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Singles Only? No Longer for Billboard's 'Hot 100'

Pop Beat: The influential chart is changing because the once-revered music format is nearly obsolete.

November 28, 1998|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than four decades, Billboard magazine's "Hot 100 Singles" chart has been the barometer of the nation's pop music, but beginning next week the trusted tally will be renamed "The Hot 100."

The chart's title, much like the music industry itself, seems to have run out of room for the once-beloved "single."

Once the engine of pop music, the commercial single is now often a mere marketing tool in a business that hangs its hat on album sales, industry insiders and observers say. And that is why the staple chart in Billboard will soon break from tradition and redefine itself to include album tracks getting heavy radio airplay.

The change reflects a widespread disrespect for the single, which is still a key player in urban music genres. But many of the biggest pop songs produced in recent years never even made it to the fading format. For example: Alanis Morissette's latest hit.

Her song "Thank U" may be all over radio stations and video programs, but is nowhere to be found on the most recent Billboard singles chart because it cannot be purchased as a cassette or compact disc single. That same situation has applied to "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls, "Killing Me Softly" by the Fugees, "Don't Speak" by No Doubt and "Lovefool" by the Cardigans.

"The songs that people hear on their radios, the songs they will remember these years by, have been missing in action from our chart," said Geoff Mayfield, charts editor for Billboard. "These songs were never released as commercial singles, but you have to say they were hits--and tracking the hits is what the chart is supposed to do."

The trade is not alone in grappling with the role of the single.

The music industry has watched the single evolve from its linchpin sales format in the 1950s and '60s to a second-class citizen, as the album became preeminent by the 1970s. The single hovered near extinction when vinyl records gave way to cassettes and compact discs in the 1980s, but survived to cross over into the newer modes.

But the profit margin on singles had become so small they were viewed as more trouble than they were worth, says Al Cafaro, chairman and CEO of A&M Records.

"It became hard to see what was our advantage in selling singles of the best song on an album--and undercutting the sales of the album--when the deals [signed with artists] were geared toward the album," Cafaro said. "If an artist has one hit, it begs the question, 'Why not put it out as a single so people can buy it?' Well, we signed that person to an album deal, and we want to amass album money off that."

In the 1990s, the single became "a marketing entity" for labels, according to Sky Daniels, general manager of Radio and Records, another industry trade. Labels flooded stores with "low-ball" priced singles (marked down to 49 cents or less, instead of the usual several dollars) to inflate sales and push the song up the charts to catch the eye of radio programmers. The new chart formula should help thwart that practice, Mayfield said.

The single is fading in stores, too. In the first six months of 1998, shipments of cassette singles dropped 19% and singles on vinyl plunged 33% compared to the same period in 1997, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. Shipments of singles on compact disc actually grew during the period, but at a rate lagging behind albums on disc, the trade group reports.

Overall, albums accounted for $5.5 billion in sales for the first six months this year while singles tallied up a comparatively small $205 million at the nation's cash registers.

For Daniels and others who say they "revered" the 45-rpm singles as touchstones of the rock 'n' roll era, the loss of singles as a meaningful format is cause for sadness. It may also undercut efforts to open up music-buying to new, younger fans.

"For the youngest consumers, a song is something you identify with and you want to buy it and listen to it over and over and over," Daniels said. "It's a rite of passage for young fans."

Some retailers recently encouraged label executives to release more singles for the young-buyers market, but others would rather see the single join the turntable in music museums.

"Singles becoming extinct? I have no problem with that," says Gary Arnold, senior vice president of marketing for Best Buy. Arnold said he is enthused by the use of the Internet to post new songs as part of album promotions. Already, the Internet seems positioned to revolutionize the way consumers get their music.

Many consumers buy albums and tape their favorite songs into compilations--either on cassettes or, now, recordable CDs--making singles even more obsolete. And the artists making music often don't want to put out a single, either, viewing it as a crass commercial move, says Rich Fitzgerald, executive vice president of Reprise and Warner Records. Artists often view albums as "better, more complete statements" of their music, Fitzgerald said.

So when is a single still viable? Acts aimed at the youngest consumers, such as Hanson and the Spice Girls, and urban music genres have fleeting hits and quick trend turnarounds, creating a place for the single. Some veteran pop acts, too, have risked album sales to push a big single with an eye toward reestablishing themselves as hit makers.

But even single success can be a failure of sorts. Fitzgerald recalled his label's hit "Change the World," a 1996 song by Eric Clapton and Babyface that sold more than 1 million copies as a commercial single--a plateau never reached by its album, the "Phenomenon" soundtrack.

"It really cannibalized album sales, I'm sure of it," Fitzgerald said. "The album would have been bigger if we hadn't put the single out. And we're in an album business."

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