I happened to be browsing through Amazon and eBay the other day, and got to thinking about the CD single format. I used to be quite the avid collector of these back in the late 90’s and earlier this decade — you could often find hidden gems among the b-sides, and I just liked the collecting aspect and the different art. Admittedly, they would often collect dust on my shelf after the first few listens, but my CD rip project has now made it much easier to listen to them at a moment’s notice. (I listened to the early Brave Captain EPs yesterday, for the first time in probably seven-plus years, and discovered that my music tastes have shifted such that I find the electronic-experimentation bits much more palatable now. This is, by the way, the reason why I never get rid of CDs — there have been many artists that I have had second thoughts about…)
Fast forward to this year, and you’ll find that the format is just about extinct. You can’t even find them in music stores anymore, and even the major UK retailers have stopped stocking them. Over there, the format underwent a precipitous 90% decline in unit sales from 1999 to 2007, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar figures for the US.
I can’t help but feel a bit sad about this — I consider the CD single an integral part of my education as a popular music fan and collector. (One of the most important lessons learned: the b-sides for singles from a band’s first album are almost always the best they will ever release. Why? Well, by the time they get around to recording an album, they tend to have a large repertoire of songs laying around. For later albums, they don’t have that backlog to rely on.) Another concern is whether or not "official" remixes will die out — part of their raison d’être was to fill out singles.
I feel like the industry had a hand in killing the CD single format — the move to multi-part singles and the reduction in the number of tracks (partly to satisfy chart rules) smacked of greed. While it didn’t stop me from buying them, I’m sure that the consumer market as a whole got tired of it. Three part singles were the absolute nadir of this phenomenon, though thankfully they were short-lived.
My feelings echo many of the commenters in this thread. There’s just something different about clicking on a link and downloading an MP3 — granted, I am coming around to the idea given the convenience of having my music library instantly accessible, but only grudgingly so. Coming soon: a screed regarding the practice of buying just one or two songs from an album instead of the whole thing…