Choosing your album's first single is more art than science. There are no rules, no road maps and no guarantees. Sometimes, an unexpected song clicks, and sometimes, the seemingly perfect track falls flat on its face. It's simply impossible to "play the system" perfectly every time.
That fact, of course, makes choosing the first single from your new album a rather tricky affair. It doesn't have to be the source of sleepless nights, however. Although there's no specific formula to apply when cherry picking your track list, there are a few general guidelines and rules of thumb you can keep in mind. As you weigh up your sonic options, consider the following:
Go for the Catchy One: Chances are that you have one song on your album that immediately clicks with people. It's the one that your friends always remember the name of and your audience at your shows seems to know the best. When you ask people about which song they think should be your single, they'll usually say this one simply because it's the one they can't wait to hear it again. The downside to this is that usually without fail, this song ISN'T the one the band wants to pick as the first single. Here's the thing - it's better to reel them in and THEN drop the more complex stuff that you might feel better about. This song is the one that will get them there. Feel proud that you wrote a song people want to hear over and over and can't get out of their heads - it's a skill - and then go with this track as your lead song.
Think Radio Friendly: Now, not all genres of music need radio to survive, but if you hope to get your song played on radio - whether we're talking college or commercial - then think a little bit like a program director when you're plucking your first single from pile. Songs with profanity aren't going to cut it, unless you have an edited version. Long songs won't work either, unless you have a shortened radio edit. Again, your complex musical masterpieces will usually also miss on radio - radio stations want their listeners to sing along/spit along/rock out along with the tracks they play. College radio is a bit more willing to play the less obvious tracks, but then, you can let them pick their own single anyway. For commercial radio, think about what song is going to get listeners to burn up the request line to hear on their drive home from work.
Look to the Live Show: This one is tied into our first recommendation, but take a look at the audiences at your live shows. When are they fully engaged in your set? Which song has a first note that sends them back to the bar for a refill? Your fans are telling you which songs have single potential by the way they react to your set. They're the ones who are going to be buying this thing. Take their advice on the single and get them really excited about shelling out for your album.
Solicit Industry Advice: If you have a good relationship with a local journalist or radio person, give them an advance listen of your tracks and ask them what they think the single should be. This kind of feedback is invaluable for a few reasons. First of all, these folks usually know the industry enough to have an instinct about which tracks will work for promotion and which won't. Secondly, when you listen to them and pick the single they recommended, you get some excellent brownie points in the bank that could earn you more radio plays and bigger press coverage.
As you'll see, when you're choosing your album's first single, the idea is to make it as easy as possible for fans to fall in love with your release and for new fans to get into your band. It may not always be the song you love the most - in fact, it may the song you're most sick of - but remember, this in an introduction. They'll get to know and love your other stuff after you reel them in your impossibly catchy first track.