Why Are Some Records Outperforming Singles?

This post is by Katie Reilly of Intern Like A Rockstar. Follow her on Twittter.

image from blog.kazaa.com 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 [1]. 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%[2].

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?

[1] Hau, Louis. "Why The Beatles' Arrival on ITunes Matters | Reuters." Reuters. 18 Nov. 2010.

[2] Christman, Ed. "2009 Sales Wrap: Transactions Up As Digital Growth Slows." Billboard 6 Jan. 2010.

Share on:


  1. Interesting find and post. I didn’t notice that. You bring up Kesha and Maroon 5 as other examples and I bet the key lies somewhere in there. Kesha was sort of an overnight sensation as far as I know and didn’t Maroon 5 build over a longer period of time through touring and stuff like that? I could be wrong but maybe that’s the difference. The artists that take the time to really build a following are more likely to sell albums but if you just pop out of nowhere people have no reason to buy more than just the songs they like.

  2. 2 points that help to answer this question….
    1. The Beatles albums are good, and Kesha and Maroon 5 albums are awful.
    2. The Beatles dropped like 6 singles every time they came out with an album, so buying an album is similar to buying a group of singles.

  3. Oh to add to that, Maroon 5’s ‘Songs about Jane’ was a huge album with big songs and somewhat decent reviews, but hardly any singles have gotten any play since then, so their old fans might buy the album based on that

  4. Thought provoking and worth considering. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’d guess Melissa’s at least sorta on point. As for the industry I’d say it means we need to reevaluate what’s important and where energy is focused. I doubt that’ll happen. But then again maybe in some cases selling more singles is a good thing. Which type of artists will still have long term careers though? Guess we’ll see.
    Also, to CLJ, it seems to me like you missed something. The point was that Maroon 5’s sales pattern is more like The Beatles, they sell a lot of albums, not just singles. Kesha’s numbers are opposite. So comparing M5 and Kesha like you said doesn’t make sense. Maroon 5 sells comparatively more albums and Kesha sells comparatively more singles. Also pretty sure M5 still has had other hits and sells lots of records.

  5. This is interesting and makes a great point that it isn’t quite so simple that the album is “over.” I agree with Melissa’s point of build vs. overnight sensation. Granted, music history is full of one hit wonders (and those who only had a few hits). A great song that’s promoted properly will sell. But selling albums requires a dedicated fan base and consistent quality artistry. Just think about it – how many artists are you TRULY a fan of, and would you buy their album? If I’m genuinely a fan of an artist, I want their entire record. On the other hand, I may like one song from an artist and I may be a fan of that song, but that doesn’t make me a fan of the artist if the rest of their songs are mediocre. Unfortunately, artist development is rare anymore from the companies that have the most power and money to promote. Kudos to Octone for being an exception to that. Hopefully more of the industry will wake up, and regardless, I hope a lot of great entrepreneurs that get it rise to the top.

  6. Very interesting article. I agree with Melissa and Ardoz that building a fan base is a key to album sales. I know I am more likely to buy an album from an artist who already has other albums I own and enjoy, while I may only buy a few songs at first from an artist I am less familair with.
    Plus, like Ardoz said, it is probably much more difficult to create a great album than a great song. Since the most talented artists are often those who both develop a consistent fan base and make the best full albums, it makes sense that artists who can build a following often also have stronger album sales.
    Therefore, long-term development does seem key to album sales for the industry. Because when a band records a string of successful songs over time, like the Beatles or to a lesser extent Maroon 5, their album sales probably benefit greatly. A newer act like Kesha, though, may not yet have the depth of quality songs needed for great album sales.

  7. Thanks for all the feedback and interesting discussion!
    It seems so far the conclusion overall is that slower or more long term growth leads to more record sales

  8. I agree with Ke$ha being terrible, but PLEASE do not put Maroon 5 in the same category as her. Maroon 5 is a band of actual musical worth. However, I will give you the fact that “Hands All Over” was lukewarm. The first two albums were great though.
    Anyways, I agree with you on the group of singles theory with The Beatles, but I’d also like to mention that I think a lot of it has to do with the type of artists Ke$ha, Maroon 5 and The Beatles are. The Beatles and Maroon 5 are similar in the sense that they actually care about constructing a cohesive project with really good SONGS. Ke$ha’s intent is to create content with the biggest hit potential, not artistic value.
    So I think it all comes down to the execution and intent. If you want to make good music and you appeal to a market and cultivate your fanbase, you will be successful. Lesson of the day.

  9. Hmm… This is really interesting to see. I suppose subconsciously I would reason it by some of the artists from we buy singles are really more like one hit wonders, or someone who has a catchy song or two but one really has no interest in hearing the entire album, whereas some artists are just associated with buying an album, such as the Beatles or perhaps Josh Groban or someone like that…
    Again, very interesting find!

  10. Haha. Too bad some of this was ripped off from the internet or a book. “Cherry-pick” haaaaa haaaaa haaaa
    This is uncredited.

Comments are closed.