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I thought one reason artists released singles was to tease out an upcoming album release by getting songs popular on the radio and getting fans excited about purchasing the full album once released. In the age of music streaming and the trend of dropping entire albums at once (sometimes with little to no notice), what is the purpose of a single? In the case of an album releasing all at once, how does a song then become a single—does the artist decide, or is this based on streaming numbers, billboard charts, or some other factor?

Example: Taylor Swift released her concept album "Midnights" all at once, but now I'm seeing her song "Anti-hero" referred to as the single. When she surprised fans with the release of the "Folklore" album, "Cardigan" became the single.

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In general, the artist and/or their management will designate a specific song as the single and will both release and promote it as such. Although the scenario you described in which a single is released to promote a specific album is common, this is not always the case. There have been many instances of artists releasing stand-alone singles or non-album singles over the decades, songs that are solely released as singles. This may be done to maintain awareness of and interest in an artist between the releases of larger work and/or tours, or simply to release a song the artist and/or their management believes has the potential to do well on its own, or to signal to the public at large an artist has returned from a hiatus or drastically changed their sound. In still other instances, artists have released charity singles to raise money or awareness to political or social causes, as it can be much quicker to record, produce, and release a single than it is to prepare a full album, and even moreso when singles can be released digitally and not require the production of physical media.

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  • Yes, I wasn't even thinking about one-off singles separate from an album release! That makes the most sense to me. I guess my question is really why are the songs released as part of an album even called singles (when your explanation makes more sense for a true single)? Nov 1, 2022 at 0:14
  • Non album songs used to be just one-off songs that didn't fit an album's theme or storyline. They were like samples, or maybe jamming sessions, to keep the fans entertained as well as showcasing their music writing skills. Nov 14, 2022 at 4:57
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Singles used to function as album "teasers" and to get radio airplay before (or concurrent with) a full album release. The best/catchiest songs were chosen from the album to launch as singles in the hopes that listeners would like what they hear and purchase the full album.

In the streaming age, the game is different. Now artists release singles to keep their fans engaged with new music. Streaming platforms (like Spotify) will add new singles to listeners' "New Releases" playlists. Artists that release multiple singles have multiple chances to appear on those playlists. Artists that wait months to release a full album lose all of that "pre-album release" exposure.

Some artists release only singles. Some artists release multiple songs as consecutive singles, then bundle them into a full album (for yet another release). With streaming platforms, artists can release singles as they finish each song. That's a luxury that wasn't available to musicians of yesteryear.

If an artist releases an album and a single at the same time, the latter is chosen by the artist and label as a representative sample of the album. In that case, the song IS chosen to be catchy and enticing. Essentially, the single is saying, "Hey--if you want to know what this album sounds like, check out this song". They're hoping you'll like what you hear and choose to listen to the rest of the album.

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The answer, I believe, depends on artist and era. There used to be actual thematic reasons for singles and albums, and that stems back before the days of CDs or MiniDisc.

Just like old photo albums would have been of a particular person, holiday or timeframe, music albums used to be collections of songs on a theme. Take Pink Floyd's The Wall (album and single) as an example. The single is just part of the story of the wall and the album (the collection of songs played in order) told the whole story.

I may stand corrected, but apart from certain singers such as Adele, I believe the songs on albums now don't generally fit a particular theme.

There also used to be 2 different versions of a song. A non-annotated version would generally be considered a "single" version, and there would be a "12 inch version" or "album version". A standard 7" 45rpm single could fit a maximum of 5 minutes of music on one side. The 12" version would be longer and so would not fit on a standard size vinyl single, the album version would just generally be longer than the standard (approx. 3mins maximum for pop radio friendliness).

If my memory serves me correctly, Michael Jackson's Thriller was more popular in 12" version, and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells just wouldn't have fitted at all (either part 1 or 2), so they just went straight to album.

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