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Releasing Singles vs. Albums: Which Approach Is Better?

singles vs albums

I get asked this a lot:

“Should I put out an album? Or should I release a string of singles?”

Here’s my quick take:

Singles are better for building promotional momentum. Albums can be better for engaging existing fanbases.

I’ll tell you right now: The single best thing you can do to increase your streaming numbers this year is put out a single every month for the next twelve months.

I’ll also tell you right now that my favorite pieces of art aren’t three-minute songs; they’re cohesive, inspired, twisting-and-turning full-length albums. In terms of capacity for artistic expression, I think album > single, and it’s not close.

So, to answer that question – “Should I put out an album or release a string of singles?” – eh, it’s a tough call.

I think it depends on what your goals are.

Let’s break it down.

Why you should put out a string of singles

You should put out a string of singles because, as I said a few sentences ago, consistently releasing singles is literally the best thing you can do to boost your streaming numbers.

I like to use the analogy of stair steps.

(I’m going to use Spotify to explain this, but the principle holds true for Apple Music and Amazon and other streaming platforms, too.)

Bad news:

The first time you release music on Spotify, you will probably get almost zero streams.

Unless you have a huge existing audience (through Tik Tok or Instagram or something), nobody outside of your friends and family will even know that you’ve put music out.

Now, you can promote your music – via ads or playlisting – but you’re almost definitely not going to get any help from Spotify’s algorithm, for the simple reason that Spotify doesn’t have any data on your music yet. They can’t figure out who they should show it to, because it’s an unknown to them; they have no clue what it is and who would like it.

So, they don’t show it to anyone.

That means no Discover Weekly plays. No Release Radar adds. Nothing but streams from your friends and family, plus streams from whatever promotion you run.

But the second time you release music… you will get a few more streams.

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The people who streamed your last song a few times will probably see your new song show up in their Release Radar.

As the algorithm whirs, Spotify might get enough data to push you out to a Discover Weekly or five. They might be able to add you to a Radio playlist. Etc., etc.

Plus, you get the chance to run another round of promotion and give Spotify more data.

So…

The third time you release music, you will get a few more streams.

And the fourth time you release music, you will get a few more streams.

And the fifth time you release music… you get the idea.

The bottom line is that sustainable Spotify growth boils down to generating good data.

You’re stepping up stairs. 12 steps / singles later, Spotify will have a bunch more data, and you’ll be on another level from where you started. This is especially true if you’re doing promotional work for each single.

Here’s the punchline:

When you release an album, you take what could have been 12 opportunities for growth and compress them into a single step.

Instead of giving Spotify twelve chances to learn about your artistry, you give them one. Instead of giving yourself twelve chances to run promo campaigns, you give yourself one.

And this is compounded by the fact that albums are harder to promote than singles; you can add a single to a playlist, but there are very few playlists for entire albums.

“This all makes sense,” you’re thinking. (I hope.)

Right. So, if you’re tracking with the logic above and you’re under thirty years old, you’re probably thinking that all of this begs the question…

Why in the world would anyone release an album?

Ah. If you’re asking this, you’ve never listened to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in one sitting, have you?

Or Tommy. Or Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Or Lord Huron’s Strange Trails. Or almost anything from David Bowie.

Here’s the thing – you know how an entire comic book offers more room for a story than a single frame? Or how a movie gives more space for depth than a Tik Tok video? Or how a novel has more breadth for theme development than a short story?

Albums offer more space to create more meaning.

The simple truth is that, sometimes, music is best delivered in a cohesive, full-length format. Sometimes, if you’re putting your art first, you kind of have to put it out as an album.

You owe it to the art.

But you have to recognize what you’re sacrificing: You’re sacrificing your best chance at building your streaming numbers.

And sometimes, that’s what’s best.

To summarize, the general advice on singles vs. albums is this:

If you’re working on building a fanbase, put out singles, not albums; they’ll give you the best chance of getting your numbers up.

If you have an established fanbase, you can put out albums; they’re a great medium for engaging meaningfully with your fans (and a great way to generate sales, too).

⬆️  I think this is generally a good way to break things down, but I also think that there are times when an entry-level artist just needs to put out an album – because the art is an end in itself, and to break a cohesive expression up in service of promotion would be tragic.

Anyway, both formats have their purposes. And whether you make singles or albums, the most important recommendation is always the same:

Just keep making music.

Good luck.

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Song Release Checklist (21 Steps)

Here’s what to do when you put out music… and exactly when to do it.

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