''You Oughtta Know,'' ''Killing Me Softly,'' and ''Lovefool'' were some of the biggest radio hits in the last two years, but the songs were never released commercially as singles

When is a single not really a single? That’s no longer just a question for unmarrieds scanning meat-market prospects for telltale wedding-ring tans. It’s also increasingly a riddle for consumers who hear a ”hit single” on Top 40 radio and head out with a few bucks to pick it up, only to discover that the smash they can’t get out of their heads is available exclusively — and expensively — as an album track.

Alanis Morissette’s ”You Oughta Know,” Fugees’ ”Killing Me Softly,” and the Cardigans’ ”Lovefool” rank among the biggest pop radio hits of the last two years, yet their labels never released them commercially as singles. (Configurations include the CD single, cassingle, and 12-inch dance single; 7-inch vinyl is extinct, except as an indie-rock novelty.) Therefore, these would-be chart-toppers never even appeared on — let alone reigned over — the Billboard Hot 100, arbiter of all things hit-like for more than 40 years, where a retail release is still an eligibility requirement.

”It’s not a completely dead form,” says Mercury president Danny Goldberg. ”I didn’t put out a single on the Cardigans, [but] we do have one on Hanson [”MMM Bop”].” Singles sales, according to Goldberg, ”definitely skew more black, more female, and more young,” so a retail release is likelier for hip-hop, balladic, or teen-appeal tunes. But beyond the old fear that singles cannibalize lucrative album sales, Goldberg points to the increasingly cutthroat tactics labels indulge in to reach the top in Billboard. With ”Lovefool,” he says he managed to have the most-played Top 40 song for eight weeks without spending the quarter-million dollars it would’ve cost to release a retail single and push it to the peak of the Hot 100.

Indeed, labels frequently spend $250,000 or more promoting a single via ”deep discounting” — the chart-manipulating practice of shipping retailers hundreds of thousands of singles for free, which stores then sell for as little as 49 cents instead of the usual $2.49. Insane as giving away product sounds, it’s perceived as the only way to get the unit sales necessary to triumph over Billboard‘s singles chart — short of a phenomenon like ”The Macarena,” which sold 5 million copies without discounts.

Suddenly, the labels are begging Billboard to save them from themselves and change the way the Hot 100 is calculated. Otherwise, they fear they’ll have to give up singles altogether rather than face embarrassing chart positions for undiscounted records. ”We [shouldn’t] walk away from the single as a configuration just because we can’t get our own house together,” says A&M president Al Cafaro. ”Billboard has been sobered about their need to help us get this right. And I think getting it right means that singles that are essentially given away will either be ignored or weighted much more lightly.”

Billboard Hot 100 chart manager Theda Sandiford-Waller figures ”the industry put itself in this situation,” but the magazine is floating proposals to rectify the problem. ”Can we come into a room and have a gentlemen’s agreement not to aggressively sale-price things below a certain point,” she wonders, ”without that conversation being considered an antitrust violation?” Another idea is to calculate singles sales by dollars, not units, a la movie box office charts.