Friday 25 May 2018

Is this the vinyl curtain for the 7-inch single?

As Mercury Records phases out non-digital singles, Ed Power looks at the ever-changing music market

Singer and guitarist Johnny Borrell. Photo: Getty Images
Singer and guitarist Johnny Borrell. Photo: Getty Images
Ed Power

Ed Power

It is the end of an era that began in 1949, when RCA rec-ords put out the song 'Texakarna Baby' by country singer Eddy Arnold.

Rendered in dark-green vinyl, this dimly remembered release was the first ever seven-inch single. Now the format is officially on life support after U2's record label announced it is to stop releasing physical singles.

With manufacturing costs soaring and sales plummeting -- down 85% in the past four years -- Mercury Records stated that in future it envisages releasing singles only in 'exceptional circumstances'. Ironically, the first label to phase out singles was behind the biggest-selling UK seven-inch ever, Elton John's 1997 re-issue of 'Candle in the Wind'.

Some of rock's biggest brands will be affected. In addition to U2, high-profile Mercury acts include The Killers, Arcade Fire and Razorlight.

To be clear, none will stop putting out 'digital' singles, which can be downloaded from services such as Apple's iTunes. But in future you won't be able to buy their singles at the record store.

Which may be as well because, should current trends continue, in a few years there may no longer be any record stores left anyway (Comet Records in Dublin is the latest to announce its imminent closure.)

Just a few weeks before international Record Store Day -- a celebration of an institution arguably in terminal decline -- the Mercury announcement makes clear just how radically the internet has changed the music business.

The question now is not whether others will follow suit -- Mercury is part of the world's largest record label Universal -- but when it will happen.

In a few years, the music format that, starting in the '40s and '50s, did the most to turn rock 'n' roll into a cultural steamroller, is likely to join the video cassette tape, the floppy disk and the typewriter in the great recycling bin in the sky.

To future generations, the 7-inch single will be an artifact as unfamiliar as the wax cylinder or the Atari video game cartridge.

For record moguls , the numbers have simply ceased to add up. Nowadays some 99% of single sales are downloaded from iTunes and rival services. And many times more people are downloading songs illegally or streaming them via the video sharing hub YouTube and sundry other sites.

Somewhat surprisingly, demand for limited edition collector singles -- which tended to be popular among older buyers -- has also plunged, with sales down from one million in 2006 to just over 150,000 last year. Consequently, they are to be discontinued too.

The irony of this all happening on the eve of Record Store Day, taking place next Saturday, is acute.

Intended to highlight the importance of record stores in our cultural life, it sees artists such as Villagers and Josh Ritter putting out commemorative limited edition releases.

However, this year's event comes as technology threatens to render the concept of the bricks-and-mortar music emporium permanently redundant.

In Ireland, record stores have closed by the dozen over the past five years. Those that remain have had to diversify, selling headphones, DVDs, magazines and similar paraphernalia.

One of Dublin's best-loved retailers, Tower Records, recently opened a first-floor cafe in an attempt to uncork another revenue stream and woo more punters through the front door (the logic being that if they stop by for a coffee, they might pick up an album or DVD).

The single format was introduced in the post-war years, taking its name from the standard diameter of seven inches and the speed at which it is played, 45 rotations per minute.

Originally, singles came in a multitude of colours in order to distinguish different genres of music: green for country; red for classical music; yellow for children's music etc.

Technological limitations meant that, until the mid-'60s, the play length of a single was three minutes. Through that decade, however, advancements meant that bands could record longer singles -- the most famous example being The Beatles' seven-minute 'Hey Jude' from 1968.

By then, the 'golden era' of the single was drawing to a close. From the 1960s on, the album started to assume pre-eminence as the most important music format (for all that, single sales in the UK at least actually peaked in 1979, at 89 million).

Within the music industry, people are divided as to whether Mercury's decision amounts to tragedy or irrelevance. Some argue that singles offer -- or at least offered -- a tangible way for young music fans to connect with their favourite artists.

Others feel that, with an entire generation of teenagers believing music is something to be enjoyed free gratis, the format has reached the point of redundancy already.

"Having a number-one single means nothing nowadays," says James Byrne of Dublin label Any Other City.

"That's why large labels are now putting tunes up for download the minute a song is given to radio. Its shelf life -- that phrase that will need updating soon -- is pretty short.

"This can also lead to acts having five songs in the charts at once sometimes, diluting a campaign and leading to overkill."

The rapid turnover of new pop acts in the single charts, with artists emerging from nowhere to hit number one before vanishing just as quickly, means the entire idea of scoring a 'hit' is increasingly outmoded, says David O'Grady of Irish label Independent Records, whose discoveries include singer-songwriter Josh Ritter.

That's not to say the 7-inch will vanish entirely from view. Like buffalo frolicking on a reservation, it is to be kept on life support in the narrow genre of independent rock.

"I'm a big fan of the 7-inch as a format," says Ciaran Ryan of Limerick's Out On A Limb records.

"It's a good way for a label to work with some new artists, as well as getting new material out from acts on the label," he says.

"When it comes to a small, DIY pop scene like ours, a single on vinyl, CD or even cassette is a perfectly viable thing to put out," adds Mike Stevens of Dublin music 'collective' Popical Island.

"They're a nice way of easing your way into a band you haven't heard before.

"You don't have to part with as much cash and you also get what the band consider to be their poppiest song," he says.

Irish Independent

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