The Beatles: From Singles Band to Album Artist

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, as of 2012, The Beatles have sold 177 million units in the United States, more than any other artist. Also as of 2012, Billboard magazine lists The Beatles as the record Beatles - Please Please Meholder for the most number-one hits on the Hot 100 chart with 20. Every major remaster, anthology, or compilation of Beatles material sets off yet another Fab Four buying frenzy.  I mention these things to help cut right to the chase. The Beatles were and remain one of the most significant music artists of the past 50 years, period. If you’re not a fan, you can argue all you want as why that is, but what you can’t do is diminish their impact or lasting resonance. All right, that’s out of the way. Let’s get to it. The significance of The Beatles isn’t tied to any one thing. They were important for any number of reasons, including exploring and combining different musical styles, adding complex Beatles - A Hard Day's Nightinstrumentation (especially string arrangements) to previously bare-bone rock and roll songs, and to using the newest recording technology to improve and expand their sound. That’s all great stuff, but I’m not going to talk about any of that. Instead, I’m going to talk about how The Beatles helped lead the move away from the primary sales format being the single to becoming the album. From the beginning of recorded music, the single was king. That’s because technology hadn’t evolved enough to make course-groove (most commonly 78 rpm) records hold more than a few minutes of material. Music artists Beatles - Beatles for Saleconcentrated on having “hits,” that is, single songs that would sell 78s. When course-groove records started being phased out in the late 1940s in favor of micro-groove (45 rpm singles, 33 rpm albums) records, the single remained dominant. Most album sales were concentrated on Broadway musical scores, classical music pieces, or greatest hits collections. Things remained that way into the 1960s. At that time, it was still a common practice to intentionally leave a song perceived to be a possible hit single off an album in order to sell more vinyl – the thinking being that more people would be willing to buy a single than would ever be interested in purchasing a much more expensive album. The typical album of the day was like a collection of b-sides (the usual throwaway song on the lesser side of a single, Beatles - Rubber Soulthe “hit” side being the a-side), fine, if you were a huge fan of the artist, but nothing anyone else needed to own. The Beatles were instrumental in changing that thinking. The commercial success they’d achieved with their self-penned songs as singles had already allowed them to take a much higher degree of career control than was usual for the time. Previously, nearly all artists (Bob Dylan being another notable exception) relied on their recording companies to purchase material from recognized songwriters for them to record. John Lennon and Paul McCartney being among the most talented and prolific songwriters of the day, however, meant that the band never hurt for material. That’s not even considering the occasional nuggets provided by George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The initial days of Beatlemania were a hectic time. The band was busy touring the globe, making movies, and occasionally stopping somewhere long enoughBeatles - Revolver to knock out another single or two, though even the b-sides were proving to be winners. That meant that there was little time to spend in the studio working on albums that their record company (Parlophone in the UK, Capitol in the US) didn’t consider terribly important anyway. The quality of the Lennon-McCartney catalog was such that the suits had more potential hits than they could release as singles. Whereas the first Beatles albums contained covers of songs by other composers, the band soon had the confidence and the clout to demand that a Beatles album contain nothing but their own compositions. Beatles - Sgt. Pepper'sAs talented as the Liverpool lads were, they were also incredibly fortunate to be teamed with an innovative producer in George Martin. Martin encouraged them to be creative, to try new styles and instrumentation. In essence, he gave them unprecedented permission to play around with their sound. It was a perfect match, each pushing the other to do more. When Rubber Soul was released in March 1965, it was their first album to contain songs by all four members and not a single one by an outside composer. The Beatles’ previous albums were already selling unaccustomedly well for the time, but Rubber Soul was something more than a leap forward in sales, it was a statement. They were serving notice to the world that an album could be more than a collection of leftovers, oddities and misfires, it could beBeatles - Magical Mystery Tour a work of art. When Revolver was released 14 months later, it set the bar even higher. Just two months after that, the August 29, 1966 show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park would be their last regular concert. From then on, instead of putting time into touring, they threw all of their energy into recording. In 1967, the band put out both Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (an EP in the UK, expanded to an LP in the US). The Beatles were known to be competitive and they listened to albums by other important artists, then tried to trump them. Whatever the genre, The Beatles seemed capable of equaling, or surpassing, the results of their fellow musicians, whether it be rock and roll, pop, folk, psychedelia, or metal (just Beatles - The Beatleslisten to the song Helter Skelter, if you don’t think that The Beatles were among the chief progenitors of that then-new genre). To be fair, singles did remain a focus of their efforts (the mega-hit Hey Jude, for example), but their massive album sales proved to the industry that the LP was the format of the future. The Beatles released three more original albums in the next three years: The Beatles (commonly called The White Album), Abbey Road, and Let It Be (though Abbey Road was released before Let It Be, it was actually recorded after). Each album sold phenomenally well and each still ranks high with music critics. For all the band’s success, however, things were coming apart, as the documentary film Let It Be attests. By the time of their breakup in April 1970, however, they had left a legacy that may never be equaled. Let’s return to the present and talk about what’s happening now. Since theBeatles - Yellow Submarine advent of digital downloads, the numbers of overall album (discs plus downloads) sales have dwindled, while sales of singles have increased sharply. That, however may be misleading, as downloads of full albums were not originally available from most online sources, which limited sales to singles only. That’s no longer the case and so, for the first time in several years, overall album sales actually increased in 2011. Who knows what the future holds for single versus album sales, but for the present, albums remain paramount. Just for the “record,” when Rolling Stone magazine compiled their series “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” earlier this year, four Beatles albums made the top ten (still another was at fourteen). Three of those top ten albums Beatles - 1were in the top five, with one of those (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) grabbing the top spot. That’s what I mean by legacy! The Des Moines Public Library has all of The Beatles’ official album releases, as well as the major compilations. Find out why The Beatles are held in such esteem, visit your nearest branch of the DMPL, where CDs check out for three weeks at no charge.
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