attention spans. Therefore, musicians have to stay relevant and there isn’t a better way to do so than release slick tracks every 4-6 weeks. And with DIY recording becoming ever more affordable, why wouldn’t you want to record more frequently? Then you can make every “singles” release an event in and of itself! Fans eat it up!

    As a musician, I agree with you that every musician should aspire to create art. But why can’t singles be pieces of art? Why can’t a band push itself to focus for 4-6 weeks on creating 4 minutes of bliss?

    I do know BandCamp is badass in creating an awesome environment for its artists and fans. This might help explain why their ratio is so much more album oriented.

    And one last thing: I love your response to Randy Lee. I completely agree that musicians should not feel obligated to give their music away. Creating music is the hardest thing about the business! Thanks for helping us all use our creativity to find new ways to make a living doing what we love.

  19. Moses Avalon says:


    The 1.3 billion digital transactions includes far more than just recorded music. To crate an effective argument against mine you would have to isolate the transactions that were only related to recorded music, and even then, only to “ownership,” as opposed to “access.,” like Spotify, for example. Unfortunately it may not mater soon as over the two years since I wrote this article the access model has become the target of the labels. So now even they are vested in killing the album.

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