Last year I bought less than 100 7 inch singles. I started to get worried around May, when the total hit 40. The year end was about 90. Or about 10 less than each of the last few years.
So no big change in recent years, but a massive change over time. In 1996, for example, I’d bought over 100 7 inch singles by Easter. There are obvious reasons for such historical profligacy:
- pretty much all new releases - and there were a lot - were on 7 inch
- in my tender youth there were still lots of older releases to scoop up
- perhaps I was less discriminating then (okay, that one does seem a bit of a stretch)
A decent chunk of those early 1996 singles were by Scottish bands like The Delgados, Bis and Urusei Yatsura. Last year, loads of exciting new Scottish bands came through. Spinning Coin? They released 2 tapes. Breakfast Muff? A tape and a lathe cut 7 inch of just 25 copies.
Tapes are being released instead of singles because it’s a cheap and immediate process, and you can press as few as you need. If labels are making 7 inch singles, they’re often on special editions like a lathe cut.
Ask any of the bigger indie labels and they’ll tell you even with reputations and PRs it’s really tough to shift even 300 singles. The vinyl market is mostly an older demographic. And it’s got to be a richer demographic. Of the 4 (FOUR!? Jesus…it’s getting worse) 7 inch singles I’ve bought this year, one cost £18.
Even though it was another lathe cut (in a pressing of 50 copies) most of that went on postage. By the time it had arrived, I’d played it to death on bandcamp. I’d had my fill. I played the actual record once. So I’m really not sure if I’ll buy another record like that.
All labels put records up for order before they’re pressed, so they can have the money to press them. I’m cool with that. I’m just tiring of handing over most of my pay cheque to the post office and gorging on a stream of the single so when I finally get the record it doesn’t have even half the excitement and mystique it should have.
I sometimes release records as part of the club I co-run, the Hangover Lounge. Last August, a great band asked us to put out a Christmas single. I love this band. I bet you do, too. If they could get me the finished masters within 4 days I could have it back from the pressing plant in December. They couldn’t.
The 7 inch single might be on its last legs, but the single isn’t. I get a lot of promo emails about singles. Very rarely do they pique my interest. But one last year was by Ciggie Witch, whose 2014 album Rock And Roll Juice I love to distraction.
I searched the darkest corners of the internet for the new Ciggie Witch single the email had promised. In desperation, I emailed the label. It was a digital-only release. ‘But that’s not a single,’ I grumbled to myself.
Except it is. With that single Ciggie Witch got a lot of write-ups on blogs. They’d have attracted new fans. And just as importantly they realised that a lot of people like what they do so they may as well carry on and do some more. Maybe there’ll be a new record soon.
Which has just reminded me: I didn’t buy it even though it’s amazing. I’ve rectified that. It cost me about 60p. Great song, cheap, money goes to the band. Sorry, but I can’t work out who loses here. I mean, I was the loser when I didn’t buy it because I unrealistically expected a 7 inch single.
This week? Wurld Series released a digital single which I read about yesterday on the Pop Lib blog. Now I know. I’ll buy their album when it comes out. That’s part of the promotional value of a digital single.
Singles have always been a promotional device. No matter the size of the label, singles sales don’t make money. They’re tools to advertise albums. Just like videos used to be. And recently are doing so again because video streams contribute to Billboard chart placings. So you’ve got a future of nubile young women cavorting around in states of undress (hello, Miley Cyrus) to sell singles.
The internet has taught us these commercial lessons: its main commodity is naked women and it’s hard to get people to pay for music. But if you get people to watch naked women writhe around to backing music (aka ‘a single’) then that single will go up the charts.
That business model works for the majors with big budgets. For indies, they’re sticking to the model of releasing singles as music (no video), mostly digital these days.
The weekly UK music press used to run on a high turnover of singles so they had something to write about. The big blogs which have replaced them need a lot of new singles so they’ve got something new to write about every day. And they’re no more likely to write about a single if it’s on 7 inch than if it’s digital only.
The 7 inch single isn’t dead, but don’t expect its decline to be reversed. Because labels are lucky to break even on them, pressing plant delays remove the promotional planning factor and fewer people are buying them when they do get released.