The Power of Three: An Exploration of a Lead Single’s Placement

by Rudy Craig

“All Time Low” by Jon Bellion. “Bounce Back” by Big Sean. “Me Myself and I” by G-Eazy featuring Bebe Rexha. Each of these songs have seen extensive radio play within the past year, driving the newest albums of their respective artists. In each case, the songs were released as lead singles, predating the albums themselves by a matter of months. As time went on, the singles started permeating my everyday life, first infiltrating my ‘recommended videos’ tab on YouTube, evolving further to the top of my soundcloud feed, and finally to the loudspeakers of my local gym. This process was normal, and besides, I would be keeping up with the artists regardless of the promotion.

The albums dropped one by one, and within them each single found its place. “All Time Low” served as a strong, darker transition point in a pop album intentionally designed to resemble a theatrical soundtrack. “Bounce Back” served essentially as a mantra for Big Sean’s dogged, focused attitude, something that was consistent within his latest project down to the title; I Decided. “Me Myself and I” matched the general content and mood of G-Eazy’s When It’s Dark Out as well, showcasing a lonely self-centeredness echoed in many other songs from the album, including the motivated “Random” or the quietly depressed “Sad Boy.” Unsurprisingly, each of the songs were also the biggest tracks of their albums, with “Me Myself and I” especially demonstrating a striking amount of star power, going 4x Platinum, kicking off G-Eazy’s second world tour and advancing both artists involved to new fame. While all of these similarities are generally expected of the lead single of an album, I started to become increasingly aware of another connection as I went back and listened to the projects themselves. Not only were the songs similar in success and style to the rest of their albums, but their placement was the same. Exactly the same, in fact: each track is the third track listed in the album.

In beginning my investigation of this strange phenomenon, I started with the historical purpose of the lead single. The loose definition of a single release translated into a Wikipedia summary as “…a song that is released separately from an album, although it usually also appears on an album… for promotional uses such as digital download or commercial radio airplay and are expected to be the most popular.” The page goes on to explain that in the face of the digital download, the purpose of the lead single has been altered somewhat, due to the ability of each track on an album to be sold separately when hosted by platforms such as iTunes. The limitations of a ‘single’ release are also pointed out, with the page explaining that while services such as iTunes and Spotify allow up to three songs — less than ten minutes each — to be released preemptively and count as ‘singles,’ “Any more than three tracks on a musical release or longer than thirty minutes in total running time is either an Extended Play (EP) or if over six tracks long, it’s classed as an Album.”

In the heyday of vinyl records, the most common format for a single release was the 45 rpm record (or 7-inch, if one was to refer to them by their diameter), introduced by RCA Records in 1945. In this format, the lead single would be pressed and packaged for a lone release and would feature a b-side as well. As noted in an August 10, 1989 clipping from the Spokane, Washington ‘Spokesman’ entitled “The 45 Rpm Record Will Soon Be History,” this format pandered well to the teen audience of the time, providing an inexpensive distributing point for “all the rock acts that were good for one, or, at most, two good hits.” The article continued to note the rise of the CD and Cassette, in addition to noticing the trend in the late sixties towards more cohesive, content-based projects: “…albums gained ground as artists like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan began releasing adventurous LPs brimming with classic songs, many of them too long to fit on the little record spinning at high speeds.”

The lead single is everything a single is, only facing the requirement of being the first song to be put out in promotion of an album. All of the tracks that I listed in the opener were lead singles. Each of the tracks were also extremely contemporary, with the oldest having faced a mid-2015 released. As the Wikipedia article on lead singles reiterated, the industry used to be much more single-oriented, setting the system apart from the more modern context through which I’m examining the ‘Track Three Phenomenon’.The article noted that, in some cases, songs would never appear next to other music unless included in compilations of singles, with the most noteworthy examples including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Johnny B. Goode.” The difference is that those songs existed exclusively to advertise themselves and nothing more; they were never intended to fit into a cohesive project. By the late sixties, this mindset had all but faded, with the single repurposed into “…advertisements for an album… conceptually defined as a foretaste of the album to come.”

While the purpose of the single itself has always been somewhat evident, I still haven’t had much luck in explaining why they’re placed the way they are in the album. Clearly, this wasn’t a concern in the single-driven ecosystem of the 40’s and 50’s. By the time I got to examining such artists as The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, the use of a single had become much more defined, although its application was straightforward bordering on the uncreative. Simply put, the single was the first song that the listener experiences when dropping the needle was invariably the lead single of the album. The Stones, especially, were notorious with this, with a catalogue of recognizable hits including “Paint it Black” (Aftermath, 1966),“Sympathy for the Devil” (Beggars Banquet, 1968), “Gimme Shelter” (Let It Bleed, 1969), “Miss You” (Some Girls, 1978), and “Start Me Up” (Tattoo You, 1981) all occupying the lead single and first track positions of their respective albums. On one hand, this is probably the best idea. as a 2012 Billboard article entitled The Importance Of Album Track Order In The Digital Age pointed out: “Don’t be too smart for the room.” (The quote, provided by Glassnote founder/president Daniel Glass, had previously established that “In general, we advise our bands not to bury their singles and most commercial tracks toward the end of an album… start out with your hit… then, they [the audience] can dive into the rest of the record and find out more nuances and subtleties as they go.”) On the other hand, following an established formula this tightly can risk alienation of an audience: if you were to enter a project knowing that the first song is almost certainly going to be the best song on the album, what’s to keep you from returning if you don’t find yourself completely satisfied by it?

This pattern, by far, was the the most predominant of the single placements within an album predating the onset of the digital CD. I looked up a range of vinyl-original albums, most of which have since seen a re-release on platforms such as iTunes, and almost all of them chose to place the the most popular songs at the forefront of the album. Some noteworthy examples include “Running With the Devil” by Van Halen, “Blitzkreig Bop” by The Ramones, and “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, the biggest selling single of all time to date.

By this point, I had also begun exploring the placement of the lead singles of the albums in relation to both the genre of music and the relative reach of the artists themselves. My tentative theory was that while an unknown artist needs to get their name out there quickly, and thus get their best material to the listeners as soon as possible, a more established musician can take the time to ease into the most catchy single in a structured, intentional manner. (The Rolling Stones remain an elusive exception to this idea, but I wanted to be sure.) I wanted to explore genre as well because I realized that my original examples of third-track lead singles were not only all contemporary, but all fit into either pop, rap, or a combination thereof. To examine the role of the lead single in the success of an unknown artist, I decided to check out Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Debut Albums list.

It became quickly apparent that a pattern was there. While “Licensed to Ill” by the Beastie Boys did not fit (released in 1986, the hip-hop/rock album found its most popular tracks about halfway through the album), there were enough debut lead singles at the number one track position to erase any doubt. In addition to “Running With the Devil” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” from above, the list extended to include “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses, “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA, and “Break On Through to the Other Side” by The Doors. The message was clear: get your foot in the door as fast and as hard as you can.

Keeping all of this in mind, I finally was able to bring my focus back to the contemporary. Keeping in mind the historical predominance of the first-track lead single, I tried to look for any kind of pattern that would tip the scales back to the weirder, third track lead I had initially noticed. In terms of genre, nothing seemed to stand out. Jon Bellion’s The Human Condition kept “All Time Low” in the third slot, as did Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams with “Adventure of a Lifetime.” Meanwhile, Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman moved the pattern up one, placing the title track in the third slot. It wasn’t until I reached Adele that I realized that the old pattern did still have a distinct place in the modern industry.

Adele’s music is somewhat timeless as she often she chooses to forego synths or other EDM-inspired instrumentations in favor of classic pianos and strings. Her album layout, it seems, seeks to continue in this same vintage vein. “Rolling in the Deep” and “Hello,” two of her biggest songs by an incredible margin, both occupy the first track slot of their respective albums. (Interestingly enough, “Chasing Pavements,” the most popular song from 19, her album that predates both of the previously listed songs, occupies the third slot.) Bruno Mars, another contemporary pop star who pulls strong inspiration from a classical style — in this case Motown-inspired Doo-Wop with a twist — also favors the lead-single-forward approach; choosing to place both the title track of his newest album 24K Magic and the biggest single from his last album, “Grenade,” at the forefront of their respective track listing. The choice this time seems to be more stylistic than through necessity. Having the lead single kick off a record is clearly a staple of more classic albums, so an artist wishing to recall that style would handle it accordingly.

Otherwise, the mystery of the third-track hit remains largely in doubt. If the first track isn’t being used as the most accessible, catchy song of the album, it’s still setting some sort of president for the rest of the ensuing album, and usually serves as an introduction to the artist of some sort. (Jon Bellion’s “He Is The Same” accomplishes this, while Eminem’s “My Name Is” from the 1999 Slim Shady LP serves as the lead, the hit, and the introduction in one) A Sterobus.com article pointed out that the second track, if nothing else, follows the tempo and carries the mood of the first song, which is why I could imagine many contemporary artists choose to reserve the hit until after they’ve held the audience’s attention for a track or two. This also could be in part to genre; with as much content that can be communicated in a rap song — in addition to the genre’s heightened focus on narrative cohesion — putting a song at the beginning because it’s catchy could be at the expense of a proper introduction. This was certainly the case in G-Eazy’s When It’s Dark Out: after following a single track, spoken intro, the album kicks into a pounding introduction to G’s life in “Random” before settling on a hook in the third track, “Me Myself and I.” In an album such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, which follows a continuous rapped narrative throughout the entire piece, that kind of changeup could undermine the entire project. With a catchy third song, a contemporary artist has the chance to snag and reassure a listener that their time is worth it, and then reward them with the best-listening song of the album. Whether the formula will remain is up for debate, but for the moment, I feel there will always be a place for the lead single.

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