Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and the album comeback

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Taylor Swift surprised fans with a double album on Friday but dropped no singles in advance
By Riyah Collins
BBC Newsbeat

Beyoncé released two in one go, Dua Lipa let her fans have three. Taylor Swift? She kept everything under wraps.

The Tortured Poets Department dropped last week with no singles released in advance and, next month, Billie Eilish says she’ll be doing the same.

For years, commentators have been warning that the album is dead and the single reigns supreme.

That’s partly down to streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music which let fans pick and choose their favourite tracks from artists and curate personalised playlists.

But could two of the world’s biggest stars opting to ditch singles breathe life back into albums?

Announcing Hit Me Hard and Soft, Billie said she wanted her fans to hear the album in one go.

And in an interview with Rolling Stone, she explained why.

“Every single time an artist I love puts out a single without the context of the album, I’m just already prone to hating on it,” she said.

“I really don’t like when things are out of context. This album is like a family: I don’t want one little kid to be in the middle of the room alone.”

Billie Eilish says she wants to give fans her upcoming album “all at once”

Even though he’s responsible for the weekly Official Singles Chart, Martin Talbot, the chief executive of the Official Charts Company, admits he’s more of an album fan himself.

“It’s fantastic that Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift are doing what appears to be something designed to push music fans back to the concept of an album,” he tells BBC Newsbeat.

“There is a danger that music fans lose sight of what an album is and what an album represents.

“The album represents the kind of apex of the creative vision of a particular artist.

“And it’s really important for the creative health of music and the cultural environment we preserve that.”

Fans take control

In the 70-year history of the charts, Martin says collating the top 40 singles has changed dramatically.

It started with calling around a few record stores each week to ask which singles – specially selected and released by musicians – were their bestsellers.

Now, thanks to streaming platforms, anything can be a single – and anything can enter the chart.

“The great thing about the digital environment is that it puts the control in the hands of the consumer, in the hands of music fans,” Martin tells Newsbeat.

“Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, they may just be releasing albums, but each of those tracks that make up those albums is available to stream in isolation,” he says.

“And if those tracks get enough streams, they will go into the singles chart, regardless of whether the artist deems them to be singles or not.”

That decision could be a thing of the past for artists as big as Taylor and Billie, although Taylor did release a music video for one song – Fortnight – on the day her album dropped.

That went straight to number one, but other tracks that weren’t officially promoted, including Down Bad and the eponymous The Tortured Poets Department, also debuted in the top five.

But for up and coming talents like Beth McCarthy singles are as important as ever.

Singer Beth McCarthy says singles are still important for artists establishing their sound

“Singles are a massive part of what starts your career,” the singer tells Newsbeat.

“It creates a way to release music without the pressure of making a whole body of work and figuring out an entire sound.

“It lets people get to know you but in short, little bits rather than having to do the whole big thing.”

Beth, from London, will be performing at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in May on the Introducing stage, and hopes to release her first album soon.

“I’ve been doing singles and EPs because they’re a shorter way to create something that isn’t going full pelt into an album,” she says.

“And for me, making an album, I want it to be done properly and done in a way that really works together and feels like art.”

Beyoncé dropped two singles from Cowboy Carter in one go

Aside from refining an artist’s sound, another good thing about releasing singles is how they can get fans excited for a new album.

“The single is still one of the most powerful promotional tools for an album,” says Martin.

He gives Texas Hold ‘Em as an example, one of two singles Beyoncé released from Cowboy Carter which he says “fed directly into the success of her album” – which debuted at number one.

But Martin says for most artists, singles have an important role to play in keeping album sales high.

“Part of the job of releasing singles is to keep the album in the public eye and to continue to ensure that people are reminded it exists,” he says.

“It’s very easy to fall off the radar.”

Vanishing from the limelight might not be a worry for Taylor, who within five days of releasing The Tortured Poets Department broke Spotify records with more than a billion streams.

She also broke UK chart records, with the album reaching number one and outselling the rest of the top 10 combined.

Could it be the start of a comeback for the album?

Billie’s brother and collaborator Finneas suggested a return to listening to albums in full was due a comeback.

“We’re not even at ‘song’ anymore,” he told the magazine, saying music was increasingly being consumed in trending soundbites on TikTok.

But “everything’s a counter-movement to the movement,” he added.

“I think that’s going to lead back to immersing yourself in an album. I really do.”

Taylor and Billie aren’t the first artists to shun singles, but Martin says it’s an interesting coincidence to see two megastars take this approach at similar times.

“It won’t be the last time they do it,” he says.

“And it doesn’t also mean the old model will die by the wayside and people are no longer going to start releasing singles.”

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 and 17:45 weekdays – or listen back here.

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