Remember the album cut—the track deep on a disc that fans knew best, that only cool radio stations would play? Like so many cherished things from before the iTunes era, it’s essentially extinct.
My evidence for this bold and seemingly facile statement isn’t the steady, well-chronicled disappearance of the album-oriented rock band. Rather, it’s the latest Top 40 radio smash by Adele, who retakes the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 this week with the melodramatic belter “Set Fire to the Rain,” her third straight U.S. No. 1 single.
Let’s talk about that word, too: single. What the heck is that anymore, anyway? You’ve been able to buy “Set Fire” as a standalone track since last February. Is a “single” a song picked by record labels, or by you?
“Set Fire” follows “Rolling In The Deep” and “Someone Like You” as chart-toppers from Adele’s 21, which this week is in its staggering 17th week of crowning the U.S. album chart. According to Billboard, this gives Adele a couple more chart milestones to go with the absurd list she’s already racked up: the longest-running No. 1 album since 1992-93’s The Bodyguard soundtrack; and the first single-artist album to be No. 1 simultaneously with its three No. 1 singles.
The number I’m more interested in, though, is how long it took “Set Fire to the Rain” to reach the top of the Hot 100: 21 (non-consecutive) weeks.
That’s the seventh-slowest climb to the penthouse in Hot 100 history. And unlike the other gradually climbing hits in the all-time list of slowpoke smashes, such as “Macarena” or “With Arms Wide Open,” Adele’s latest wasn’t worked up the chart by her label, slowly and patiently, a few notches at a time. It’s a song Columbia Records essentially ignored for months, until one day they looked at the sales of the song on iTunes and decided, Okay, let’s make this a smash now. And so it became, in short order.
“Set Fire” was a hit last summer in several European countries. But the song was a deep cut in America up until around Thanksgiving, and it had a very erratic chart pattern for a future chart-topper. It first appeared on the Hot 100 at No. 88, on the chart dated March 12, 2011, when 21 was a brand-new album. Radio wasn’t playing the song at all, and Columbia wasn’t promoting it—that debut was thanks entirely to digital buyers cherry-picking it for purchase as an album cut. After one week, “Set Fire” dropped off the Hot 100—and stayed off for five months. Then, starting in August, it began popping on and off the chart—a couple weeks here, a couple there. Columbia, busy promoting “Someone Like You,” still wasn’t touching it. In 10 total weeks, off and on, charting as an unpromoted track, “Set Fire” never got higher than No. 72.
In November, after a five-week No. 1 run for “Someone,” Columbia weighed various candidates for release as Adele’s followup in America. The label came close to selecting the stomping “Rumor Has It,” which had already scored strong airplay at Adult Album Alternative radio (the small format of jammy, soothing dad-rock favorites like Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz). But according to Billboard, the label ultimately “changed course to [‘Set Fire’], citing, in part, its hefty 706,000 in digital sales as an album track.”
A gold-certified song before the label had huckstered it to even a single program director, “Set Fire” finally crashed into the U.S. Top 40 in mid-December. It reached No. 1 just seven weeks later. Pretty speedy—unless you consider that that’s 47 weeks after the track made its first Hot 100 appearance, spurred by the general public.
Queen, “Another One Bites The Dust”
Across rock and pop history, there have been dozens of songs that were willed into becoming hits when labels didn’t know what they had. The list of tunes originally slotted as B-sides, before DJs flipped the vinyl 45 and realized a gem was lurking, includes Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (1969), Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974), and Gloria Gaynor’s immortal “I Will Survive” (1979).
Then there are the No. 1 hits that came deep in the campaign for an album, after the label picked the wrong singles early on. According to Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, Michael Jackson insisted to his friend Freddie Mercury in 1980 that “Another One Bites the Dust” was the best single on Queen’s The Game; only after club DJs played it for months, and the rococo “Play the Game” missed the Top 40 entirely, did the band get around to making “Dust” the album’s third single (and a smash). A year later, “Kiss on My List” was the third single from Daryl Hall & John Oates’s breakthrough album Voices, after a pair of singles that missed the Top 10.
Finally, there’s that sizable category of traditional, AOR-era “album tracks”—generally songs by rock acts that got plenty of FM radio airplay, but either (a) the act had enough radio hits that a potential smash or two could be spared; or (b) the act, for image reasons, prided itself on keeping certain catchy songs off Top 40 radio.
In the latter category, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is the most famous non-single of all time. But in the former category, numerous acts much poppier than Zep held back potential hits from vinyl 45 and AM radio. Elton John’s original 1973 recording of “Candle in the Wind” was never released as a U.S. single; neither was Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 recording of “Landslide.” (Both became radio gold decades later after being rerecorded.) Even that hard-rockin’ dude Billy Joel kept 1977 radio favorites “The Stranger” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” off seven-inch vinyl.
Adele’s latest hit is a little bit like all of these types of accidental hits: hidden in plain sight, anointed belatedly, and held in reserve as a deep cut. What’s new about “Set Fire to the Rain” is how the public made it a hit.
Adele, “Set Fire To The Rain” (live at Royal Albert Hall)
For the first 40 years of the Hot 100’s existence, the prerogative to make a song a hit was entirely the label’s (and, less so, the artist’s). Billboard rules stated that only songs released as commercial singles were allowed to chart. During this predigital age, the public could call radio stations and request album cuts, but that was a pretty indirect way to get the message to the label, Hey, stupid! This underrated, underplayed song is a hit!
The tide started to turn on this regimented, singles-vs.-album-cuts dichotomy in 1998, when Billboard revised its policy and began allowing songs unreleased as singles to appear on the Hot 100. That gave the labels a power they’d always wanted, scoring big Billboard hits without having to offer the public a cheap way to acquire them. But it gave radio programmers new power, too—airplay had an even more direct effect on making songs hits. In 2002, rapper Nelly’s label Universal was compelled to change its plans for a followup single to “Hot in Herre,” after radio stations, unprompted, began playing his Kelly Rowland ballad duet “Dilemma” and wound up ushering it to the top of the Hot 100.
The last link in the hit-making chain to become empowered was the lowly fan. That finally changed in the new millennium thanks to file-sharing and, eventually, to Steve Jobs. His insistence in his 2003 negotiations with the major labels, that all tracks on the iTunes Music Store be individually purchasable, essentially turned every song into a potential single.
Ever since agreeing to that fateful negotiation point, the label heads have bemoaned the “unbundling” of the album, their longtime cash cow. But while it may be small consolation, iTunes does provide the industry with a wealth of market intelligence. When a priority act drops an album on iTunes, labels learn within days which songs are ringing up a la carte purchases (clicks that, unlike on YouTube, actually cost the user something) and could therefore become radio hits later.
The prior, rock-oriented era of “album cuts” unsullied by singles-buying and Top 40 airplay is unfathomable now—”Stairway to Heaven” is on sale at iTunes for $1.29. To be fair, the word “single” is not totally meaningless, even in the digital era. The leadoff track from a forthcoming album is often released to iTunes and other e-tailers as a standalone, before the whole collection drops. And very recently, YouTube-fueled acts like 2011 Pazz & Jop debutantes Azealia Banks and Lana Del Rey are kicking off their careers with only singles to their names—the digital equivalent of the seven-inch. But more than ever, the very idea of a single is amorphous. Just as the iPod a decade ago turned albums into undifferentiated, shuffleable collections of tracks, so has digital music-buying thrown every song into the horse race for hit status.
Whatever the merits of “Set Fire to the Rain” as a song—honestly, to me, it’s one of the middling tracks on Adele’s album—it’s fascinating as a chart phenomenon, the culmination of the evolution of pop promotion in the post-single, post-digital era. For nearly a year, all the songs on 21 were laid out like a buffet for listeners. About 700,000 of them gravitated toward “Set Fire” with no outside prodding (not even a cover from the Adele-happy cast of Glee). The label listened and promoted accordingly. Arguably, it’s the first focus-grouped No. 1 song.
Uninspiring? Perhaps, but it’s a new world. When it comes to that awesome deep cut you hold dear, I wouldn’t tell your friends about it if I were you. Inspire too many of them pick it up for a buck, and it could be blanketing the radio before you know it.