Soon after Stevie Wonder released his last album, 1985's "In Square Circle," he told his record company--Motown--of his plans for an ambitious double-record album. You'd think that Motown would be overjoyed by the news. After all, Wonder's best-selling and most acclaimed album was the double-record smash "Songs in the Key of Life" in 1976.
But times have changed since the mid-'70s. And when Wonder's latest, "Characters," hits the stores on Oct. 26, it will be as a single-record album. Motown executives--including recently departed president Jay Lasker--persuaded Wonder that his sales would suffer if he insisted on a double.
One of their arguments: Look what happened to Prince's current album.
Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times"--a double studio album--dropped out of the Top 10 after just four weeks, and is now listed at No. 42 on Billboard magazine's national sales chart.
It's not that the Prince album has done badly: It has sold a reported 1.2 million copies. It's just that it would probably have sold a lot more if it had been a single album. After all, the album has generated two Top 5 hits (the title track and the new "U Got the Look"), more than any other Prince album since "Purple Rain."
Still, it could have been a lot worse. Prince initially turned in a three -record set. He cut it down to two records as an accommodation to his distributing label, Warner Bros., and possibly to his own sense of the market.
This isn't an isolated phenomenon. There are just seven double-record albums among Billboard's current Top 200--none of them in the Top 40. At this time in 1978--when the "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" sound tracks (both doubles) brought the business to a historic peak--there were 22 double albums in the Top 200 and 5 in the Top 25.
Mitch Perliss, director of purchasing for the 50-store Music Plus chain, noted: "My gut feeling is that if the Prince album was one record listing for $9.98, everyone would have seen a healthier sales pattern. I think that's true of almost any artist. I can't think of anybody today who could sustain a two-record set (without losing sales). Once you get over that $11-$12 mark, it becomes a tough sale."
David Anderle, vice president of film music at A&M Records, is even more emphatic. "I just don't think it makes much sense to make a double record anymore. If the artists who have made doubles--including Prince--had just culled them down to one great record, that would have been better."
One of A&M's top stars, Sting, is about to release a double album, ". . . Nothing Like the Sun." (See interview and review on Page 72.) But Anderle noted that the album is listing for $10.98, just $1 more than the customary superstar list price.
Anderle added that when the double-album boom hit its peak in the late '70s, "everybody wanted to make a double album. After the immense success of (Peter Frampton's 1976 smash) 'Frampton Comes Alive,' it became the thing to do. I think the subsequent lack of success of doubles is what made us all start to look at it differently."
The veteran producer and executive suggested that the double album is just one casualty of the industry's severe 1979-82 slump. Doubles went the way of satin jackets, billboards on Sunset Strip heralding new releases and double-page ads in the trade magazines every time an album went platinum. Even after the business started regaining its health in 1983, it didn't return to its old, free-spending ways.
"The double album became another symbol of that extravagance," said Anderle.
Bob Merlis, Warner Bros. Records' vice president of publicity, echoed that point. "I don't think people thought twice about double albums in the '70s. It was part of the old syndrome of going deluxe all the way in terms of packaging.
"Maybe things weren't as competitive (in the '70s)," Merlis theorized. "The album market was self-sustaining to a greater extent than it is now. Now it's very dependent on hit singles. If you don't have monster hits, it hard to sell a single album, let alone one that costs more."
Merlis added that labels are able to partly compensate for the decline of the double album--and accommodate artists' desire to get more music out--by putting extra songs on cassettes and compact discs.
Though the double album is losing ground, it has its boosters in the business. Stan Goman, senior vice president of retail operations for the 45-store Tower Records chain, said, "I don't think it makes a difference. If the music's there, the public's going to buy it."
Lou Dennis, vice president of sales at Warner Bros., agreed. "It all comes down to the music," he said. Dennis added that the album that established Prince as a pop star--1982's "1999"--was a double.
"What if we had said to him at that time, 'You're out of your mind making a two-record set'? The guy was right: That was the album that broke him.
"How can you tell the creative person how much music he should make? That's like telling an artist, 'Make a smaller picture. My wall is only 20 feet long.' When you're dealing with somebody like Prince or the Smiths (whose hit album "Louder than Bombs" is a double), you're dealing with the creative process. It's their music. It's their call."
Warner Bros. hopes that Prince's album will get another boost when his "Sign 'O' the Times" concert film, shot on tour in Europe, opens in late November.