The seven-inch single hits 60

 

As the CD single disappears from record store shelves, the seven-inch vinyl, now 60 years old, clings tenaciously to life, and the format even saw increased sales last year

THESE ARE DARK days for the recording industry, as sales of CDs continue to plummet and downloading continues to eat into artists’ revenue. These days, there seems hardly any point in a band bothering to go into a recording studio – you probably wouldn’t even recoup your production costs. Unless your last name is Vox, Ciccone or Knowles, you’re not exactly going to get rich on CD sales – most of your fans will probably download it for free on a peer-to-peer site, or cherry-pick their favourite tracks from your album on iTunes at less than a euro a pop.

Record stores are closing down because they can’t shift CDs – last month an examiner was appointed to Golden Discs, which has 20 record stores around the country. And Road Records, one of Dublin’s most popular independent record shops, was due to close down last month until a campaign by local musicians inspired the owners to give it another six months.

Downloading has already sounded the death knell for CD singles. The format, always a loss leader for record labels, is now effectively a dead duck; since Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy became the first song to top the charts on downloads alone, fans have been clicking to buy the latest singles, leaving record shops no option but to clear out their CD singles sections.

But one format is clinging on tenaciously to life, like cockroaches after nuclear Armageddon. These small, black, shiny objects have managed to avoid extinction and are now creeping back onto the record shelves. Okay, they’re not about to take over, but the seven-inch vinyl single is one of the few formats that has actually seen an increase in sales over the past year. And we’re not talking about golden oldies; if you’ve checked out the latest Franz Ferdinand 45, snapped up seven-inches by Arctic Monkeys or added the White Stripes’ limited-edition red vinyl disc to your collection, then congratulations – you are part of a quiet revolution that’s been gathering pace at the rate of 45 revs per minute.

THIS MONTH, THE seven-inch single celebrates its 60th birthday, and it may well be celebrating many more birthdays to come.

On March 31st, 1949, RCA records released the first-ever 45rpm vinyl single, a country and western tune called Texarkana Babyby Eddy Arnold. The format proved a hit – small, compact and easy to play on a small Dansette or other phonographic device, the seven-inch single went on to dominate the pop world, becoming the industry standard and the common currency by which music quality was measured.

The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of singles, an era when million-sellers were 10 a penny. To reach No 1, you needed to sell at least a quarter of a million copies of your new single – for the popular artists of the day, The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan – that was seldom a problem. The 45rpm hit its peak in 1979, when 89 million of the little black yokes were sold. The advent of the CD marked the close of vinyl’s greatest chapter, but it didn’t spell the end of the story. Many music lovers have lately become disillusioned with the cold, digital sound of CD and are going back to big, warm vinyl sound.

They’re also going back to the days when the artwork on an album was a massive part of its appeal.

Vinyl will never go back to its glory days of million sellers, but it is a growing specialist market – and these days the music industry needs every market it can get. Luckily, there are collectors out there who still want to engage with the music in a more physical way, by taking a record out of its sleeve, placing it on a turntable, putting a needle onto the groove and giving the music it holds their undivided attention.

As the 45 hits 60, it looks like there’s still a bit of life left in the old format. Popular acts such as Morrissey, MGMT, The Killers, Oasis, The Prodigy and Kings of Leon release their singles on seven-inch vinyl; U2’s Get On Your Bootsand Lily Allen’s The Fearare both available on seven-inch, and there’s a whole raft of indie acts, including Florence the Machine, Fleet Foxes and Emmy the Great, who are in thrall to the little black discs.

Many indie artists are bypassing CDs altogether, making their new singles available only on 45 and as a download. For fans of these bands, owning the music on vinyl is not an option – it’s an obsession.

“Vinyl is a part of the culture of that music,” reckons Gennaro Castaldo, spokesman for HMV. “Ironically, you have a lot of the kids buying it who don’t even have a deck to play it on, but it’s part of the whole culture of being into an indie band: own it, collect it, and just appreciate the artwork and smell it, all the things that go with vinyl. It’s not gonna come back as a mainstream format, but it is a healthy niche, I think.”

Healthy, yes; back with a bang, no. Road Records stocks all the latest seven-inches by both Irish and international acts, but proprietor Dave Kennedy hasn’t exactly watched as sales go through the roof. They have however, remained steady as she goes.

“A lot of Irish bands are releasing a fair amount of limited-edition singles, 200 or 300 copies. If they release something on seven-inch, then they usually won’t release it on any other format.” Cork band Hooray For Humans have opted to put their single out on seven-inch only, while Dublin band The Things are becoming adept at collectible coloured vinyl releases. And there’s plenty of demand for 45s from cult acts on such labels as Matador and Drag City.

“People who are crazy about seven-inches and LPs get us to put them aside a week in advance, and they’re always checking what’s coming in. For some people, that’s all they buy. So it’s far from dead yet,” says Kennedy.

For many young, up-and-coming bands, putting out singles on seven-inch vinyl is a vital part of building up a relationship with their fans, and giving them something they can hold onto and not simply delete when the next hot property comes along. When Dublin band The Things released their debut EP Psycho Sound on limited-edition seven-inch, the response was so good they decided to do it again with last year’s Tiger single.

“We sell more singles on seven-inch than we do on CD,” says bassist/band manager Robbie Brady. “I think a lot of music fans enjoy the novelty of owning a seven-inch; I know I do. You can do endless copies on MP3, but there’s more value to seven-inches because they’re limited edition. I like the physical nature of them – I’ve never once downloaded a song. I don’t see the point – it completely strips a song of its value.”

THE THINGS ARE not signed to a record company, but they do have deals with three small indie labels: Big Neck in the US, Nicotine in Sweden and Tornado Ride in Italy. To get their records pressed, they went to a UK company, but now they’re getting them done at a record-pressing plant in the Czech Republic.

“We’d usually press up a run of 500, at around €1,000 – and that usually includes glossy artwork. They’d generally sell out once we get out there and go round the country and plug the single. We put out a six-track EP on CD once, and pressed up 1,000 copies, and still had 800 left, whereas if we’d put it out on vinyl, we’d have only had a handful left.”

The Things specialise in a furious style of 1960s garage rock, and have used MySpace to connect with fans around the world who like that sort of thing. According to Brady, many visitors to their MySpace site enquire about getting the band’s tunes – and their new album, Some Kind of Kick– on vinyl, so unless The Things decide to change direction and sound more like Keane, they’ll be putting their music out on vinyl for the foreseeable future.

“We gave up on CDs,” says Brady. “At least we’re breaking even on the vinyl – putting them in independent record stores works better for us because they take a smaller percentage of the sale price. We’ll sell a single for about €3.99 or a fiver – no more than that, so we’re not making money on them. But it’s worth it to us, because it means we’ve got something tangible out there, and not just some disposable download.”

The most popular seven-inch singles at HMV Grafton St in recent weeks

1 U2Get On Your Boots

2 OASIS  I’m Outta Time

3 WHITE STRIPESConquest

4 REMMan-Sized Wreath

5 VIRGINSTeen Lovers

6 HOWLING BELLSCities Burning Down

7 SNOW PATROLCrack the Shutters

8 MORRISSEYI’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris

9 TILLY AND THE WALLPot Kettle Black

10 FLEET FOXESMykonos