Forget about the giant egg and how long she might have been in it. Disregard the weird pointy implants, and try to ignore that the song sounds like a cross between “Express Yourself” and “Born to Be Alive,” because what many music insiders are seeing in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” single is an unexpected new lease on life for a dying record industry.
Roughly three hours after Gaga unleashed the song last Friday, it was No. 1, making it the fastest-selling single on the history of singles on iTunes. “Born This Way” set other records too: It was No. 1 in 23 countries; it was the 1,000th Hot 100 No. 1 song since Billboard began assembling charts in 1958; and it was the largest debut by a female, with opening week digital sales of 448,000.
So take a look at the latter statistic, and note that the previous female digital sales record was set by Britney Spears … last month! Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” found its way into 411,000 iTunes libraries in its debut week.
What is striking is not that the single is making a big comeback, but that the industry’s treatment of the single as an event is making a big comeback. Gaga, built up anticipation for the release of this $1.29 song by combining good old-fashioned hype and modern technology. She constantly tweeted portions of the song’s lyrics as if with each 140-character excerpt, she was unveiling a new aspect of a great mystery. Her homepage counted down the hours until the song was available. In the meantime, she convinced her followers that they needed the single as soon as it came out.
Steve Knopper, who detailed the music industry’s great crash in his book “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry in the Digital Age,” says he thinks the single is just one component of the industry’s efforts to stay afloat. Other initiatives include the so-called 360 deals, which also involves promotion, publishing and touring.
“I absolutely think it’s a definite revenue stream,” he says of the return of the single, “but if you just run down the economics, it’s not the type of revenue stream that would have sustained the labels 10 years ago.”
Ed Christman, a reporter at Billboard magazine says that he doesn’t see this as an industry trend as much as a matter of timing that artists who have not released anything new in a while, like Gaga, Spears and The Strokes just happened to put something out at the same time.
“In the case of Lady Gaga, she’s a hot commodity right now, so of course they’re going to jump on that,” he says of the industry. “It’s not every day that they have the ability to make it an event.”
Christman is quick to point out why the industry has gotten wise to the importance of single songs.
“Last year 1.17 billion digital tracks were downloaded,” he says. “Meanwhile 86 million albums were downloaded. That’s more than a 10 to 1 ratio there.”
Michael Africk, who opened for Britney Spears at the turn of the century, and stepped out of the pop music game for about a decade, is dipping his foot back into the industry, with a single called, “no…Yeah,” that he released last week. He says the single isn’t just the perfect barometer for finding out how it will work in the market, but it’s also advantageous as a music lover.
“It raises the bar of what the quality of the music needs to be if you want to sell an album now,” he says. “If you have two hit tracks and the other eight are garbage, you’re going to have a hard time getting people to download the whole album.”