No. 36: Major Labels Fail To Kill The Single—Again

Late this past summer, I was thinking of making one of those CafePress T-shirts with the somewhat cryptic, post–Katie Holmes slogan “Free Estelle!” True, it wouldn’t have meant a thing to anyone except my fellow poptimists and chart geeks. And it wouldn’t have accomplished much, unless I wore it while marching in a circle in front of Atlantic Records’ headquarters. But I did feel pretty passionately about it.

Happily, my budding campaign proved unnecessary. Atlantic’s launch of Single War II—presaged by Kid Rock’s refusal to release the radio-dominating “All Summer Long” to iTunes, and exacerbated by the label’s decision to pull Estelle’s delightful “American Boy” from Apple’s digital store—turned out to be a sortie, not a raid. Within weeks of the Estelle pullback in August, Atlantic relented, returning her single and its accompanying album to iTunes by mid-September. Her sales and chart performance both before and after the sad experiment showed what folly the idea was from the start.

Sure—for the Kid, the anti-digital maneuvering worked: Rock’s physical disc sales were pumped up by some 1,550,000 CDs, 65% of the album’s total, after his Zevon-Skynyrd mashup’s release to radio. But mostly he and Atlantic managed to prove the same thing Sony and Wal-Mart proved later in the year with their smash AC/DC album exclusive: rock acts with aging fan bases can afford to buck trends, including those engendered by the Device You Are Currently Looking At; for pop-oriented developing acts like Estelle, not so much.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that—following the template laid out in my meticulous, gloomy recap of Single War I’s phases from the 1990s—the U.S. major labels might just have completed their first halting experiment and are planning their next maneuver for 2009 sometime. We can imagine all sorts of awful scenarios, like the next U2 album bypassing iTunes for a brick-and-mortar exclusive, or a new act going to an all-streams digital model.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. At least one label rep is openly preaching the gospel of more singles by blockbuster acts, not fewer. In a year-end Billboard story, Universal Motown senior VP of digital business development Cameo Carlson crows that her top act of the year wasn’t shy about dropping 99-cent gems:

Carlson is the executive behind the digital promotion of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. She, too, was concerned that the popularity of “Lollipop” might harm Lil Wayne’s album sales but decided to embrace iTunes rather than fight it. Besides “Lollipop,” the label released five more tracks on iTunes before the album’s June 10 release to make sure fans could hear other songs.

She also took advantage of iTunes’ Complete My Album feature, which allows fans who buy a few songs from an album to purchase the remaining tracks at a pro-rated cost. It was one of the first times the feature was used in conjunction with such a massive prerelease campaign, and its success is striking: More than 10% of the album’s first-week sales were digital, up from less than 1% for Lil Wayne’s past titles. More than half of those digital sales came from fans using Complete My Album, making Tha Carter III the fourth-best-selling album on iTunes for the year.

Could Kid Rock and AC/DC have done the same?

“They’re leaving money on the table by not offering track sales,” Carlson says. “I don’t think that creating an economy of scarcity works. There have been a couple of examples that have been successful . . . people like to hope that part of the industry is still alive. But I personally think those two are anomalies.”

Spoken like a forward-thinking businesswoman—and a singles-conflict pacifist. Perhaps my next T-shirt should read “Make Pop, Not War!”

Estelle ft. Kanye West – “American Boy” [YouTube]Kid Rock ft. Warren Zevon & Lynyrd Skynyrd – “All Summer Long” [YouTube]Music stars’ digital strategies still in flux [Reuters]80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)

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