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Slinging Singles

Vinyl might be a dead configuration, but nobody bothered to tell the rock and rollers that

The obvious and easy argument raised by those dinosaurs tenaciously and fruitlessly attempting to make it worthwhile to own a turntable in the 1990s is the Hip-Hop Equation. Rap-music makers have continued the practice of releasing their material on vinyl, usually one song remixed several ways on the twelve-inch, album-size format. They have and still do use records in the production of that material (via scratching). If there were no vinyl, there would be no rap, so there would be no vinyl.

Except that even while hip-hop thrives on, there really is no vinyl any more. The material reportedly makes up less than two percent of the "product" issued by labels, with CDs and cassettes comprising the other 98 percent. Forget it, ye loyal but naive mastodons.

Except. There's always that except.
And the exception in this cultural breakdown is the once-venerated, now almost forgotten, seven-inch vinyl single: the ol' 45. The format that laid the foundation for popular music hitmaking. Every boomer and her brother grew up with it, mostly because the music industry offered little choice until the Beatles came along and set a new standard (i.e., screwed everything up) with Revolver.

"Along with the Beatles," says Jeff Lemlich, author of Savage Lost and owner of thousands of vintage singles, "the big turning point was when groups started getting away from two-and-a-half-minute songs and doing five-minute songs. Then the record companies began editing singles. `Keep Me Hanging On' by Vanilla Fudge was cut for single release. `Light My Fire,' to get the long version you had to buy the album. You'd buy the single, and go, `Where's the solo? This is not what I wanted to buy.'"

Before the revolution, recording artists released nothing but singles, unless and until they had enough hits. Then the labels would stick those already-milked hits on a bigger slab with a smaller spindle hole, pad them with filler tracks (often the B sides of the singles), and squeeze mo' money from the star-struck masses and "serious" fans willing to cough up for LPs.

"From 1964 through 1968," says Lemlich, "with one later single in 1972, the Birdwatchers put out a dozen singles and no album, despite being signed to major labels. And that was not uncommon. They made a movie appearance, went on Where the Action Is, but unless you were in the Top 40, you didn't get to put out an album."

Eventually, of course, this operating procedure came to be reversed. The artists recorded albums, markets were tested, sales were tracked, and the hot song would be separately issued as a single, adding a new dimension: non-LP B sides. With technological changes -- cassettes and CDs and their accompanying hardware -- leading to the damn-near obsolescence of vinyl, you'd think 45s would be the first pronounced-dead victim. And you'd be as wrong as Bush is about abortion.

In 1992, singles are the thing, at least for a certain type of music fan. Just ask Sub Pop, the Seattle label that shot to the top on the hitmaking strength of Nirvana (now on Geffen) and the underground muscle of Tad, Mudhoney (now on Warner Bros.), Soundgarden (now on A&M), and others. "All my favorite stuff," says the label's Nils Bernstein, "old and new, is on singles. Up to the late Eighties we were primarily a singles label. That's how Sub Pop got to where it is." He adds that Sub Pop often starts bands by releasing a single, and also issues one-off 45 rpm projects by bands not even signed to the imprint. "We do it for fun," Bernstein says, "and to give the bands exposure."

That's merely a taster, just as singles once were a tease for albums. Sub Pop actually runs a singles club, in which subscribers receive a new seven-incher each month. "It's hugely successful, too," Bernstein boasts. "We have almost 10,000 members. And biz people say singles are nonexistent." Maybe the biz people don't do their homework. Does David Geffen know that Nirvana first smelled teen spirit in the small-slab format? "We didn't think we could sell more than a thousand Nirvana records," Bernstein recalls. "Now those singles have become extremely collectible."

Collectibility and what can only be called "coolness" might contribute to the new glut. "I think a lot of the signed bands that do it," says one major-label rep, "do it because it's a cool thing for their fans, and because it allows them to put some good artwork on there."

There is, however, a much more pragmatic thinking that goes into the decision to cut a mini. "A single costs about the same to put out as a demo cassette," Sub Pop's Bernstein points out. "We basically do not listen to demo tapes here. There's just too many of them. But the chances are we will listen to a single. It's a tangible release and it tells people it's not just another demo. So many demos, you know, they may as well have been recorded in a bedroom [plenty are], and we get about a million of 'em a day. Another thing is that with some new bands, the material wears thin through the length of a tape. Just releasing the two best songs you have has more impact."

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