Miércoles 19 de Abril de 2006, Ip nº 149

The single is dead, long live the single
Por Neil McCormick

What is so unusual about the Gnarls Barkley single that is all but unavoidable on the radio and is number one for the second week running in the UK charts? Well, it's not the title.

Crazy is actually the 12th song called Crazy to enter the top 40, although the first to reach number one, beating previous efforts - by such luminaries as Seal and Patsy Cline - to encapsulate the madness of the human condition in a snappy singalong chorus. This makes it the joint favourite song title for wannabe hit-makers, with Angel also notching up a dozen different chart entries. It won't be long before some bright sparks concoct a song called Crazy Angel to double their chances.

But I digress. The interesting thing about Crazy is that it was the first number-one single that did not exist in any physical form. You couldn't buy it in a record shop, lovingly unwrap it, and gaze in wonder at the sleeve as you slipped it into your CD player or dropped it on your turntable. There was no CD, no vinyl, not even a tape.

Taking advantage of new chart regulations, Crazy was originally released as a download-only single. By going straight to number one, it represented a clear tipping point in the digital revolution. One day, all singles will look like this. Which is to say, like nothing at all.

But not yet. Those Luddites among us who have fetishised the packaging of music all our sad little lives were finally able to rush out and buy an actual, hold-in-your-hands copy of the Gnarls Barkley CD last week. And almost 121,000 of us did just that, admittedly many thousands fewer than the 147,000 who have downloaded the song.

It is a great single, one of those perfect combinations of melody, lyric and emotion that makes most pop music sound like it is trying too hard. So does it matter whether you listen to it on an old-fashioned stereo or a mobile phone?

The Anglo-Italian band Planet Funk are set to release the first mobile-only single next month, reflecting one of the principal ways music is currently being consumed. To give some indication of the decline in the physical sales market (as it is now referred to), when Crazy was released on 12-inch in Gnarls Barkley's US homeland a couple of weeks ago, it sold only 114 copies, a pathetic result that was still enough to take it to number 81 in the sales chart. No wonder the music business has become so obsessed with the supposed death of the single.

What Gnarls Barkley actually represent is the rebirth of the single. Download technology is geared to individual tracks, which tend to be listened to in the form of random compilations of favourites culled from massive and ever-growing internet databases. As download culture expands, we could see any song ever recorded rise up the single charts on a wave of popular support, perhaps because it has been featured in a film or an advert, or the performer suddenly becomes newsworthy or a song spreads virally through the internet.

As downloading becomes universal, the singles charts (for too long in thrall to the marketing power of record companies and tastes of teenagers) will once more start to reflect the real listening experience of the general population.

Gnarls Barkley could, however, be viewed as another nail in the coffin of the album. This week, Morrissey's Ringleader of the Tormentors became the first number-one album with combined download and physical sales. Yet the classic long-playing record representing a musical journey with a beginning, middle and end is not well suited to a download format that gives us the opportunity to listen first and choose only songs that resonate with us.

Radiohead and George Michael have both recently suggested they might release songs as individual downloads as they are recorded, rather than collecting them together for a conventional album release. Albums are so named because originally that is exactly what they were, large bound folios in which people collected their favourite 78rpm discs. This is not all that dissimilar to the way we collect music now, although in place of bulky books we have portable MP3 players.

And so albums will still carry us on a journey, but it will increasingly be a journey through the soundtrack of our own lives. Does that sound crazy?

  13/04/2006. The Daily Telegraph.