Should you release a single or wait until you have a complete album?

It may not sound like an important question to ask yourself. You kinda know when you’re working on the project what it’s going to be: long-form or a one-off. But it’s also the kind of thing that can trip us up. I’ve watched bands and solo musicians get stuck in the “almost done” phase of a record (whether it’s five songs or fifteen) and never get the thing completed. Sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself a tough question right in the middle of a longer project (or maybe before you even start a long project): should we just release a single?

Big projects require big planning. Earlier this year, I talked to musicians and engineers about how to make recording sessions as productive as possible. A lot of the advice they gave boiled down to: make a plan and prepare. But what happens when that plan goes sideways? What happens when the studio isn’t available or the bass player goes AWOL? What happens when you run out of money?

We all want albums or EPs — collections of songs in some form. That’s still the legacy that bands and musicians leave behind. That’s the catalog. But I reject the advice to go big or go home. I say: go small and do more.

What I’ve perceived in a lot of musicians is that they often wait to release anything until the album is done. Until every overdub is done just right, they’re going to stay silent. I’ve even known bands to leave albums unreleased because they have a bigger idea for later. When that later idea doesn’t pan out the right way, they have two unreleased projects sitting in the can.

I’ve also known too many bands that think that promotion is the key to sales and because an album is the thing they sell, they won’t do anything until they have an album. It’s a problem I addressed in Make Art. Don’t Ask Permissionbut it runs deeper than just following or ignoring a marketer’s advice. We often just intuitively think that we have to reserve our energy to promote the Big Thing so we forget about the small things.

Really, though, only two rules should guide your thinking about releasing music.

  1. Release whatever you want, however you want.
  2. There are always people who haven’t heard your music.

In other words, there are no rules you should or should not be following. Singles aren’t a “thing” that promote an album in the way that they used to but that shouldn’t make you feel like you have lost an option. It should free you to release music in whatever way you choose.

Secondly, you should bear in mind — if you’re considering sitting on music until you can afford to get the big album done — that somewhere there are people who still haven’t heard your music. Saving all your material for a big release might make a bigger splash later but no matter how much energy you devote to that release, it will never reach everyone. Releasing single songs more frequently gives you an opportunity to try out different tactics to get attention. It allows you to experiment with different audiences.

Back in March, I interviewed Benjamin Harper of the band Magnolia Sons. Magnolia Sons were releasing singles only. They had a lot of instruments to coordinate in the studio and a throwback kinda vibe so they made the single songs work for them. Not only did each release feel like a 45 to drop into a jukebox, but it made each song stand on its own. Behind the scenes of that band, Benjamin was working on solo material. Instead of releasing his solo songs one at a time, he released an entire album when it was done. What was the logic behind releasing singles with a band versus a full-length solo record? None. “I just prefer whatever works best for each project,” Benjamin said.

You might also want to consider how Mike Watt of the Minutemen described their attitude: everything was either a flyer or a show. Records, in other words, were flyers. They were just a way to get people to the shows. The shows were the important thing. Maybe that’s how your recordings are. If that’s the case, then why be precious about them? Just release them to promote the next show.

You’re always going to hear advice about the “right” way to market your art. But there isn’t a right way. The tools we have today to distribute music don’t care if you release one song, five songs, or a triple album. It’s easy to get a single song on iTunes and see how it performs before you put the energy into an entire album. It’s also easy to put out an album without worrying about the costs of distributing a dozen songs. So do whatever works for you for each project but remember, there is always someone who hasn’t heard your music.

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