Downloads Make Singles a Hit Again

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Todd Moscowitz, the president of Asylum Records, thought he might have a nice little novelty record on his hands when he first heard "Laffy Taffy," a playful song by the Atlanta rap group D4L.

But the novelty has worn off. Now Moscowitz simply thinks of "Laffy Taffy" as a hit single. A very, very big hit single.

The song has been downloaded -- legally, and for a fee -- more than 700,000 times from iTunes, Yahoo! Music and other online music outlets since its release in late October, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And in the final week of 2005, "Laffy Taffy" (basically a lot of salty-sweet talk centered around a chant of "girl, shake that laffy taffy") shattered the one-week sales record for a digital single, with 175,000 copies sold. That's more than twice the previous mark set by Kanye West's "Gold Digger," which is up for record of the year at tonight's Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

The song's success illustrates how commercially released singles, which were on the music industry's endangered-species list at the turn of the 21st century, have come roaring back to life in the digital age. In some ways, it's like the singles-driven 1950s and '60s all over again -- only with MP3s replacing 45s.

As iPods and other MP3 players outsell CD players, sales of downloaded singles are booming accordingly: Though sales of full-length albums were down 7.2 percent last year, the digital singles market grew by 150 percent, with 352.7 million individual songs sold online, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It was by far the highest figure for singles sales in any format since 1973, the first year for which Recording Industry Association of America shipment data are available for singles. In late December 2005, weekly singles sales topped CD sales for the first time, as American consumers -- many of them flush with holiday gift cards and loading new MP3 players -- purchased 19.9 million digital tracks but just 16.8 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

And that's to say nothing of the $600 million (and growing) ring tone business in the United States.

"Consumers, as has always been the case, love a hit single," says Charles Goldstuck, president of BMG North America, whose record labels include Arista, RCA, J and Jive, with best-selling artists from Jamie Foxx to Kelly Clarkson. "If it's a hit, people are willing to buy it now in greater numbers than they were ever before, principally due to the proliferation of distribution channels."

Says Geoff Mayfield, the director of charts for the trade magazine Billboard: "We're seeing numbers that remind us a little bit of the heyday of the single."

This rebirth is not, however, inspiring executives, artists and others in the music industry to uncork the Cristal.

The booming sales of digital singles, ring tones and digital videos offset some of the losses of an ongoing slump, in which various factors -- from CD burning and illegal downloading to competition from other entertainment categories, particularly video games -- have conspired to drive down annual album sales by more than 21 percent since 2000. But the digital singles boom isn't an industry-wide cure-all. Not with downloadable tracks selling for 99 cents on average, compared with the $18.98 suggested retail price of a full-length CD. (Downloadable albums, which generally sell for about $10, haven't caught on yet. Last year consumers bought just 16.2 million digital full-length albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)

Though the labels incur negligible physical costs involved in selling digital singles -- no manufacturing, packaging or distribution expenses -- labels amortize recording and marketing costs over their entire sales base, which is shrinking as a whole. Thus the hand-wringing over the 2005 sales figures, in which albums represented roughly 62 percent of all U.S. music sales and digital singles accounted for about 35 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Just three years earlier, albums had accounted for well over 90 percent of all U.S. music sales.

"Digital sales aren't growing fast enough to replace the losses in our traditional business," Goldstuck says. "The challenge for the industry is to find some balance between singles sales and album sales. We want to create an artist experience, not a singles experience."

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