By Andy Dangerfield
Business reporter, BBC News
Retailers and record labels are campaigning for a charts overhaul to boost flagging sales of the CD single.
CDs were just 8% of total singles sales in the first half of 2007
Latest figures show sales of CD singles were a staggering 46% lower in the first half of 2007 compared with the same time last year.
Bands such as the White Stripes and Arctic Monkeys have recently had more success with seven-inch releases than CD singles.
Meanwhile, limited-edition issues of tracks by Keane and the Fratellis on USB cards for computers have been a success.
Big retailers have withdrawn from the market entirely, with Tesco removing singles from its shelves in March, followed by Asda in May.
And as legal and illegal downloads continue to grow, many industry experts are questioning if the CD single has a future.
"We think the singles chart is at a stage where if we don't do something, it won't be here next year," says Universal's commercial director, Brian Rose.
While new albums with bonus tracks are often sold for as little as £8, a basic CD single with two tracks can cost £3.99.
Retailers hope that if the rules were relaxed, singles would be seen as better value for money.
"We've got to add extra value to what a singles package is," says Mr Rose.
USB sticks are a new way for bands to release music
"People need to feel they get more from a purchase, whether it is additional tracks or a bonus DVD," says HMV spokesman Gennaro Castaldo.
The Official Charts Company's director, Omar Maskatiya, has so far agreed to limited change.
"We are going to keep the overall limits on tracks and timings, but within that, we will open up how labels combine audio and video products," he says.
Many feel that record companies should be allowed to include more extras, such as song lyrics, posters and postcards.
"Restriction on whether there are postcards or posters is untenable in today's market," says Entertainment Retailers Association (Era) boss Kim Bayley.
But at present, the OCC's focus is on the music, rather than the frills around it.
"It's about representing the artist through the music, rather than amending the packaging rules," says Mr Maskatiya.
Narrowing the gap
Moving the release date of singles from a Monday to the previous Friday is another move being considered by record labels and retailers.
This would narrow the gap between a song's digital and physical release to 10 days.
"It's one less weekend of retailers having to send consumers home saying 'Sorry, it's not available yet'," says Era's Kim Bayley.
"Release on a Friday would make the Sunday chart more unpredictable and exciting," adds Mr Maskatiya.
Although there is nothing to force record labels to put out singles on any particular day of the week, there is a consensus that it would be better for the industry if labels could agree whether and when to switch releases to a Friday.
"There's been a consistent view from retailers about what needs to happen in the market, but it has taken a very long time to implement," says Ms Bayley.
Most people feel that more formats should be made eligible for the chart.
Arctic Monkeys have had recent sales success on seven-inch
Singles released on emerging formats, such as USB cards for computers and SD cards for mobile phones, are not recognised under current rules.
"Chart rules should not inhibit record labels trialling new ways of getting music to consumers," says Ms Bayley.
Universal's trial releases of tracks by Keane and the Fratellis on USB were deemed successful.
"They became something really collectable. But currently USB and SD cards are not chart-eligible, so there's no incentive for companies to release on them," says Mr Rose.
"We need to encourage experimentation. We should allow for more creativity to be able to adapt different singles to different fan bases," says the OCC's Mr Maskatiya.
"Anything capable of carrying audio or video material should be eligible."
He expects changes in the rules to take effect by the autumn, giving record labels time to consider what format would be most suitable for their big artists' Christmas releases.
The physical singles market is clearly set for change, but it is unlikely to disappear completely.
"Sales show people want the physical release associated with downloads, so they have the best of both worlds," says Universal's Mr Rose.
"There certainly is a future for a physical 'smaller-than-an-album' format, but it will take lots of different forms - a combination of CD, DVD and memory stick," says Ms Bayley.
One format that has seen a mini-revival in recent years is the seven-inch single, where sales have increased fivefold since 2000.
Rock and indie music have driven the revival, showing there is a market for people who want attractively-packaged singles product.
"While CDs have always been seen as a functional format, vinyl has a rock'n'roll coolness about it," says HMV's Mr Castaldo.
"If you're into a band, you might not just want to see them at Glastonbury, buy the T-shirt and album. You might want the limited-edition vinyl too."