Connect With Us

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner



« What Artists Should Know About | Main | Hear-Like-Buy: Why Spotify Is Marketing, Not Commerce »

Unbundling the Album: A Business Case for Releasing Single Songs

There are many examples of the benefits of working in harmony with nature. When first venturing out beyond home a child is taught to walk with traffic. A carpenter achieves a cleaner result by going with the grain rather than against it. In sports a team succeeds by taking advantage of what the defense gives them, and there are countless other examples that express why it is better to work with the flow rather than push against it.  For the past ten years the recorded music industry has ignored this strategy, and stubbornly clung to a business model that is no longer in harmony with they way people consume music by predominantly releasing albums in a single song economy.  

According to Nielsen Soundscan, in 2011 there were 1.374 billion digital transactions last year. Of those only 103 million or 7.5 % were for albums. This means that approximately 1 out of 14 times a consumer went to buy music online last year they were purchased an album. First with Napster and MP3s, then iTunes and the iPod, and now with streaming services like Spotify and—the music consumer has repeatedly demonstrated that they prefer single songs to albums. Despite this fact, nearly 77,000 albums were released last year.

Rather than change strategy to work with this reality, most people in the industry just complained that it wasn’t fair, and continued the status quo.  I believe there are several reasons for this.  The first reason is that labels believe they can make more money selling albums. The second, is that marketing and sales processes were built for the album system and that makes it difficult to change. The last reason is because artists believe they are supposed to make albums either as a musical statement or as validation of their professional status.

This essay will attempt to prove that all three of those reasons are not necessarily true, and that selling single songs can be better promotionally, artistically and financially for artists and labels.


Layout of the Song Based Release Strategy

There are three key rules to the successful execution of the song based release strategy.

  1. Every song is given a reasonable amount of time to stand on its own.
  2. Every song receives its own unique marketing plan.
  3. No song is available before it is promoted.

After that there are limitless ways to release the music. An artist can release a song every week, every month, every day, or every third Monday. It doesn’t even have to be uniform.  It really doesn’t matter how the music is released, as long as the philosophy that every song is important in its own way is embraced.


Why this strategy works promotionally

Not only do consumers prefer music in a single format, but the outlets for music promotion are all focused on single songs as well.  Some of these formats are:

Radio: The bread and butter of radio is singles. Album Oriented Radio died when radio started hiring consultants in the 1970’s.

Blogs: Blog posts are usually about one or two songs.  The biggest aggregator of blogs, The Hype Machine, focuses on songs instead of albums.

Club Promotion: By definition the DJ at a club or bar will provide a steady mix of songs. It is quite the rarity to hear a whole album played in a club with the exception of a listening party.

Synchs for Commercials and TV: For reasons of time, cost, and artistic expression, individual songs are usually featured as synchs rather than albums.

Music Videos: Music videos are primarily made for one song. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between.

The two promotional avenues that focus on the whole album are preview streams, which have the drawback of lasting for only one or two weeks, and album reviews. Album reviews have come to mean less and less each year as newspapers and magazines cut space and syndicated their copy.  They have also lost their main purpose of previewing an album when consumers can decide for themselves whether they like an artists on streaming sites. The editor in chief of Spin Magazine recently cited that exact sentiment as justification for why Spin would be relegating the majority of their album reviews to 140-character tweets.

In addition to working in harmony with the promotion outlets currently available for music, there are several other benefits of the song-based release strategy in terms of marketing.

The first is always having new assets to promote to the media.  One thing that occurred because of the digital age is content has a much shorter shelf life. The Internet is a voracious beast and is always hungry for more content. Importance is placed on newness and exclusivity.  In a song-based system there is always something new to engage the media. If an album of songs is released you lose that newness factor when pitching for placement.

The second is that it creates a platform to consistently engage fans. In the current media landscape, attention is the most valuable commodity. By consistently releasing new material, an artist has an opportunity to engage their fans much more often than the year or more that commonly occurs between album releases.

The third is that it gives consumers a chance to know what they are buying.  This eliminates the feeling of betrayal or trickery when buying an album based on a single song and finding out the rest of the songs are either poor quality or just not their cup of tea. The best analogy I can use to explain this is the DVD compilation release of a TV show. Fans buy a DVD of a show after having seen the complete season. If DVDs of television series were marketed the way music albums were, a 12-episode season would have one show picked to be played on television repeatedly in the hopes that it would drive people to retail stores to purchase the whole series DVD. It is not an exact comparison, because of the variety of differences in how the two are monetized, but I still think it illustrates how bizarre the current album-marketing paradigm is.


Why this strategy works artistically

First, I want to be clear that this method doesn’t mean that an artist can’t create a full album of songs, or even a concept album. It only changes the order and format in which it is released. This results in the album not being fully experienced until all the songs are released and collected by a fan.  The baseline question that needs to be confronted when evaluating this method is “Is it absolutely necessary that the first time a fan hears my album is in its entirety?” If the answer is no, then a song based strategy can work artistically.

After that hurdle is cleared — and there should be very few bands that should answer the above question with a yes — there are several reasons why this method can lead to better artistic expression. First it forces artists to step up their game. This method puts every song on a pedestal or under a microscope. The temptation to phone it in on an “album track” is eliminated. It might be a little hyperbolic but I hope that it could usher in a new golden age of songwriting.

The next advantage is release flexibility and the opportunity to be timely. Presently, there are a number of obstacles to releasing a song about current events in the middle of an album cycle. No matter how relevant or great the song is, there is a tendency to not put full promotion behind it, because the song will not drive album sales. With the song based method there is greater flexibility to interrupt the release schedule with a timely or important song, because there is less financial disincentive.

The last advantage is counterintuitive in that it allows great albums to stand out. The true concept albums become something worth noting. If song based release strategy becomes the dominant model, and some group has another Sgt. Pepper or The Wall in them, then it will stand out. If they don’t, and have just another average album, then they will have given up their shot at sustained revenue.


Why this strategy works financially

This leads to the most important questions for whoever has invested in the music. Is the sustained revenue of singles equal to or greater than the lump sum of album shipments and sales? In terms of pure revenue from recorded music there is a relatively simple equation to determine how many singles an artist would need to sell to equal the money generated from the current combination of album shipments and individual track sales. This is:

((Album $ + Track $ ) / # Tracks ) /Single Wholesale =  Average Sales Per Track

Using hypothetical sales figures it would look like this:

Traditional album release A

10-track album

50,000 albums   x $6.50 wholesale = $325,000

200,000 tracks x $.70 wholesale = $140,000

(($325,000 + $140,000 ) /10 ) /$.70 = 66,428 average sales per track


Traditional album release B

12-track album

1000 albums x $6.50 wholesale cost = $6,500

13,000 tracks x. $70 wholesale cost =  $9,100

(($6,500 + $9,100) / 12) /$.70 = 1,857 average sales per track

After doing this initial equation for either previous or projected album sales the next step is to look at how the track sales were divided on previous releases to determine the possibility of meeting or exceeding the target average sales per track. As this is a subjective process there is no exact mathematical formula that will work every time, but I have two formulas that will give a rough idea of how a release will fare with this strategy.

Formula 1

(Sales of the promoted singles + average of all other singles) / promoted singles + 1

If that number is greater than the average sales per track needed, then a singles based release strategy is probably a safe bet.

Formula 2 (which is really not a formula and only for veteran artists)

Average first two week albums sales = core audience.

If the average of first two weeks of all an artist’s album sales is greater than the average sales per track needed then a singles based release strategy is likely worth pursuing. This method does not work for artists with one album that experienced great success after a slow build ala Mumford and Sons.

If, after running the numbers, it is still not clear what release strategy is best, there are two other financial incentives to the song based release strategy to consider. First it eliminates the phenomenon of putting all your eggs in one basket and in turn spreads out risk when developing an artist. In this case the basket is the single.

There is nothing worse than the process of picking a single. In my experience it is usually a bunch of music executives sitting in a conference room listening to two or three tracks with their most intense faces, maybe with a couple of head bobs to let you know that they really feel the music.  It is very funny to watch people try to indicate that their sense of hearing is working.

Then comes the debate. There is a discussion of what is currently on the radio and how the potential songs fits in with rest of the music landscape. There is sometimes research brought in to show what test audiences have thought of the songs.  After that it is gut feel and a bit of magic to reach consensus and a single is picked. That is it. A half hour in a conference room determines the trajectory of an entire album campaign in both focus and budget allocation.

If that single doesn’t work it doesn’t matter how many people would have liked the other songs the artist created: they will never get exposure, because of a lack of marketing funds. The majority of the budget was devoted to creating awareness for that one single, and this does not seem like a very efficient use of resources. 

The second benefit is for business arrangements where there are income streams that are not directly related to recorded music, namely touring. One of the big issues that bands have is making sure there is something new to promote around a tour. Song-based release strategy makes it possible to always have something new for fans and to either be considered for tour packages or have a story for promoters. By spreading out the release of new material, the artist will increase the demand for their other revenue streams. 

The last benefit is better management of manufacturing expenditures. For labels, one of the toughest costs to predict is the amount of physical albums to manufacture and ship. For developing artists, manufacturing their first run of CDs will usually cost several thousand dollars. The song-based release strategy helps determine what the demand is for the project and consequently physical product.



This article shows that a song based release strategy has promotional and artistic benefits, and that it is feasible financially. There are many factors for why certain artists or albums succeed and others fail. The release strategy is just one of those factors and will never be fully responsible for either the success or failure of an artist. There will be times when it won’t work out, but the album release system doesn’t always work either. Nothing works all the time, and nothing is the perfect solution for every situation. The premise was that it can work, and I believe this shows how it can. Of course, this can never truly be proven until artists and labels take the plunge and start releasing their music as individual songs. I hope they take that chance.


Common arguments against this theory and my responses

When writing this essay I floated the concept out to many people both in and out of the music industry. I received several common responses:

1. This will never make enough money if music moves to streaming as a dominant listening habit:  If streaming makes no money, then whether music is released as an album or as individual songs will be irrelevant. At that point other revenue streams become more important, and I would argue that the ancillary benefits of always having something new to promote and to engage an artists fans still makes the song based release strategy the more attractive option.

2. It is easier to record as an album: Agreed, but his strategy does not preclude an artist from recording a whole album at once, which I know is a much more efficient and cost effective way of creating music. It is focused on how that music is released after it is recorded.

2a. But what if all the tracks leak?: This is definitely the weak point of the strategy. A leak is much more detrimental to song based released system as it effectively destroys the advantages of letting each song stand on its own, and the newness quality when promoting. The only counter I have is that music most commonly leaks when it is submitted for manufacturing. As manufacturing is delayed or eliminated in this model, perhaps it would curtail the practice of music leaks. I am not certain of that though, and it is a risk.

3. This would kill record stores: There are many factors at work in the decline of physical music retail. Song based release strategy is meant to work in harmony with the existing trends, it did not initiate them.  The one positive is that after a little while record stores would have a lot more data available to gauge demand. There are many instances of something that was available online first finding a successful second life in music retail for latecomers to the band. Radiohead’s album, In Rainbows, is the best example. After the pay what you want experiment the band released it in stores and still had a #1 album. This method could ensure that only the albums with the most demand are in stores eliminating the phenomenon of shipping platinum and returning gold.

4. This won’t work if you want to go to radio: The question that needs to be answered here is whether the network effects of radio play of one or two songs will result in enough artist affinity to drive sales of the non-radio singles. When coupled with the other promotional methods for those songs, I think they will. The other possible benefit of this method would be that radio might go back to playing a diverse group of songs, as singles will no longer be dictated to them. Every song is promoted, and radio can once act as a filter instead of a megaphone.

Information that could make this article better

There are several pieces of information I do not possess that would make this article better. These are:

Exact sales numbers: With the Soundscan artist history (including track sales) of a large sample of artists I can run the formulas to see if there are trends between album releases and single sales.

Albums vs. Singles revenue from Tunecore: With this information it would be possible to go beyond the Soundscan data and look at the trends of independent artists.

Album streams vs. single song streams from Spotify, Mog, RDIO or Rhapsody: With this information I would be able to determine if listening habits change from singles to albums when streaming. Anecdotally I don’t think they will, but I do not have empirical evidence of that.

A case study – An artist who has released their album as a selection of individually promoted songs is the best way to prove the theory works.


About Frank Woodworth:

Frank Woodworth is a ten year veteran of the music industry and the founder Glacial Concepts, a consultancy committed to finding ways to monetize the creation, distribution, and curation of content. Contact him at or @glacialconcepts

Reader Comments (20)

Hi Frank, this is an interesting article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a full-time DIY artist this is a strategy that I have toyed with in my mind and I think potentially it's a viable model for digital releases. My concerns and apprehensions are more to do with:

A: How this would apply to a physical release/distribution strategy
B: Overall artistic merit and reputation

I'll expand on these two and share my thoughts:

A: Despite it being 2012 and digital becoming more and more important; as an indepndent artist 99% of my sales revenue is still through PHYSICAL sales (i.e. CDs). This is mainly due to how my music is promoted, distributed and sold. In fact, my album sales outstrip my single song sales massively on a per unit basis. I understand this is a rare case but it exists. Considering the cost of manufacturing a physical single is the same as manufacturing a physical album, this strategy would not make any sense once you consider how much each can be sold for.

B: Both artists and fans like having albums as a product. Personally, I rarely buy single songs unless it's a one off song I like from an artist I'm not typically a fan of. In most cases I will always wait for the full album and buy that. I feel I would prefer this to buying 10-12 singles over the
course of a year. Also, there is some intangible merit in releasing albums. It does still say something about the artist also there exist both 'single artists/bands' and 'album artists/bands'.(i.e. they make great singles but average albums or vice versa). I know with the model above an album can still be released but by that stage it would be more like a compilation really and
the incentive to buy it would be reduced if the songs have already been released individually.

Again though, interesting article and definitely worth some artists/labels considering. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on my two counter-arguments above. Respect.


February 8 | Registered CommenterZuby Music

Hi Zuby,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. For your first point. It seems to me like a song based release strategy is not good for you. I imagine if you ran through the formulas I laid out, that the outcome would be to not try a song based release strategy. In fact I ask that you do that, so you can see if the result is different, and that there are situations where I need to revise my initial calculations.

To your second point, I address it a little in the article. There are to many people who believe that an album gives them credibility. It is what this generation of musicians was raised to think, and I don't blame them, but there were 77,000 albums released last year, how many do you think were a true artistic statement? I love great albums, Funeral, You Forgot it in People, Use Your Illusion 2, Sublime (self titled) and Rumours, are some of my favorites, but just as often I have favorite songs. One of the biggest justifications for piracy is "there was only one good song on the album"

This is not an argument I plan to win as albums mean so much to so many that it is like arguing religion. The arguments for albums are based on faith or anecdotal evidence or some other ethereal belief.

So I ask you, "what is a better indicator of credibility?" Letting each song stand on its own, or hiding them in a compilation (album) and asking people to purchase the bundle based on a sample of one or two songs.

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Woodworth

This is what artists did for years before the album became the standard. I have committed to releasing one song per month from this point out. With one song release under my belt I can say every point you make is spot on.

Doing this also allows for you to hone and track system. Making tweaks along the way.

Probably the biggest benefit in my mind is doing single consistently creates a nice flow of new content. My email list was starting to get stale but new content has already started to liven things up and get people talking.

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Koehler

Hey Frank, thanks for posting. This is well laid out, and thought out. My team has been toying with this idea for awhile and I would suggest readers of your article to also check out Professor Pooch's Now, If I Owned A Record Company… in which the 40 year music industry veteran practically lays out a business plan for a modern, singles-based record label.

February 8 | Registered CommenterWicked D Harrison

An article from this very blog from April of last year: The Problem With Releasing A Single Each Month

As your sales figure of 50,000 shows, this may be viable for major labels and hipster big shots, but probably not a good idea for real independents. Also, one of the biggest players in on-line independent music is Bandcamp. They encourage albums and in fact, while they allow single song downloads, the overwhelming number of downloads are for complete albums.

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterRussell

I've started releasing songs this year on an 'as soon as they're ready' basis, and am aiming at (and so far stuck to) once every 2 weeks. It's a year long project. True, not lots of sales so far. But after only the 3rd release there has been a definite increase in visits to my websites, increases in my mailing list and fan page sign-ups and a slowly increasing list of media and radio (online and community) wanting to be forwarded each release. I'm still trying to improve delivery techniques and web presence of the project and the way people can interact with the work. So far, though, it all seems positive

Of course the main difference is the 'periodical' release relying on building familiarity through regularity. Whereas the album 'single-product' release relies on do-or-die interruption to gain quick interest. You'll know if you've been successful with an album relatively quickly where-as the periodical release will only bear fruit if you can continue it regularly over a long time so it's harder to tell if you're making any impact until you have a more significant body of work out.

Anyway, justification aside, I probably wouldn't have started this if I didn't feel it represented a new and significant artistic challenge

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterFronz Arp


Thanks for the link to the that article. Very interesting. I found the last comment to be the most insightful, the idea of setting release goals before moving on to the next event seems like a very reasonable and actionable solution. Fronz, you might look into structuring your strategy that way.

Regarding bandcamp, what are the actual stats. You can't just say most of the downloads are albums. What constitutes most? Without real numbers I can't respond to it properly. It doesn't surprise me that there would be more albums, that is what that platform is designed to do, but I would like the actual numbers.

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Woodworth

I think with doing the singles, there's a lot of places that are not as likely to give coverage (radio, print magazines) - but I think if you are trying to build steam via blog reviews & facebook shares & such this is ideal. I think especially if you did two songs to promote at once & each having a video it would be ideal. Also, don't forget that you need images for the bloggers to use with the post!

Great article! I'm currently planning my next release/s & you've present some great arguments for this strategy. Personally I'm keen to move down this path.. i like the idea of shining a light on each individual single song & giving each as much love & attention as they can handle. I see many many benefits for doing this.. as you say, it doesn't mean you can't releas an album it's just that the sequence of events is altered.

Many Thanks
Dino :)

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterDino

This is such a great "top of mind" strategy with the added benefit of the opportunity to sell tracks multiple times to the same fan - digital release first time round then as a special (could be exclusive) physical release.

But don't forget what fans want. Zuby's fans like physical releases so that's right for him and his fans. Know your own fans, know your own stats and make decisions from there.


The Fan Formula

OK. I found the post on the Bandcamp blog.

"On Bandcamp, albums outsell tracks 2 to 1. Put another way, 66% of paid downloads on Bandcamp are for albums, compared to only about 6% for the greater Nielsen-reporting world."

As they point out, it may be due to a different type of fan (and of course artists). Like I said, the single format has always been more geared towards the casual music fan. Music fanatics hunger for more depth, it seems to me. So again, It depends on the artist, the strategy and the (forgive the use of ugly capitalistic marketing term) target market.

February 9 | Unregistered CommenterRussell


Thank you for finding the info. Now if we can cross reference that with all of the other outlets for music sales and streaming, maybe a true picture can be developed.

As you state it will probably be different for everyone. I know I would love to see it, and write something that was based less on theory.


February 9 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Woodworth

Interesting essay. It is risky to generalise about the 'best' way of doing things in music, as it depends on so many factors which vary from one artist to another. As an example of someone who is now following the 'single songs' approach, for the last year Imogen Heap has been writing, recording and releasing a new song every few months. Then when a dozen or so tracks are ready they will also be relased as an album. Each individual track has its own video, artwork (3DiCD), etc. By her own account she wants to get a better balance of album work, touring, other musical activities (e.g. collaborations), and social life - it is not a 'business' decision. So far it seems to be working pretty well: the quality of the songs is (IMO) very high, and she is ahead of her timetable. I have no idea how it is going commercially. I don't think any of the songs have 'charted', but that is not what she is about anyway. There are admittedly a few drawbacks. One is that some people expect every track to sound like a 'single' - i.e. to be relatively catchy and commercial - so when she releases something more challenging, like 'Neglected Space' (check it out on YouTube) some people go 'WTF?'

February 11 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

A track-by-track strategy like this is interesting, but I don't think it should be the way you release ALL your new music. Consider the economic advantages of an "album launch" that happens once or twice a year. You're able to create a much larger, more focused "event" around the release, building anticipation and capturing the attention of several media outlets at once. This short but intense "launch campaign" can generate enough momentum to elevate you in the public consciousness in a way that Individual song releases cannot. A singles strategy spreads that momentum out over a longer stretch of time, so the marketing power behind each song gets diluted. Plus, with an album launch you can utilize demos & b-sides and offer deluxe bundles & pre-order specials, to help maximize the "specialness" of the event (and the money you earn) through direct-to-fan sales. You can't have ten or twelve special events in a row -- again, the specialness gets diluted, and you leave money on the table by not maximizing value.

Maybe a singles approach is a worthwhile experiment, or a unique way to release one album. But as an overall strategy to use again & again, I think it's way too flawed to be sustainable.

February 11 | Unregistered CommenterJason Spitz

"...there were 77,000 albums released last year, how many do you think were a true artistic statement?"

Well, as a numerical example, if you use an average of 10 songs per album, and 77,000 x 10 = 770,000... then out of 770,000 single tracks that could have been released, how many of those do you think were a true artistic statement?"
In other words, this particular example holds no logic.
However, your other reasons pertaining to the 'culture' of current buying trends, seems pretty valid. These are absolutely the conversations that are vital to moving towards a new model. Thanks. Cheers!

February 24 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jones

I agree with your concept whole heatedly being both a producer and musician. Upon reading some of the comments here I came up with my own strategy using your blog as a reference to some of the concepts. Please check it out at and let me know your thoughts. I really do welcome differing opinions as I am looking to plug up the holes in my theory as best as I can. Thanks!

March 5 | Unregistered CommenterCary Crichlow

I think the biggest issue left out of this article is how are people listening to music now? If I go to Best Buy and get my favorite bands new CD, I will open it in my car, pop it in the disc player and crank it up...two weeks later, the jewel case is cracked on the floorboard and the disc is burried under a pile of receipts in my center console...or sometime before this happens, I will rip the CD to my laptop, transfer it to my phone or USB drive, diminishing the audio quality, and play one or two tracks through Bluetooth. This is a big hassle to me and probably to most people in the modern age. As an artist, I want to make it convenient for my audience to hear my music, the way I want it to be heard by them, at the best quality, without eating up all of their data storage. That being said, as a listener, I am using an android phone to play music in my car, or on my patio, as my CD player collects dust. The other issue not mentioned here is the use of apps for listening. I recently launched a test app for my band, "The Pwells", which contains tracks, pics, videos, news releases, and tour dates...I am toying with the notion of releasing our next album through the app without pressing a CD. I like the fact that anyone interested in the band can stream the content without having to store the data, and I can manipulate the app's content on a regular basis. Plus, I don't have to gamble on a bulk order that could sit around for a year before I sell them all. Technology has truly altered the musical landscape, and we have to be able to adapt quickly to the change.

October 17 | Unregistered CommenterIan-Thomas

Good stuff Frank! I couldn't agree more. I've been drinking this Kool Ade for over a year now and have developed a system which has been pretty effective at creating more of everything you've outlined above. Stop by and let me know what you think of my system:

March 13 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Koehler

Hi Frank, excellent article. The steady singles release vs. once-a-year album release is something I suggest to all my clients, but I wanted more meat as to my reason why. You've definitely given me that! There are still a lot of critics of this model, one being Moses Avalon. But I feel you hit it on the head when you said artists need to stop grinding against the grain and find creative, artistic ways to use current trends.

Another point that I discovered, at least for physical albums, is you need almost 70 minutes worth of music to fill a modern digital CD. Chances are many artists are forced to create a lot of "filler" to produce a 70 min. album. It would be far more artistic to produce 4 minutes of music worth listening to every month, agreed?

You also mentioned the danger of singles being leaked and albums being a more efficient and economical way to record music. But with so many artists becoming their own record producers, the singles model is even more possible now than ever before!

Thanks again,
Harrison Welshimer
Founder/Owner of MusicMunch

Hmmm nice article, you delivered good thought. When songs are released separately than they get famous among people very fastly . But as a musician you have to think what people want and improve your strategy according to people mind set.

April 24 | Unregistered CommenterRamonaKaspar

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>