For the first 50 years of the recorded music industry, everyone had to make do with scratchy, fragile 78 RPM records.
These 10-inch discs dated from the late 1800s and generally worked fine. It wasn’t until 1948, when Columbia Records came along with its long-playing albums pressed on a new plastic called polyvinyl chloride, that things began to change. Vinyl was much tougher than the shellac-based material used to make 78s, meaning they didn’t wear out after about 100 plays. More importantly, though, vinyl allowed grooves to be cut closer together (about .003 inches), greatly increasing the capacity of a side of a record. Instead of topping out at around four minutes, as was the case with the 78, an LP could store more than 20 minutes of music before anyone had to flip it over.
RCA, Columbia’s sworn enemy, was very upset at these developments, given that it had developed similar technology back in the 1930s but had let the patents expire when they couldn’t make it work from a business perspective. Rather than license the new format from Columbia, RCA vowed to create a new competing format.
After teasing news of the new format through late 1948 and early 1949 (RCA was looking to put a crimp in the marketing plans for Columbia’s album), the world was finally introduced to the 7-inch, 45 RPM single, which made its official debut on March 31, 1949. Like Columbia’s LP, the 45 featured microgrooves cut into polyvinyl chloride.
But that’s where the similarities ended. Not only did the 45 spin at a different speed, but also the hole in the centre was a gaping 1.5 inches. Both played into RCA’s plans of being the manufacturer of a new type of proprietary turntable which, the company hoped, would force people to make a choice between them and the new record players required by the new LPs. “Besides,” RCA said, “people are used to having records with just one song per side. And our new turntable allows you stack records on its ultra-tall spindle! Once a record finishes playing, the tonearm swings back, a new record falls into place and the listener continues to enjoy a continuous stream of music! Up to an hour’s worth!
RCA sent out demonstration records — a 45 naturally — in February 1949.
Now here is an excerpt from an ad in Billboard magazine from April 2, 1949: “The new RCA Victor system of recorded music is a shining example of management’s foresight. With continued dealer confidence the ultimate profit is inevitable. Work started on the new system in 1939. RCA Victor engineers were granted complete freedom of action … freedom from even the major inhibitions, such as non-standardization of record sizes, and speed of turntables. Engineers had but a goal … to produce the finest changer and record ever conceived. The customers’ dollars will prove that these engineers reached their goal. The new RCA Victor record and changer constitute the sensible, modern, inexpensive way to enjoy recorded music. The product is ready … the public is ready. A demonstration, more than ever before, means a ‘close.’ Its advantages will eventually make it the only way to play music in the home.”
RCA’s other big idea was to colour-code releases by format. Country records were released on green vinyl. Children’s records were yellow. In between were hues of blues and reds for popular music, R&B, classical, and so on, for a total of seven colours. Digging deep into the history of the 45, it appears that the first record to go into regular production was PeeWee the Piccolo, pressed at a plant in Indianapolis on Dec. 7, 1948.
This Eddy Arnold song was part of the very first batch of 45s released by RCA. Record store owners weren’t all that impressed.
Customers who had grown used to 78s were now confused by 33 1/3 LPs and 45 RPM singles, neither of which could be played on the family gramophone. Not only did its motor spin at the wrong speed, the nail-sized stylus was too big and blunt to fit into microgrooves. Want to upgrade to vinyl? Then you needed to buy a new turntable —and you had to choose between Team Columbia and Team RCA. And there was the matter of acquiring one of RCA’s new record changers. They were not cheap, costing about $12.95 at the time, or roughly $140 today. People predicted doom for RCA.
But then something wonderful happened, a development that no one could have foreseen.
It began with RCA selling a surprising one million 45s within a month of the format’s debut. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote this on Oct. 24, 1949: “The aristocrats: The report that RCA-Victor will abandon its 45 rpm system is pure bunk. Frank M. Folsom, president of RCA, reports that the 45, introduced last April, increased sales 260 per cent within the past 90 days. They can’t keep up with the public demand. The source for the inaccuracy will now drop dead.”
A strange detente took hold. Columbia’s LPs (and those LPs issued by other labels that had licensed the new technology) became the format for “good” and “serious” music: classical recordings, Broadway cast recordings, movie soundtracks, and jazz. This was music for adults, the only people who could possibly afford the $5 (or more) price tag. That’s the equivalent of $60 today.
The 45, on the other hand, was cheap to produce, simple to haul around, and easy to distribute to radio stations, making them perfect for popular music. Prices started at 65 cents (about $7 today), something that even a kid on an allowance might be able to afford. (The more posh “Red Seal” records, a designation reserved for special classical recordings) retailed for 95 cents or the equivalent of $10.50.)
About two years after the 45’s debut, a craze hit — this new thing called “rock’n’roll.” A newly-named demographic known as “teenagers” embraced this music as its own, buying rock singles by the millions almost immediately.
U.S. sales of pop music on 45s passed those of 78s in 1954. The following year, Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets sold three million copies on its own. It took the U.K. a little longer to make the switch — after all, wartime rationing was still in place — but the 45 was outselling the 78 by 1958. The 45 became the preferred delivery mechanism for rock music, something that cannot be overstated. It was the format favored by pop music radio, by jukebox manufacturers and operators, and for a time, record shops.
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Even when rock began to explore the creative and artistic possibilities of the album around 1965, 7-inch singles were still the heart and soul of this music for another decade. Sales of 45s peaked in 1974, when 200 million units were sold.
Then things started to get rather wobbly. The music industry became more and more focused on the higher margins available by selling albums. Artists began to use the extra space afforded by LPs to compose longer, more complicated songs, with many tracks exceeding the 7-inch’s capacity of a little over six minutes. Jukeboxes also began to wane in popularity, reducing demand for 45s. And then, in late 1982, the compact disc arrived.
But the 7-inch refused to die. It became the retro-cool thing to make for dozens of punk and alt-rock bands. Sub Pop debuted its adorably anachronistic singles club in 1988 with the first release introducing a band called Nirvana to the world. Record Store Day, which began in 2008, has always offered interesting collectible 7-inch singles. And with the founding of Third Man Records, Jack White continues to pump out 45s, both new releases and vintage reissues.
When it comes to the current vinyl revolution, there’s nowhere near the demand for 45s as we see for LPs. In fact, Nielsen SoundScan doesn’t even report on the numbers of singles sold. But I do know this: Third Man sells an average of 2,000 copies per release. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to keep the production line moving.
The 78 was pushed into extinction in the early ‘60s. Eight-track tapes died sometime around 1987. Cassettes, once the best-selling recorded music format, sell a few thousand units a year in Canada. MiniDiscs? Gone. And the CD? Sales continue to drop by over 20 per cent a year.
Strange, then, that vinyl — the 71-year-old LP and the 70-year-old 45 — are still with us. Maybe plastic refused to degrade in more ways than one.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.