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Singles versus careers in the business of country

Country Standard Time Editorial, October 2000

Longevity is not a word heard much around the halls of record companies in recent years. The bottom line is if an act can't get a hit or two off an album, chances are that's about the end of their career, at least on that label.

Unlike some other genres, this is particularly true in country where the format is radio driven, meaning songs had better be played on the radio or else.

It came to light in a recent Billboard magazine story several record companies now either have already done so or are in the process of signing acts to singles deals. This means the label will put out money for an artist to record several singles instead of an album and promote at least one to radio in the hopes of getting airplay.

This is not the first time country labels have done this. In fact, it was done until the late 1980's when country started taking off, and acts were signed to long-term deals.

For the record company, this is a chance to save money if the act doesn't take off with a single. Instead of being out an estimated $500,000 in some cases for recording, promotion and everything else needed to set up an album, a label will only lose pocket change.

They argue that in a time when singles last for months in a radio station's playlist, it is increasingly harder and harder for new acts to gain any kind of foothold on radio.

From a financial standpoint, the record companies may be on the right track, but not from an artistic perspective.

Whatever happened to actually developing artists and careers?

In some cases - Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer, the Robison brothers, Jack Ingram - the artist needs to be judged based on an entire album, not whether one or two songs capture airplay. Insisting on hit singles only encourages hit-driven artists and even more one-hit wonders.

And if one of the "singles" acts hits, then what's behind it? While some record company execs argue that due to the long life of a hit single, there will be enough time to record a full album who's to say if the act will be able to come up with quality material recorded properly under deadline?

What kind of message does this send to artists and radio stations? For some artists, this may be their only chance at a contract and figure they might as well take a shot at the big time. A real crap shot, but probably not the way to best build a career.Many radio stations prefer an artist has more than one song behind them, although let's face it, they tend to play the hits anyway.

The issue is not an easy one in this day and age when record companies are finding it harder to make a go of it in the rapidly changing music business, but the idea of signing artists for a few songs seems to raise more problems than it solves.