In the music industry, a single is a type of release, typically a song recording of fewer tracks than an LP record or an album. This can be released for sale to the public in a variety of different formats. In most cases, a single is a song that is released separately from an album, although it usually also appears on an album. Typically, these are the songs from albums that are released separately for promotional uses such as digital download or commercial radio airplay and are expected to be the most popular. In other cases a recording released as a single may not appear on an album.
Despite being referred to as a single, in the era of digital distribution, singles can include up to as many as three tracks. The biggest digital music distributor, iTunes Store, accepts as many as three tracks less than ten minutes each as a single. Any more than three tracks on a musical release or thirty minutes in total running time is either an extended play (EP) or, if over six tracks long, an album.
Historically, when mainstream music was purchased via vinyl records, singles would be released double-sided. That is to say, they were released with an A-side and B-side, on which two singles would be released, one on each side. Moreover, traditionally, only the most popular songs from a previously released album would be released as a single. In more contemporary forms of music consumption, artists release most, if not all, of the tracks on an album as singles.
The origins of the single are in the late 19th century, when music was distributed on phonograph cylinders that held two to four minutes worth of audio. These were then superseded by gramophone records, which initially also had a short-duration of playing time per record side. In the first 2-3 decades of the 20th century, almost all commercial music releases were in effect singles (the exceptions were usually for classical music pieces, where multiple physical storage media items were bundled together and sold as an album). Gramophone discs were manufactured with a range of playback speeds (from 16 rpm to 78 rpm) and in several sizes (including 12-inch/30 cm). By about 1910, however, the 10-inch (25 cm), 78 rpm shellac disc had become the most commonly used format.
The inherent technical limitations of the gramophone disc defined the standard format for commercial recordings in the early 20th century. The relatively crude disc-cutting techniques of the time and the thickness of the needles used on record players limited the number of grooves per inch that could be inscribed on the disc surface, and a high rotation speed was necessary to achieve acceptable recording and playback fidelity. 78 rpm was chosen as the standard because of the introduction of the electrically powered, synchronous turntable motor in 1925, which ran at 3600 rpm with a 46:1 gear ratio, resulting in a rotation speed of 78.26 rpm.
With these factors applied to the 10-inch format, songwriters and performers increasingly tailored their output to fit the new medium. The 3-minute single remained the standard into the 1960s, when the availability of microgroove recording and improved mastering techniques enabled recording artists to increase the duration of their recorded songs. The breakthrough came with Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone". Although CBS tried to make the record more "radio friendly" by cutting the performance into halves, and separating them between the two sides of the vinyl disc, both Dylan and his fans demanded that the full six-minute take be placed on one side, and that radio stations play the song in its entirety.
As digital downloading and audio streaming have become more prevalent, it has become possible for every track on an album to also be available separately. Nevertheless, the concept of a single for an album has been retained as an identification of a more heavily promoted or more popular song (or group of songs) within an album collection. The demand for music downloads skyrocketed after the launch of Apple's iTunes Store (then called iTunes Music Store) in January 2001 and the creation of portable music and digital audio players such as the iPod.
In September 1997, with the release of Duran Duran's "Electric Barbarella" for paid downloads, Capitol Records became the first major label to sell a digital single from a well-known artist. Previously, Geffen Records also released Aerosmith's "Head First" digitally for free. In 2004, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced digital single certification due to significant sales of digital formats, with Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" becoming RIAA's first platinum digital single. In 2013, RIAA incorporated on-demand streams into the digital single certification.
Single sales in the United Kingdom reached an all-time low in January 2005, as the popularity of the compact disc was overtaken by the then-unofficial medium of the music download. Recognizing this, On 17 April 2005, Official UK Singles Chart added the download format to the existing format of physical CD singles. Gnarls Barkley was the first act to reach No.1 on this chart through downloads alone in April 2006, for their debut single "Crazy", which was released physically the following week. On 1 January 2007 digital downloads (including unbundled album tracks) became eligible from the point of release, without the need for an accompanying physical. Sales gradually improved in the following years, reaching a record high in 2008 that still proceeded to be overtaken in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
In the late 2010s, artists began a trend of releasing multiple singles before eventually releasing a studio album. An unnamed A&R representative confirmed to Rolling Stone in 2018 that "an artist has to build a foundation to sustain" and adding that "When artists have one big record and go run with that, it doesn’t work because they never had a foundation to begin with." The same article cited examples such as Cardi B, Camila Cabello and Jason Derulo releasing four or more singles prior to their album releases.
Types of physical singles
Singles have been issued in various formats, including 7-inch (18 cm), 10-inch (25 cm), and 12-inch (30 cm) vinyl discs (usually playing at 45 rpm); 10-inch (25-cm) shellac discs (playing at 78 rpm); cassette, 8 and 12 cm (3- and 5-inch) CD singles and 7-inch (18 cm) plastic flexi discs. Other, less common, formats include singles on Digital Compact Cassette, DVD, and LD, as well as many non-standard sizes of vinyl disc (5-inch/12 cm, 8-inch/20 cm, etc.).
The most common form of the vinyl single is the 45 or 7-inch. The names are derived from its play speed, 45 rpm, and the standard diameter, 7 inches (18 cm).
The 7-inch 45 rpm record was released 31 March 1949 by RCA Victor as a smaller, more durable and higher-fidelity replacement for the 78 rpm shellac discs. The first 45 rpm records were monaural, with recordings on both sides of the disc. As stereo recordings became popular in the 1960s, almost all 45 rpm records were produced in stereo by the early 1970s. Columbia Records, which had released the 33 1⁄3 rpm 12-inch vinyl LP in June 1948, also released 33 1⁄3 rpm 7-inch vinyl singles in March 1949, but they were soon eclipsed by the RCA Victor 45. The first regular production 45 rpm record pressed was "PeeWee the Piccolo" RCA Victor 47-0146 pressed 7 December 1948 at the Sherman Avenue plant in Indianapolis, R.O. Price, plant manager. The claim made that 48-0001 by Eddy Arnold was the first 45 is evidently incorrect (even though as of this writing 48-0000 has not turned up) since all 45s were released simultaneously with the 45 player on the 29 March date. There was plenty of information 'leaked' to the public about the new 45 rpm system through front-page articles in Billboard magazine on 4 December 1948 and again on 8 January 1949. RCA was trying to blunt the lead Columbia had established in releasing their 33 1⁄3 LP system back in June 1948.
Although 7 inches remained the standard size for vinyl singles, 12-inch singles were introduced for use by DJs in discos in the 1970s. The longer playing time of these singles allowed the inclusion of extended dance mixes of tracks. In addition, the larger surface area of the 12-inch discs allowed for wider grooves (larger amplitude) and greater separation between grooves, the latter of which results in less cross-talk. Consequently, they are less susceptible to wear and scratches. The 12-inch single is still considered a standard format for dance music, though its popularity has declined in recent years.
The sales of singles are recorded in record charts in most countries in a Top 40 format. These charts are often published in magazines and numerous television shows and radio programs count down the list. In order to be eligible for inclusion in the charts the single must meet the requirements set by the charting company, usually governing the number of songs and the total playing time of the single.
In popular music, the commercial and artistic importance of the single (as compared to the EP or album) has varied over time, technological development, and according to the audience of particular artists and genres. Singles have generally been more important to artists who sell to the youngest purchasers of music (younger teenagers and pre-teens), who tend to have more limited financial resources.  Starting in the mid-sixties, albums became a greater focus and more important as artists created albums of uniformly high quality and coherent themes, a trend which reached its apex in the development of the concept album. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, the single generally received less and less attention in the United States as albums, which on compact disc had virtually identical production and distribution costs but could be sold at a higher price, became most retailers' primary method of selling music. Singles continued to be produced in the UK and Australia, surviving the transition from compact disc to digital download.
The discontinuation of the single has been cited as a major marketing mistake by the record companies considering it eliminated an inexpensive recording format for young fans to use to become accustomed to purchasing music. In its place was the predominance of the album which alienated customers by the expense of purchasing an expensive format for only one or two songs of interest. This in turn encouraged interest in file sharing software on the internet like Napster for single recordings initially which began to seriously undercut the music recording market.
Dance music, however, has followed a different commercial pattern, and the single, especially the 12-inch vinyl single, remains a major method by which dance music is distributed.
A curious development has been the popularity of mobile phone ringtones based on pop singles (on some modern phones, the actual single can be used as a ringtone). In September 2007, Sony BMG announced they would introduce a new type of CD single, called "ringles", for the 2007 holiday season. The format included three songs by an artist, plus a ringtone accessible from the user's computer. Sony announced plans to release 50 ringles in October and November, while Universal Music Group expected to release somewhere between 10 and 20 titles.
In a reversal of this trend, a single has been released based on a ringtone itself. The Crazy Frog ringtone, which was a cult hit in Europe in 2004, was released as a mashup with "Axel F" in June 2005 amid a massive publicity campaign and subsequently hit #1 on the UK charts.
The term single is sometimes regarded as a misnomer, since one record usually contains two songs: the A-side and B-side. In 1982, CBS marketed one-sided singles at a lower price than two-sided singles.
In South Korean music, the terminology for "albums" and "singles" is unique and includes an additional term, the "single album" (Korean: 싱글 음반; RR: singgeul eumban), a category of releases that is not found outside of Korea. In English, the word "album" in ordinary usage refers to an LP-length music release with multiple tracks. By contrast, the Korean word for "album" (Korean: 음반; RR: eumban) denotes a musical recording of any length released on physical media; it is closer in meaning to the English words "record" or "release". Although the terms "single albums" and "singles" are similar and sometimes may even overlap in meaning, depending on context, they are considered two distinct release types in South Korea. A "single album" refers to a physical release (like CD, LP, or some other media) collecting one or more singles, while a "single" is only a song itself, typically as a downloaded file or streamable song. The Gaon Album Chart tracks sales of all "offline" albums released as physical media, meaning that single albums compete alongside full-length studio albums (and all other albums). The Gaon Digital Chart, which tracks downloads and streams, is regarded as the official "singles" chart.
As a distinct release type, the single album developed during the CD era in the 1990s. Single albums, typically including about two or three songs, were marketed as a more affordable alternative to a full-length CD album. The term "single album" is sometimes used to refer to a release that would simply be called a "single" in western contexts, such as a 7-inch 45 rpm record released before the advent of downloadable music.
To give an example of the differences between full-length albums, single albums, and singles: the K-pop boy band Big Bang has a full-length studio album, titled MADE, which was originally released as a series of four single albums: M, A, D, and E. Two singles were included on each of these single albums; the first in the series, M, contains the singles "Loser" and "Bae Bae".
A single album is distinct from a single even if it only includes one song. The single "Gotta Go" by Chungha was released on a single album titled XII, which was a one-track CD. Even though "Gotta Go" was the only song on XII, the two releases carry different titles and charted separately: XII reached No. 4 on the Gaon Album Chart, while "Gotta Go" reached No. 2 on the Gaon Digital Chart.