Where have all the singles gone?

Remember the 45? No, not the .45 caliber, the 45 RPM record. They were small, came sheathed in an uninteresting piece of white paper, and contained only two songs. Often in the 1950s,1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, you could find them in record stores (you remember, the places that used to sell vinyl) with a popular song on the A side and either a dud or a soon-to-be hit on the B side.

If you are old enough to remember these, then the complaints from recent artists that single-song sales over the internet will destroy their "artistic integrity" by "undermining the album format" will make you censored your head and say, "huh?"

It appears that most of the bands who are complaining that you shouldn't be able to buy the one good song that they make without investing in the twelve other pieces of dreck they have put out on the album seem to think that they have some special right to program you listening habits. Perhaps they would like to argue for a special CD format that will only play the album all the way through (once you start it, you can't stop it or the disk explodes).

Or, just perhaps, this is all a ruse. When was the last time that these bastions of "artistic integrity" (such as, ahem, Metallica) called up a radio station and told them that if they were not going to dedicate an entire hour to playing their new CD uninterrupted, then they just couldn't air their new material.

Not bloody likely.

So, which formats came first and how did they evolve? I looked around on the 'net for some information, and found quite a bit. Spins Doctored has some good information about the evolution of the 12" and 7" formats as well as the movement from 78 RPM (from the old gramophone days) to the more modern 33 1/3 RPM LP's and 45 RPM singles that were widely used from the 1950's until the CD became popular in the late 1990's, leading to the demise of the record format.

Initially (in the 1910's), the 78 RPM record format (12") could hold only between four and five minutes of audio per side. By the time they were standardized in the 1930's, talking films were coming out and the movie industry needed a format that would last longer. These requirements led to the early development of 33 1/3 RPM records, that could contain 11 to 12 minutes of audio, which was about as long as a standard piece of film in those days.

However, short play records (containing only a few minutes of music per side) continued to be the norm all the way until 1948, when CBS invented the 12" LP. Having tighter grooves than its predecessors, the LP could hold almost 30 minutes of music, thus allowing for more lengthy pieces (mostly classical) to be recorded and played back.

Within the following year, RCA came out with the 45 RPM single format (7"), as described by Jahsonic.com in this article. The format started slowly (competing with a 7" version of the 33 1/3 RPM LP released in 1948 by CBS), but gained speed (pun intended) until it became the norm in the 1950's.

Where are the albums?

We're finally getting to that. It turns out that the album format didn't exist until 1952, and even then it wasn't the format that you think of today. Originally, an album was a stack of 2 or more 45 RPM 7" singles that were intended to be stacked up in a changer in order to provide continuous play.

Despite a great series by the BBC, I couldn't pinpoint the first non-classical 12" record. However, there is extensive writing about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from the Beetles being the first popular album designed for the format. So, in 1967, we finally see music where there may be some argument for artistic integrity. That's all well and good, but the Beetles made their mark by selling 45's and did not hesitate to release singles in that format from all of their albums until they broke up.

So, why all the fuss?

I'm sure there are some artists who believe it when they are talking about artistic integrity, but they certainly don't show it when they are marketing their music to teenagers over the radio. It seems to me that if they are willing to compromise their integrity for marketing, they should be willing to compromise it for sales as well.

The single is back, and if Apple and Buy.com and the other internet music retailers have their way, it will be here to stay for a long time.