Small is better? The resurrection of the seven-inch single
Much has been written about: the return of vinyl and the music cassette, the role of record store day, how vinyl sales have overtaken CD sales, how digital services have gone out of fashion, how streaming can damage the environment or fail to stream rare albums.
The rise of the 12-inch dance mix
The 7” single was initially challenged by the Disco 12” – a format that has been hegemonic in dance music for 45 years. Previously, DJs either played album tracks or extended songs by cutting between two short 7” singles. Having already developed the disco remix, the 12" single was accidentally discovered by Tom Moulton. When pressing up DJ copies of his remixes, the pressing plant had run out of 7” stampers. The resulting 12” pressings with extended lengths and superior handling and sonic quality caught on like wildfire.
The 12” format spread as marketing devices for companies to re-release their back catalogues or boost sales of new rock and pop releases. Later the remix spread - most hip hop, R&B and chart acts in the 80s and 90s released an extended 12” mix. While 10” dubplates and remixes had been around on the reggae scene since the early 60s, the 12” ‘Disco mix’ also spread to the reggae scene -with the dub and /or a DJ toast DJ toast segued into the original track.
House, Rave and Techno
As house and rave emerged, the 12” white label or the shrink wrapped 12” import were central. Companies took the format to excess with double and triple packs of (often poor) remixes of a single track. Superstar DJs in the 90s regularly lost their record boxes at airports, sneered at the DJs who were using Pioneer’s new-fangled CDJ turntables (launched 1994) – while also promoting their latest mix CD.
As dance music went global in the noughties, a new wave of DJs emerged using CDs and /or software to play (often pre-recorded) mixes with perfectly synched BPMs and harmonic key matching. Even eminent turntablists such as Grandmaster Flash started gigging with a laptop.
By 2010, most major labels had stopped releasing vinyl singles and Technics stopped production of their SL1200 turntable . But many house, techno and drum and bass tracks are still exclusively released on 12-inch vinyl. There is also a thriving market for disco / jazz funk tracks as replica releases, re-edits and mixes that elongate the original 6-7 min 12” remix to over twice that length.
The vinyl 7” lives on
The rise and demise of the 7” single has been excellently covered (Stanley, 2014) – it was in competition with or replaced by the 12”, the cassingle, the CD single (born 1986) and then by downloads and streaming services. For many years, the 7” single was deceased- the preserve of niche collectors or buyers of new 'indie' releases with treasured picture sleeves.
But 7” singles have been recently selling in very large quantities in all record shop sales charts. The format has long been sovereign on the reggae, rare groove and northern soul scenes. What’s new is the growth in re-edits, mash ups or EQ tweaking of original soul, disco, jazz and funk tracks. We also see unofficial 7” versions of hip hop classics with the sampled track pressed on the B side. There is also a large number of soul, funk, Latin, jazz, and reggae tracks that are official releases licensed to small labels or semi-legal replicas.
However, what has struck my eye is that disco, hip hop, Daft Punk and house classics that were once extended 12” hits are now being re-released or bootlegged in a shortened 7” format and selling for more than the originals. When Technics re-commenced production of their SL1200s in 2016, the launch party had the legendary Kenny Dope DJ-ing with only 7” singles. Recently, other top DJs have been doing similar 7” sets online.
Disco, hip hop, Daft Punk and house classics that were once extended 12” hits are now being re-released or bootlegged in a shortened 7” format and selling for more than the originals.
Why has the 7” returned?
For the industry, manufacturing, storage, and transportation costs are lower. The mark up is also greater; UK releases are about the same as a 12” single, (£10-£15), special limited editions and imports are £15-25. This is for a format selling at £3-5 less than five years ago. For the shops, sales turnover is rapid – stimulated by special limited editions. For buyers and DJs, 7” singles are easier to transport and require less storage space. But the 7” has become a fetish object – particularly if pressed in coloured vinyl and/or dinked with a large centre hole. Like all fetishes, participation requires accessories – 45 adapters, slip mats, clamps, and cleaners.
New UK 7" releases are about the same as a 12” single, (£10-£15), special limited editions and imports are £15-25. This is for a format selling at £3-5 less than five years ago.
Few of the biggest 7” sellers involve new music. While the major labels have been chasing the next Winehouse or Coldplay, the bootleggers and the enterprising have been raiding their back catalogues. It may be that the desire for ‘real’ instruments and vocals (especially from the 70s) is a quest for 'authenticity', an anti-digital abreaction against the autotuned robot vocals and global EDM that dominate. But it may also be a symptom of 'capitalist realism' whereby, after 40 years of radical musical innovation, there have been few breakthroughs since 1995. Are we blocked and only able to recycle, revisit and pastiche that golden age? (Fisher, 2009; Stubbs, 2016)
The return to one of music’s earlier formats may be part of ‘Retromania’ (Reynolds, 2011) and pop culture’s addiction to the styles, sounds and appliances from the past. But the demand for 7” versions may be a sign of a shorter attention span. A desire for the short, radio version that’s on YouTube and Spotify – without the long build up or extended break. I work on a local radio station that only uses MP3 files. The station programme software does not permit the uploading of tracks longer than 6 minutes and automatically fades out tracks to accommodate the scheduled ad breaks.
Gary Clarke is a part-time PhD student in the School of Education and Sociology, researching the formative influences, current concerns and experiences of defeat of the liberal-left in a Conservative/Brexit stronghold. Gary also works as an examiner for A Level Sociology, a revision support teacher and a club DJ. He is currently a volunteer at Vectis Radio, presenting a popular weekly Reggae Show and other programmes. He buys and sells a lot of vinyl records.