Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Gotye (Screenshot: YouTube), Sam Hunt (Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images), The Sunny Coast Skate's "Harlem Shake" video (Screenshot: YouTube), Carly Rae Jepsen (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images), OMI (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

On February 24, 2010, Louie Sulcer logged into the iTunes store and bought an MP3 of Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way.” The 71-year-old Woodstock, Georgia, resident later told Rolling Stone that he hadn’t heard the 1958 recording before, but thought it would fit well on a Cash mix he was curating for his son. Unwittingly, however, the download represented the 10 billionth song sold on iTunes, which made Sulcer a mild celebrity. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rosanne Cash even called to thank him for listening to her dad’s music, and put her husband, John Leventhal, on the line to strum “Guess Things Happen That Way.”

At the time, Sulcer fit the profile of a typical music consumer. According to statistics tracked by the Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA), a whopping 1.2 billion download singles were purchased in 2010, which represented 67.1% of total music sales volume and generated $1.3 billion in revenue. By 2018, that share had increased to 75.1% of total sales volume—though the number of download singles actually sold had declined to just 399.8 million units.

Although these numbers illustrate the magnitude of shrinking music sales during the last decade, the data doesn’t mean that singles themselves waned in popularity. If anything, the 2010s were dominated by the single format, in large part because the way people consumed music changed so radically. Rather than buying songs or albums, people streamed them. In 2018, Nielsen Music tracked 901 billion on-demand audio and video streams, an increase of 42.6% over the previous year. This trend shows no signs of abating; in just the first half of 2019, Nielsen tracked 507.7 billion on-demand audio and video streams.

That these measurements are tilted toward tracking individual songs rather than full-lengths isn’t surprising. Streaming-based services such as Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, and Tidal have a variety of listening options—ranging from free, ad-supported tiers to paid subscriptions—and offer a user experience elevating songs ahead of albums. Part of that is the function of the platforms’ design: Music is arranged chronologically, so in lengthy album rollouts where songs arrive in steady, incremental drips, new individual songs appear first in listings. But Spotify’s desktop app prominently displays an artist’s top 10 songs as measured by streams, while curated playlists—which can encompass highlights of a single artist’s output or be compilations of current hits or genre-specific songs—boil down the essence of an artist’s output to just a few songs.

Songs on these playlists weren’t (and aren’t) necessarily issued as singles, of course, which underscores how the concept of the format evolved in the 2010s. Although individual tracks still drive traditional new-album promotion—labels choose a focus song, service it to radio, and musicians perform the same song during promo appearances—singles more than ever aren’t explicitly tied to full-lengths. In 2017, Sam Hunt spent 34 weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart with “Body Like A Back Road,” a song he told NashCountryDaily at the start of that year was written while “trying to conceptualize a new record.”

He didn’t mind that “Body Like A Back Road” emerged well before an album:

“As I write these songs, I don’t want to sit on them for as long as it takes me to finish a record before I put them out, so I’m just going to try to put them out as I write them and finish them. As quick as I can get them done, I’ll be shooting them out.”

Nearly three years later, a new Sam Hunt album has yet to materialize (although he released the single “Downtown’s Dead” in 2018 and “Kinfolks” in October of this year). It’s easy to forget that, however: With the rise of streaming and playlists, songs are increasingly unbundled from the context of an artist’s overall catalog. Release dates are harder to track and remember, since listeners experience songs apart from eras or collections. Even the vinyl boom, praised for keeping physical media alive, can exacerbate this disconnection: If an album is too long to fit on one record, it’s a common practice to just excise songs from the track list and make them digital downloads.

Of course, singles also no longer need to be a physical entity (in fact, vinyl singles barely rate on the RIAA’s 2018 recorded music sales statistics) or be chosen as the result of top-down business decisions. Internet virality—gaining a following on YouTube, for example, or being SoundCloud-popular—often became a better driver of popularity in the 2010s. Hit songs also certainly didn’t need to be available in brick-and-mortar stores: Spotify’s hugely popular RapCaviar playlist was arguably the hip-hop tastemaker of the 2010s, while the global hit “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (along with Justin Bieber) received a boost from being on the service’s Latin music playlists.

In the 2010s, songs were associated with memes or movements more than albums or artists. Social media platforms ushered in a golden age of songs-as-memes: the “Call Me Maybe” lip dub—which itself spawned a whole movement of elaborate lip-syncing videos—the “Black Beatles”/Mannequin challenge, the “Harlem Shake” videos. Later in the decade, the bite-size creativity on Vine (the six-second video app gobbled up and shut down by Twitter) and currently hot TikTok offered even more avenues for musical integration. On the latter app, a dance remix of Maroon 5’s 2012 hit “Payphone” recently soundtracked the viral #basketballchallenge, a lighthearted, dance-oriented meme where squads bounded off the court (and other places) in unison with the amped-up beats.

That these innovations are video-based is also no accident, since singles historically have always ebbed and flowed in popularity due to technological advances and business considerations. In the ’90s, labels stopped manufacturing individual singles because they thought these cut into CD and cassette sales—a move that backfired in the Napster age, when people simply snagged a free MP3 download of the song they wanted rather than buying it as part of a marked-up package. But the aftershocks of legal streaming have impacted the 2010s singles market in much different ways. Song lengths and arrangements started changing to cater to streaming platforms, and maximize the chance an artist will be heard.

Billboard also changed its chart methodology to reflect streaming’s influence, which means the singles-based Hot 100 and album-based Top 200 are now determined by a complicated formula. The results of this math have included longer reigns for chart-topping songs: Lil Nas X, a social media genius who set the bar impossibly high for all future viral singles, spent a record-breaking 19 weeks atop the Hot 100 with “Old Town Road,” besting the previous streak held by “Despacito” and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day.”

But even before “Old Town Road,” the composition of the Hot 100 was starting to look different in the 2010s. Artists who had blockbuster release-week streaming statistics reshaped the chart: During the first week of release for Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, every song from the album charted on the Hot 100. Eleven of those songs landed in the top 40, a record for female artists—but still far behind Drake, who placed a whopping 21 tracks in the top 40 following the 2018 release of Scorpion. One week later, however, only three Grande songs remained in the top 40. Rather than being a barometer of focus tracks, the Hot 100 became more volatile, more like a reflection of real-time (if ephemeral) streaming bursts than sustained trends.

This phenomenon also carried over to (if not accelerated) the single burnout cycle, where songs experienced a furious burst of chart dominance and then cratered just as fast. One-hit wonders from the 2010s especially suffered under this system, as acts such as MAGIC (“Rude”), Gotye (“Somebody That I Used To Know”), Alex Clare (“Too Close”), and OMI (“Cheerleader”) experienced sudden ubiquity—and then disappeared without a trace, at least in the U.S.

Of course, streaming is just one of the factors that influenced the single evolution. Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart started counting radio spins from all formats, not just its namesake, in 2012. This move, when coupled with streaming’s ascent, led to more pop crossover hits and “Body Like A Back Road”-sized smashes: Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” spent 50 weeks at No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, while Florida Georgia Line had a 24-week run on its own (and some assistance from Nelly on the remix) in 2012 and 2013 with “Cruise.”

YouTube introduced another avenue for music consumption and discovery, with IFPI estimating in its 2018 Music Consumer Insight Report that 47% of on-demand music listening happens via the platform. Cue up a video on YouTube (or a track on SoundCloud, for that matter) and let the algorithm take over, serving up auto-play songs and videos. It’s an often exhilarating experience—I’ve discovered multiple great songs and bands doing this—although the disembodied experience of automatic, robotic curation can still be disconcerting.

The side effect of a singles-driven musical landscape, of course, is that critical consensus is nearly impossible to achieve. If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around a unifying theme for the 2010s, you’re not alone: The decade felt like a jumbled series of micro-trends stitched together, with the timespan between 2010 and 2019 feeling like multiple decades rather than 10 years. That’s not necessarily a negative: Although the 2010s certainly brought no shortage of incredible albums, music culture especially felt more fragmented, niche-driven, and individualized than the past—the personal touch of a carefully-thought-out mixtape writ large.

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About the author

Annie Zaleski

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.