Why Are Some Records Outperforming Singles?
By now everyone knows the day that we will never forget is actually just the day The Beatles became available on iTunes. Big deal, right? The story may not be as newsworthy as Apple indicated in its teaser message. However, perhaps it can teach us something about music and its consumption.
The Beatles have been absent from legitimate downloading services until now, giving fans plenty of time to rip it from CDs, convert it from albums, get it from friends, or download it from illegal services. The lack of their music on legal download stores presumably also means that this is the first time every individual track is available for separate purchase, not just those released as a single.
This gives fans an unprecedented opportunity to cherry-pick their favorites rather than be forced to buy the entire record. So it’s no surprise to see some of the traditional favorites gracing the charts on iTunes like “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” What is surprising though, is the performance of The Beatles’ singles compared to that of their albums.
The Beatles release sets up the perfect musical experiment: all of the records were heavily promoted by Apple and released on iTunes at the same time, most of their albums are well known and highly revered across several generations, and their singles are the epitome of pop and rock perfection. So, what exactly happens when you release them and give consumers the ability, at one time, to choose between any album and any combination of singles?
On Friday morning, November 19, at 12am Eastern Time, less than three full days since the release of these records on iTunes, not a single Beatles song appeared on the Top 25 on iTunes Singles Charts in either the United State or the United Kingdom. In fact, in both countries the first Beatles song appeared precisely at number twenty-six.
On the other hand, four records appeared in the Top 25 albums in the UK and nine were on the US chart. Perhaps this clear preference for albums can be explained away by simply concluding that it is easier to get in the top albums chart than the singles chart, or that Beatles fans are just more interested in albums. However, it seems to suggest something more meaningful where each of those statements is only a fraction of the bigger picture.
This pattern actually seems even more remarkable considering that according to Reuters, digital album sales in the United States have shown signs of diminishing and have experienced a considerable decrease in growth compared to this time last year . Similarly, Billboard’s 2009 year-end sales analysis revealed that digital track sales were up 8.3% to nearly 1.16 billion while overall album sales, including ten track download equivalents, were down 12.7%.
This trend does not just apply to The Beatles, so it isn’t just a generational phenomena or something specific to this artist. We now know that The Beatles sold 450,000 albums and 2 million singles in their first week, equating to about 4 albums sold for every single. Compare this to modern rock band Maroon 5 who, based on RIAA certifications, has sold about 3.5 albums for every single.
On the other hand, the recent history of the charts has shown that hit singles can easily sell exponentially more than the album containing it. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” for example, was certified five times platinum on September 23, 2010, according to the RIAA. Three other Ke$ha singles, “Your Love is My Drug,” “Blah Blah Blah,” and “Take It Off,” have also achieved at least platinum certification. Still, her record was only certified platinum once and, based on certifications, she sold about nine singles to every one album.
We know the industry is changing and people are people are buying more singles but, as The Beatles have shown and other modern artists have demonstrated, it is possible to overcome this trend. So, the question is, in a world where albums appear to be becoming passé, why are some records outperforming singles on the charts and what does this mean for the music industry in general?
 Hau, Louis. "Why The Beatles' Arrival on ITunes Matters | Reuters." Reuters. 18 Nov. 2010.
 Christman, Ed. "2009 Sales Wrap: Transactions Up As Digital Growth Slows." Billboard 6 Jan. 2010.