How the 45 RPM Single Changed Music Forever
Charting the rise, fall, resurrection and legacy of the beloved vinyl format, which helped bring rock & roll to the masses
David Browne March 15, 2019 10:00AM ET
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the 45 rpm single, a format that changed music forever.
When it arrived 70 years ago today, the 45 rpm single, a format that would revolutionize pop music, seemed less radical than simply confusing. On March 15th, 1949, RCA Victor became the first label to roll out records that were smaller (seven inches in diameter) and held less music (only a few minutes a side) than the in-vogue 78s.
The size of 45s alone, combined with the fact that different gear was suddenly required to play them, was enough to perplex the pre-rock music business. “My customers don’t know what to buy anymore,” a record store owner groused to the trade magazine Cashbox that month. “They’ll come in, ask for a recording, and then ask me whether or not it can be played on the particular phonogram they have at home.” More often than not, he said, potential buyers left without forking over any cash.
Then consider those initial seven RCA releases, which, according to the label’s archives, ranged from classical to kids’ music to country. The one most people will remember is Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s jumping-bean boogie “That’s All Right,” which became Elvis Presley’s breakout moment in the next decade, but the list also included a Yiddish song, “A Klein Melamedl (The Little Teacher),” sung by a cantor. Not quite the stuff of the pop charts at that moment in history. For added head-scratching, each 45 was printed in a different color, from “deep red” to “dark blue.” (Yes, colored vinyl actually existed in the years immediately after World War II.)
But with the release of those titles, and other companies soon entering the market, the singles revolution began. It’s impossible to underestimate the impact of the 45, which was the iTunes 99-cent download or surprise single (à la the Black Keys’ sudden “Lo/Hi”) of its day. Teenagers of the Fifties took to the portable, less-expensive format; one ad at the time priced the records at 65 cents each. One of rock’s most cataclysmic early hits, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” sold 3 million singles in 1955.
In the decades that followed, everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones through Patti Smith, Nirvana and the White Stripes released their first music on 45s. A handful of classic-rock standards, including Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” were only initially released as singles, unattached to albums.
Some singles had picture sleeves or B sides of outtakes. If you flipped over Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” in 1977, you’d come across “Silver Springs,” the Stevie Nicks landmark that was dumped from Rumours. The following decade, indie fans who snapped up Hüsker Dü’s “Makes No Sense at All” found their unlikely but fantastic cover of “Love Is All Around,” otherwise known as the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, on the flip.
According to the New York Times, the peak year for the seven-inch single was 1974, when 200 million were sold. By the early Eighties, the 45 began dying a slow, humiliating death. The number of jukeboxes in the country declined, boomer rock fans increasingly gravitated toward albums, and the cassette format (and even the wasteful “cassette single” and “mini-CD” format) began overtaking vinyl 45s.
The seven-inch never fully recovered, but it nonetheless endures. Sub Pop launched its first Singles Club in 1988, initially shipping a monthly 45 to members that included releases by Nirvana, the Flaming Lips and a shared Sonic Youth–Mudhoney venture. A new Sub Pop batch, the first in a decade, arrives next month.
Continuing his attachment to vinyl formats, Jack White revived the 45 on his Third Man label, starting with a Dead Weather single a decade ago. Since then the label has released just over 300 7-inch singles. According to Ben Blackwell, Third Man’s cofounder and head of its vinyl operation, manufacturing the little black records in the digital era requires extra diligence. “You have to print new labels and replace metal parts [at the plants] as they diminish,” he says. “Jukeboxes are still prohibitive.”
On average, a typical Third Man single sells 2,000 copies — not massive numbers but, Blackwell says, enough to “keep the doors open.” This year, the label will put out 45s by a batch of new-ish indie bands, including Pow. “It’s a low-risk introduction,” Blackwell says. “To me, personally, it seems like the ideal way to consume music.”
The 78 is history, and the CD is about to join it. But after seven decades, a shaky start and a midlife crisis, the 45 survives, even if just in spirit. Whether in the form of a one-track stream or a now old-school MP3, the idea of a concentrated burst of joy by way of a single song has never died. To paraphrase Pearl Jam, 70 years on, we’re still spinning the black circle.