During the era of the phonograph record, all music was sold as what is now termed a single, one potential hit song backed by an additional song of generally less commercial appeal on a single ten-inch 78 rpm shellac record. After the launch of the long-playing microgroove record in 1948 and the arrival of the 45 rpm single the following year, singles continued to appear separately from albums into the 1960s. For instance, the early rock and roll market of the 1950s and early 1960s was very much focused on singles rather than albums. Songs such as "Heartbreak Hotel", "Johnny B. Goode", and "Tutti Frutti" only appeared later on album compilations of singles. Even through the 1960s, leading rock artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones issued songs such as "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane," "Good Vibrations", "Positively 4th Street", and "Honky Tonk Women" as singles apart from any contemporary albums.
This changed in the 1970s as the popular music industry shifted to the album as its main profit center. Singles became advertisements for an album, the lead single conceptually defined as a foretaste of the album to come. On average a lead single will appear about one month before the album's release date. "Go Your Own Way" from Rumours, "Miss You" from Some Girls, and "The Girl Is Mine" from Thriller all roughly follow this pattern. This has become a common practice through the 21st century for album-oriented recording artists.
Lead singles are often a deciding factor for consumers debating purchase of a still unissued album, and the choosing of which track from an album to be issued as the lead single can be crucial to the album's commercial success. The standard rejoinder for record company executives, when presented with an album of dubious commercial potential, is "I don't hear the single."
In the 2000s, a common trend developed to release a lead single months in advance of the album release date. It has equally become common for a second lead single to be released before the release of the album. For example, Usher issued the lead single "Love in this Club" four months prior to the May 29, 2008 release of Here I Stand. The second single "Love in This Club, Pt. II" was released one month before the album release date. Another example is Justin Timberlake's 2013 album, The 20/20 Experience, which was released on March 19, 2013. The first single off it is "Suit & Tie", released 2 months before the album hit stores. One month prior to the release of the album, another lead single called, "Mirrors", was released. Katy Perry released "California Gurls" as a single on May 7, 2010, and "Teenage Dream" on July 23, 2010, leading to the release of the album Teenage Dream on August 24, 2010. Ed Sheeran did something similar, releasing both "Shape of You" and "Castle on the Hill", both releasing on January 6, 2017 as double lead singles from his album ÷.
Artists often choose songs that are more up-tempo as lead singles. Such songs are often catchier and attract attention toward listeners. However, the subsequent lead single might be slower in tempo in order to demonstrate the range of the album. Female vocalists like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera often maintain a formula of an up-tempo first lead single with a slow ballad follow-up. For example, two singles were released by Miley Cyrus before her album Bangerz - an up-tempo track called, "We Can't Stop" was released as the first single, and a slow-ballad song, "Wrecking Ball" as the second. This was a successful practice of 1980s heavy metal bands. However, not all artists decide to choose their lead single with the up-tempo criteria. Artists may release a lead single that has a message they want to convey to listeners instead of a song with more commercial potential, such as Fall Out Boy who chose to release "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race" over the radio friendly "Thnks fr th Mmrs".
Japanese artists such as Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie Amuro and B'z may release four to eight singles prior to their albums in order to achieve record-breaking debut-week sales. The lead singles in Japan are very heavily advertised and promoted, in some cases even more than the album itself. With album sales continuously declining in the United States, record labels often release singles prior to the album's release date to online music retailers including iTunes, ranging in price from $0.99 to $1.29. This trend has become increasingly popular in many markets.
In the late 2010s, artists began a trend of releasing multiple singles before eventually releasing a studio album. An unnamed A&R representative confirmed to Rolling Stone in 2018 that "an artist has to build a foundation to sustain" and adding that "When artists have one big record and go run with that, it doesn't work because they never had a foundation to begin with." The same article cited examples such as Cardi B, Camila Cabello and Jason Derulo releasing four or more singles prior to their album releases.
In the digital era of music, many artists have driven away from the traditional single release and have started releasing lead singles to their upcoming projects without prior notice or promotion. Beyoncé popularized this formula with the release of "Formation" in 2016, which served as the lead single to her sixth studio album, Lemonade. The song, accompanied by its music video, was uploaded to Tidal without previous announcement by Beyoncé.