Singles Vs. Albums

Todd McCartyMusic3 Comments

singles vs albums heat on the street music marketing

Singles vs Albums – The Dilemma

Most music consumption outlets are now focused on singles. Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, playlists, commercial radio, etc. The singles vs albums debate continues. Should artists focus on releasing stand alone singles, or should they take the traditional route and release albums?

Simple Answer:  Both.

It’s a good time to stop and review your strategy for releasing singles and albums. I recommend a blend of albums and singles. Have a steady flow of new music going to your fans. Signed artists may have a contract that is based on “albums” and a traditional cycle (18 months). Typically they will release two or three singles before the album comes out, and then promote additional singles from the album in the post release period. If you are not constrained by a contract, I suggest releasing singles every couple months, and later packaging those into albums or EPs. 

Genre Matters

First of all, genre matters greatly when discussing singles vs albums. Pop and EDM artists have had success with a stand alone single strategy. I’m not being wishy washy with a “both” response to the question. The overall goal is music consumption. So all of it matters. Albums, EPs, singles, mp3’s, CDs, streams, vinyl, YouTube views, internet radio and terrestrial radio play, etc.


New Buzz Term – music consumption

Even after stand alone singles have become hits, pop artists are still releasing albums. Today, record labels don’t have the expectation to sell millions of albums or singles. Rather, the expectation is to sell millions of album “equivalents” – since that’s what the new Billboard 200 chart measures. It no longer measures the album format, and is a blend of everything. “Music consumption” is the buzz term that labels now use instead of sales. Therefore, putting things into terms of “album equivalents” gives the industry a way to easily calculate how much money was made.

10 digital tracks = 1 album equivalent (or about $9.99 gross)

1,500 streams = 1 album equivalent (or about $9.99 gross)

How a Hit Pop Album Compares to a Hit Rock Album

Typical Hit Pop Album Consumption 

Breakdown:  150,000 Physical Albums + 200,000 Digital Albums + 300,000 Track Equivalent Albums (TEA) + 1,350,000 Streaming Equivalent Albums (SEA) = 2,000,000 Album Equivalents

Typical Hit Hard Rock Album Consumption 

Breakdown:  125,000 Physical Albums + 100,000 Digital Albums + 75,000 Track Equivalent Albums (TEA) + 200,000 Streaming Equivalent Albums (SEA) = 500,000 Album Equivalents

As a result, the rock artist had about 50% of the consumption from singles. And the pop artist had 82.5% from singles. This demonstrates how genre matters in the singles vs albums debate. It’s also interesting that even with nearly a decade of album sales in decline, overall album consumption in 2019 was up 13.5% with 795.9 million album consumption unit sales compared to 2018. Source: Buzzangle 2019 Year End Report. Keep in mind these figures vary from country to country. The example used is based on trends in the United States. Furthermore take a close look above at the singles vs albums vs streams.

Sara Fischer with Axios demonstrates with this graphic that Hip Hop, Latin, and Electronic/Dance fans are streaming at much higher rates than other genres.

Another helpful source is Nielsen Music’s 2020 Mid Year Report and this infographic.

Nielsen Music 2020 Mid Year Report

Image courtesy of Nielsen Music

Like what you’re reading? I teach my fanbuilding and Spotify strategy inside Band Builder Academy.  Learn More HERE

So What Should Your Singles Strategy Be?

Let’s not ignore the fact that singles to drive album sales. Today it’s rather pronounced with streaming services focusing on playlists and moods over albums. So, it’s a good time to stop and consider your “singles” strategy. What are the 3 or 4 best songs from your albums that you will focus on? You should have a track development plan for a new focus track every 2 to 3 months.

Download My Track Development Plan here

Singles Lead Back To Album Sales

In my research I came across one rock fans consumption process. It was on a gaming forum that almost unanimously preferred the album format. 

“I tend to buy albums. It pretty much plays like this: Find band. YouTube band. Play tracks on repeat via YouTube. Get annoyed with YouTube. Buy album.”  

Some Fans Still Prefer Albums

Most fans of rock, metal, jazz, or classical prefer their favorite band to release albums. And too many stand alone singles in an album cycle risks frustrating your album buying fans. Yet, these are typically your best fans that are buying your concert tickets, merchandise, and everything you put out there. You will hear die hard rock fans talk about their favorite albums vs. singles. They like the story or theme of an album.

There is a “completist” audience that wants to own all of the band’s material, rather than the most popular tracks. Some have a fear of missing out on a track that wasn’t a “focus track” or “single”. They want those deep cuts.

If you pose the question of “Singles vs. Albums” on forums or social media to a hard rock or metal audience, you almost unanimously get “album”. Anybody who disagrees gets made fun of. An album of material has more chance of making a strong connection to the listener that could last a lifetime.

EP vs Album

Another recommendation is releasing an EP if you are a new artist. Apply the same singles strategy to the EP. The only difference is an EP is shorter and cheaper, so it’s easier to grow your fanbase with.

If you don’t have the things on this short list, I recommend an EP.  

  • Have you established your sound / style?
  • Have you developed your branding and identity?
  • Do you have a track that has streamed 150,000?

I’ve spent all this energy talking about how some fans want an album, so why am I recommending an EP for new artists?

Because you need to establish volume at this early stage. Get fans in the door. Making money is not the goal in the early days. Think of it as testing the market. Sound advice for any business. An EP can be used as a development tool to prove you are ready for a full length album. If you sell 5,000 or more EP’s (album equivalents) in a short amount of time, that will prove you have a paying fan base. A short EP with 5 or 6 back to back bangers is going to leave your fans wanting more. It builds anticipation for a successful full length release.

I used this EP first strategy with many bands including Mayday Parade, Motionless In White, The Word Alive, The Maine, Tonight Alive, and Go Radio. I Prevail had already self released the Heart Vs Mind EP, but we chose to re-release that with fantastic results, setting up the debut full length.  


In conclusion, music consumption is not as black and white as singles vs albums. The overall market for singles is bigger than albums, but certain fans still prefer to experience an album. A special thanks to one of my readers Sean from Elysian Drive, whose question inspired this post and is always trying to think of out of the box creative ideas. 

Like what you’ve read here? I’ll teach my full fanbuilding and Spotify strategy inside Band Builder Academy – Doors now open!  Learn More HERE 

Todd McCarty

3 Comments on “Singles Vs. Albums”

  1. Hi Todd
    Great article.. I am curious about when the timing is best to release singles.. When you “So if you want a steady flow of new music going to your fans, you can promote your album over a traditional album cycle (18 months). Then promote singles from the album every couple of months between albums. ” I read it as you first release the album and the singles over the following months? I would have thought the obvious was the other way round – to release singles and the at the end release the full album.. or maybe I am misreading you?
    Also, can you even pitch a single in Spotify (for the official lists) if it have previous been released as a part of an album?

    1. Hi Rasmus, Thanks for the question. I’ll update the article a little, because of your comment. The article was originally directed more at rock artists that are signed. But since originally published, my readership has become more broad, encompassing every genre and mostly unsigned artists. It’s difficult to write a one-size-fits-all article.
      The traditional 18 month album cycle is also more of a record label framework that works with their global infrastructure. Any artist has the ability to pitch Spotify, Apple, and other DSPs after the album comes out. It’s true, when pitching through the Spotify for Artists portal, you cannot pitch previously released tracks. But you still have the option of asking your distributor to pitch previously released songs through their direct channels. But you better have some “heat” on the song and a competitive plan.
      Many artists (in all genres) are using a singles only strategy. Each new single release is an opportunity to catch fire. Then you have momentum to release an album and ride that wave of popularity generated from the successful single.
      More and more, I am recommending this method. I’ve seen artists releasing 10 singles and holding the album off of DSPs until after all album singles have been released. That’s totally fine. But I would recommend having a plan for whatever singles your release. Instead of 10 track campaigns, you could even bundle them into two singles at a time. This is actually how it was done in the early days of the music industry with 45 singles (A side / B side). It works well in the streaming era because some fans will play those tracks back to back, on repeat. And that is good for the algorithm and causes DSPs to show your music to more fans.
      If you’re signed, you should expect a little resistance from your label. But hopefully they can see the benefit. If you’re a free agent, don’t be afraid to experiment and try anything.
      take care,

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