Home-grown music acts turn to singles to build brand and fan base

More music acts, including singer Tabitha Nauser, are turning to singles to build their brand and keep fans engaged in an age of online streaming

Coldplay, one of the most successful music acts in the world, caused quite a stir when frontman Chris Martin proclaimed that their seventh album, A Head Full Of Dreams (2015), would be their last.

The British rock band will still release new music, but as Martin explained, their fans are not listening to music on CDs and vinyls as much as they used to, so the conventional way of packaging 10 to 12 songs in one release needs a rethink in the age of digital music.

While album releases have always been benchmarks for music artists, more are now putting out a steady stream of singles. It is a trend that can be seen worldwide, including in Singapore.

Singles are nothing new and have been around since the early 20th century, but their prominence in the local music scene today suggests they are gaining traction among Singapore acts.

Home-grown turntablist KoFlow, who is headlining a show at the Esplanade Concert Hall on June 30, recently released a new single, Arab St. He says a new album from him is unlikely.

"Nowadays, whether you have an album or an EP doesn't make much of a difference. There's not so much of an album culture these days - it's all short one-song, two-song releases," says the 36-year-old.

 

Listeners don't have the attention span for albums anymore... It's only your hardcore fans who are going to listen to every single track.

TABITHA NAUSER, a radio personality turned full-time singer who released her debut single, Bulletproof, earlier this year

"I feel that throughout the year, you have a lot more content to distribute, as opposed to the whole year, when you put out one album."

For newer artists, singles are a way of introducing their sound to the world and the constant output is a way of sustaining interest.

Economics also comes into play as it is cheaper to put out a single compared with an album, with costs such as recording-studio and production fees greatly reduced.

But for many, an album remains an achievement and artistic statement to aspire to.

Modern music consumption habits have changed the focus from albums to singles, says Mr Lim Teck Kheng. He is the head of marketing at Sony Music Singapore, which has signed on local acts such as pop group The Sam Willows and Tabitha Nauser, a radio personality turned full-time singer.

Nauser released her debut single, Bulletproof, earlier this year.

"I can understand why a lot of people would want to focus on singles because listeners don't have the attention span for albums anymore," says the 25-year-old former Singapore Idol finalist.

"They don't really care - you put out a full album and they'll probably still listen to the three singles you've released from that album. It's only your hardcore fans who are going to listen to every single track."

Of course, the release of singles and albums is not mutually exclusive. Oftentimes, singles continue to play a more traditional role of drumming up interest in the eventual album, even though they might do it through newer avenues, such as streaming sites.

In the case of The Sam Willows, Mr Lim says: "With their huge fan following, every single release will hype up interest for the album release and as they build momentum and increase engagement with their fans."

The group released their newest single, Keep Me Jealous, last month and will put out a few more before they drop their second full-length album at the end of the year.

Band member Jon Chua, 27, says singles are an important way to get on the charts and playlists of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.

"If you want to passively listen to music, you go to Spotify's streaming charts, playlists and stuff like that, and I guess that's where music should be put out. Which is why singles work so well. Albums are still very relatable, but I think, right now, albums are a second step.

"But if you ask us to write and release a single without thinking of an album, it's something we can't do. To us, the album, the record, represents a certain period of an artist's life."

Like The Sam Willows, Nauser wants to release an album eventually.

"By that time, hopefully I'm at that stage where I've amassed quite a number of people who care enough to listen to an entire album. I am pretty old-school, I think I would want to make six, seven albums. It's the fantasy. As a kid, I've always been like, 'Ah you know, I would love to make an album.'"

Singles as a promotional tool are even more important to independent artists such as singer-songwriter Falling Feathers, who do not have major label backing.

"The releasing of singles is to build a brand for my act and let people have an idea of what Falling Feathers is about with each song and video release," says the 21-year-old, whose real name is JJ Ong.

"I release a single every three to four months and the goal is to attract as many new listeners as possible through each release and ensure that I keep existing listeners engaged."

His newest single, Hush, will be out later this month. And while he intends to compile the singles and a few new songs into an EP later this year, the "more pragmatic" singles strategy is also about keeping costs down.

"It's like doing an EP, but spreading out the costs and releases over a period of time. It's not cheap to produce music and videos and this not only allows you to raise funds over a period of time, but also gather feedback from listeners and improve on your works for the rest of the releases."

The head of artist development at home-grown record label Umami Records, Mr Kevin Foo, says the upside of the singles-driven music market is that artists are forced to step up their game.

The label has been especially productive in the past year, releasing singles from multiple Singapore acts, ranging from soul/jazz band The Steve McQueens, whose single More Than We Know went to No. 1 on the iTunes Hong Kong jazz charts; to indie rock band Charlieblouse And The Milkyboys, whose single Peanut Gallery went to the top of Spotify's Singapore Viral 50 chart.

"People don't plough through albums as much because streaming has taken over as the primary source of consumption. A lot of times, it is just about that one track and how far that track can reach," he says.

"There was a time when you put out albums and there would be filler songs, but now every track has to be strong."

'Singles force artists to step up their game'

Singles and albums are equally important in the music ecosystem, says Warner Music Singapore general manager Simon Nasser.

"True fans will stay loyal and dedicated to the artist's work, from single to album, while casual fans will benefit from learning more with the release of each single," he says.

"With digitisation, an artist's body of work is just a download away, but this time-honoured practice of enjoying each thread that is woven into a tapestry of work should be treasured."

For electronic band Canvas Conversations, which won a Noise Singapore Award music grant in 2015, albums are still an essential way of expressing their artistry.

The band released a single, Cut, early last year, but when they released the album which included it, In Transit, earlier this month, they made a call on Facebook for their fans to listen to the record in its entirety to fully appreciate the work.

Band member Bings Lee, 28, says: "In Transit was crafted as a journey. Even though you can enjoy each track as it is, the flow of the tracks provides a more comprehensive and immersive experience when listened to in order, from the beginning to the end, much like how a book or a movie flows, with each song being a chapter within that big picture."

Music is ultimately about selling an aural experience, he says.

"There will always be listeners seeking to satisfy that aural experience through listening to a fulllength album, which might feel a little more holistic than just having a transient three-minute experience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'One-track mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe