Let's talk about singles. Not the "Looking For Mr. Goodbar" singles, the small records with the big holes. Why singles? Well, besides the fact that everyone else seems to be talking about albums, singles are still a vital cog in the music machinery.
People often tend to dismiss singles as an evil symbol of the even more evil top-40 radio - but, somehow, the singles biz is heal-their than ever. Here in Washington a lot of people are making a lot of money from 45s, which sell for 75 cents to $1.29.
Some record stores report grosses of $2,000 a month or more on singles alone; and since the markup on singles is so high, the stores sometimes make a higher profit margin on them than on expensive albums. You might think that if record stores earn $2,000 a month, record companies must clean up. They do, but indirectly.
Spokesman at Columbia and Warner Brothers, two record conglomerates that earn receipts in the billions, say that a single's value is in its exposure of an album. A milliom-selling single might turn a small profit, but that's insignificant compared to the money gained on an album if a single generates enough radio airplay to put the album on the charts.
In short, despite the changes in the recording industru over the past decade, one cardinal rule still holds true: It takes a hit single to produce a hit album.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Led Zeppelin has gone years without a hit single but still sells tons of albums. On the flip side, Stephen Bishop had two smash hits, "On and On" and "Save It for a Rainy Day," from one album ("Carless," ABC Records,ABC 954) that never sold up to expectations.
Generally, though, the difference in sales between an album that contains a hit single and one that doesn't is remarkable. People who own a lot of Paul Simo's material are buying his "Greatest Hits, Etc." (Columbia JC 35032) because of "Slip Slidin Away." "Short People" singlehandledy introduced Randy Newman to the mass audience and its LP, "Little Criminals" (Warner Brothers, BSK 3079), could well outsell all the previous Newman albums combined.
As further proof of how important the single still is, Bruce Springsteen did not intially sell as many albums as anticipated - despite making the covers of the Time and Newsweek - essentially because he failed to produce a top-40 hit. Artist like Graham Parker, Robert Palmer, Al Jarreau and Joan Armatrading are often referred to within the industry as being "one hit away from breaking wide open."
Parker went so far as to release a specifically "made-to-be-a-hit" record, "Hold Back the Night" which wasn't a hit. The difference between getting that hit and not is often the difference between playing the Warner Theater or the Capital Centre (Parker played the Warner this year, second-billed to Thin Lizzy, who earned the No. 1 slot on the strength of one hit song: "The Boys Are Back in Town."
One more thing about 45s. A lot of them are now 33 1/3s, especially the 12-inch "disco" singles. But size and speed aside, it is clear that you still need the small records with the big holes to sell the big records with the small holes.