A week in the death of the pop single

Last week was the worst ever for sales of the once-mighty single, with only 10 artists selling more than 10,000 copies each

The beleaguered singles market took a further knock this week as sales slumped to their lowest level since records began.

Just 400,000 were bought across the UK in the week to 25 January - the worst performance in 35 years, and just half those sold in the same week four years ago. A mere 10 singles managed to sell more than 10,000 copies, compared to 28 five years earlier.

Dance act Boogie Pimps became the lowest seller to enter the top three, selling 16,000 copies of "Somebody to Love".

The woes of the singles market come as album sales continue to reach new highs and radio stations increasingly turn to LP tracks to fill the airwaves. Jazz star Jamie Cullum has sold almost 600,000 copies of his album Twentysomething but has still to release a single. Georgia-born singer-songwriter Katie Melua knocked Dido off the top spot on the album chart after only a fleeting singles chart career in which she reached number 10 shortly before Christmas.

Cullum said: "Although you don't need a single, you still need to get the audience to hear or see you. Thankfully radio and TV shows have supported me."

Overall singles sales so far this year are nearly 14 per cent down on last year. Current chart-topper "All This Time" by Pop Idol winner Michelle McManus shifted just 35,040 copies to claim a third week at number one.

The music industry points to a lack of major releases in the past fortnight, but there are other factors behind the slump. Matt Phillips of the British Phonographic Industry said: "Downloads and ring tones are engaging young consumers a lot more, and they have traditionally been the market for singles sales. Another big factor is price. If you can pick up an album for below £10, a lot of buyers do not see the point in buying the single."

In the past, singles would need to sell more than 100,000 a week to clinch the top spot, but in 2003 that happened on just seven occasions. Five years ago it was 43. The long gap between first radio play and release date is also thought to have affected singles sales. For many years tracks would be aired only on release but now they can be played up to two months in advance. Gennaro Castaldo of HMV said: "Going in at number one may have been great publicity, but in the longer term I think it has dented the credibility of the chart.

"The life cycle of the single has been compromised. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty about when a single is actually out; by the time it is, people are often fed up with it."

Some artists are proving singles success is not crucial. Releases by Cullum, Melua and Amy Winehouse have been championed by stations such as Jazz FM and Radio 2. Lesley Douglas, the new controller of Radio 2, has already signalled the station is less reliant on singles by giving increased prominence to album tracks.

She told The Independent on Sunday: "Singles are for a particular demographic and really a marketing tool for albums, but albums are a better indicator of the work of an artist, and we want to reflect that."

Alan Jones, chart consultant with industry magazine Music Week, compiled the sales figures by analysing figures back to 1969 when comprehensive records began. He does not believe they sound the death knell for the single.

He said: "It is all cyclical. Although people look back on the 1960s as a halcyon period, the most singles ever sold in any one year of that decade was 48 million. Yet in 2002 the total singles sale was more than 50 million."

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