Sunday, 19 October 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 10 - The Death Of The 45

Don’t quote me, but at round about the time I met my wife to be, the record industry was getting worried about the poor state of the UK singles charts, in terms of “units shifted”. I don’t think the two things were connected. It was summer 2003, and the mass of multi formatted singles being issued were not really being translated into mega sales.

Part of the problem was that there was, usually, no “cheap” single release for the floating voter. In 1982, if you wanted a Duran Duran single that you had heard on the radio, you could pick up the 7” for pocket money prices. But with most vinyl singles being pitched at the hipster market, and Cassette singles disliked by many, most floating voters wanted singles on CD - but they were often three or four quid a pop. The VFM aspect was questionable if you only wanted “the hit“.

The powers that be eventually recognised this. And in late 03, early 04, they came up with the “2 track £2 CD Single”. Basically, if somebody was going to multi format their latest 45, by issuing it on two CD editions, the consensus was that one of those editions should be no more than £2, thus making it more attractive to the floating voters - these were the people who turned reasonable chart hits into mega chart hits. These were the people who had given Bryan Adams and Wet Wet Wet enormous hit singles, the likes of which never happened to them again.

But how were you to convince EMI and co to drop their prices? Well, the “2 track” part of it was not that it should only have two extra tracks, but that it would include 2 songs ONLY. The theory, as I understand it, was that bands were routinely being herded into studios specifically to tape new B-sides, so if they now - officially - could release one less per 45, well, they would only need to record one less, and thus save on studio time costs. Any loss in revenue from the sale of the single would be recouped by not having to spend money recording dubious bonus songs, and the label would hopefully also be rewarded with a higher chart position, and, if it worked, an increase in sales and an actual INCREASE in profit.

This seemed like positive news. At the time, the album market had gone into chaotic meltdown, new albums appearing as limited editions, old albums appearing as deluxe editions, the “every gig we play is being released as a new album” insanity from Pearl Jam, the “new live album” from the defunct Doors every few months, a lot of money could be wasted on LP’s, so any savings the consumer could make from the world of the single had to be a good thing.

At first, the introduction of the 2 track £2 single caused major confusion. I seem to recall a Virgin Megastore in London got round it by filling their stores with a “Euro-import” 2 track copy of Kelis’ “Milkshake”, and thus charged £3 for it instead, as it didn’t have the “pay no more than £2” sticker on the front. Atomic Kitten, who up till this point had been tossing out B-sides and remixes like nobody’s business, suddenly figured that the format allowed them to ape what the likes of Madonna had done with the 7” back in the 80s (album track on side 1, and another one on side 2), by sticking out an old hit as “track 2” on their “Ladies Night” single, making the single utterly pointless. Blur, too, seemed to go a bit loopy, issuing B-sides on these 2 trackers that were otherwise available on other formats of the same single.

But there was a bigger problem. At no point, it seems, had anybody factored in the situation that some indie labels were already only charging £1.99 for a single. In the summer of 2004, Franz Ferdinand issued “Michael” on the usual 7” + 2 x CD formats. CD1 had three songs, but so did CD2. As soon as the single hit the shops, their label Domino were told that the sales from one of those CD editions would be discounted from the charts, thus meaning a potentially poor chart position. As such, CD2 was withdrawn from sale, only to be repressed a week later with the offending track 3 missing, but with THE SAME PRICE TAG on the front. Yes kids, even the likes of Domino were more interested in chasing chart positions than offering value for money. That, really, said it all - this disdainful approach was what had put the single in this precarious position in the first place.

Whilst the “2 track £2” single began to establish itself as a format of choice of sorts, it was difficult to know if it was having any real effect on the charts, or people’s bank balances. Singles were still appearing at an alarming rate, on three (or more) formats, and getting a quid off such releases per week was really just a drop in the ocean. When I moved to Birmingham in mid 2004, I took a pay cut, which just made it that more difficult. But did Sony care about me? No, not at all. Everybody just carried on like they had before, a new B-side on a 7”, another one on CD1, and two more on CD2.

With a drop in wages, and thus a drop in disposable income, I had to adopt a special approach to my single buying. Just as I had deliberately “let go” mid 90s CD Singles before picking them up, for less, in Romford’s greatest 2nd hand record shop, “Sounds Familiar” (now demolished), I figured I needed to have a measured and selective attitude to what I bought. By this point, a number of acts had issued singles boxsets, where the box featured repressings on CD of old singles. Where a single had been issued on multiple formats, and in alternate sleeves, the common approach was to issue the CD in the “standard” sleeve, but with all relevant B-sides tagged on as bonuses. So, for anybody who was issuing two CD singles, I point blank refused to buy CD1 (unless it was Madonna), on the basis that any future boxset would use, as it’s artwork, the cover of CD1. In theory, anyway.

But the cost savings were quite minimal. £2 per artist. I was still struggling to balance my love of J Lo with my need to pay some bills. So at one point, I started to “forget” to buy 12” singles as well. The reasoning here, was that the 12” was usually housed in the same sleeve as CD1, and I figured there was probably a white label promo, in a unique sleeve, also knocking about that might turn up in my local Oxfam (quite a few have done, over the years). So that had the potential to save another £4. But not many people really did 12” singles anyway, so again, another drop in the ocean.

By the time we had got married in the summer of 2005, the continuing run of multi formatted singles was still in danger of causing me not being able to afford the required amounts of cat food needed for that week. Ignoring CD1’s, and 12” singles, simply wasn’t enough. Especially as the ongoing flood of “limited edition” first pressings of new albums were surfacing on a regular basis. I decided that, to try and at least keep my hand in, I would generally only buy new singles on one format only (Madonna excepted again, I had come this far getting most of them in, I couldn’t stop now). Pop acts would have their singles purchased on CD2, such as Girls Aloud, for the indie bands it was the 7”, as it was now impossible NOT to find a 7” single with an exclusive B-side contained within. And so, when Franz Ferdinand previewed their second album with “Do You Want To”, I purchased a 7” only, left the multiple CD editions on the racks, and waited for the (never to be announced) singles boxset that would hoover up the flipsides I had left behind. The reason for buying the 7”, rather than the CD2 edition, was that it was cheaper, and arguably, would be harder to track down second hand than the CD2 edition.

But in the grand scheme of things, it still didn’t help. By the time 2006 came round, I was struggling to keep up even with this approach. Trying to keep up with a continual run of deluxe edition albums, meant that the singles became an irritation. But was this not just the story of a man with too many bills, and not enough income? Not really, because record companies were starting to try and “entice” people to buy singles with special deals, that were actually cheaper than they had been five years before. When Ash issued all of their 2001 singles on three formats, they came with stickers advising “get all three for £7.50”. When Belle & Sebastian issued “The Blues Are Still Blue” on three in the spring of ’06, it was “3 for £5”. The impression I got was that the 2 track £2 single had not saved the record industry, and as multi formatting continued to press on regardless, the labels knew they had to try and drop the prices to try and reel the punters in. But I had been damaged and bruised. I bought “The Blues Are Still Blue” on one format only, the 7”, because it was on blue vinyl and had an exclusive B-side - and was cheaper than the other formats. I didn’t buy any of the other singles released from the album (2006’s “The Life Pursuit”) because I had spent all my money on the “special CD+DVD” edition of the LP, and the other singles were not pressed on coloured vinyl. My approach to buying singles was getting increasingly “picky”. But as far as I was concerned, it was the labels themselves that had caused this dilemma.

With the acts for whom I “had the set”, I kept the faith. I continued to buy at least one copy of each Madonna, Britney or Girls Aloud single, but with the indie bands, the shops just felt like a barrage of oppression when you walked in, multiple singles everywhere suffocating me. It got worse. The concept of the “2 track £2” single seemed to irritate the indie bands. The CD single had never been fully taken to heart, vinyl was always “cooler”. For them to now be told “you will have a CD with just 2 songs on”, it seemed to wind them up. So what came of this? Something even more bizarre then the “double CD single set”. Ladies and Gentlemen, we now had the “double 7” release”.

Yes, really. Born out of nothing more than record company greed, the concept of the double 7” bore no resemblance to any form of normality. It seemed to be nothing more than blatant profiteering, from bands and labels who should have known better. At first, it seemed like fun. The now defunct Dogs issued several singles in 2005 as double 7” releases, and given that I was buying all 7” releases at the time, I figured I had no choice but to buy both - my “rules” prevented me from doing otherwise. But there was an element of “collectability” and a “thought out” approach to their singles. The first 7” would come in a gatefold sleeve, and the second in a die cut sleeve which was designed to fit into the back half of the gatefold of 7” number 1. Nice. So you had a sort of double EP. Only with so few songs, they could actually have fitted onto a “normal” EP.

So the VFM aspect, again, was being passed over in terms of chart positions, industry rules, and profits.

By 2007, most “double 7” single” releases had long abandoned the concept of the two singles being released in a style as so they could fit together, and instead, most releases like Badly Drawn Boy’s “A Journey From A To B” were appearing on different editions, in different sleeves, with different flipsides - but with neither in any special form of packaging. It simply felt like another disdainful way of fleecing the fanbases. I responded to this by more or less refusing to buy any singles by anybody, unless they were Madonna or Britney or Girls Aloud, in order to carry on “completing the set”.

But then things started to get confusing. Back in early 2006, the UK chart rules had shifted yet again. Downloads were to be allowed to count towards the chart position, as long as a physical format was due for release a week later. The idea behind this was two fold - to give the floating voters a chance to get hold of the hit they had heard on the radio for cheap (an iTunes download was less than a 2 track £2 single), whilst it would also allow the single to have a bit of chart life - singles were usually hyped up months in advance, that by the time they got released, everybody would buy the thing on day 1, it would go to number 1, and then just disappear the next week. The theory here, was that the download sales would get it into the top 40, and then the physical sales on top would push it up the charts on week 2, just like in the olden days.

This concept went wrong in March that year when Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” entered the charts on download sales at - number 1. The only way, apart from staying at number 1, was down. It was like a year zero for the physical single. Downloading, up until now, had seemed like a niche geeky thing, but now, it seemed as though so many people were fed up with overpriced singles, even at £2 a pop, that they were drawn to the cheapness and immediacy of the download. The single was dying.

As such, I was split between snarling at certain labels for issuing too many formats for a single, to the point where I didn’t know which one to buy - and feeling rather sad that on the other side of the shop, the single was starting to wilt. Arcade Fire issued three singles from their “Neon Bible” album on 7” only, as if to say “the end is nigh”, and I could not help but buy each of them. After all, one purchase and voila! All new b-sides (ie. Just the one) for said single in the bag. But then Biffy Clyro would issue their latest single on the now obligatory indie rock approach of 2 different 7” singles, and a (2 track, perversely) CD single, and I would grumble and sneer and refuse to buy any. The 45 was on the way out, it was just that some of the labels were pretending it wasn’t happening.

When Girls Aloud returned in 2008 with “The Promise”, it appeared on just one format (bar the strange, mail order only, 7” picture disc they issued via their website). It was a 2 tracker, £2 only. No CD2, no 12”, certainly no DVD. It was almost as if it was being issued as a retro style release, a kind of “this is how we used to issue singles” style event. The next single was marketed in exactly the same way. Overnight, a band who had been tossing out double CD single sets left right and centre, simply, went very quiet. It was not just a case of carrying on with a band for whom I had to collect the set, it felt as though I was purchasing the final singles that anybody was going to release on the format.

And so when The Saturdays stepped in soon after to borrow their pop crown, I shifted my attention to them. Each single, on it’s one lone format, was purchased almost as a mark of respect for the old 45. With only one format to worry about, and at £2, it would have seemed rude not to. Biffy Clyro were still issuing multiple singles, as if the death of the single wasn’t happening, but with the vinyl copies starting to creep up in price, and with no obvious version as to which sleeve would or would not be used in my fantasy BC boxset, I often walked away from buying any of them - a throwback to my confused state of mind from several years previous.

But in the main, the single was becoming a very niche format. Downloading was winning. There had been some concern, when downloading of ANYTHING at random could allow an old song back into the charts (no longer did a physical release now need to appear the next week for a chart position to be awarded), about how to display the top 40 in the shop, if some of these things weren’t actually available to buy. But this was resolved - shops usually just shoved all the vinyl, old and new, into a big pile, and all the CD’s, old and new, into another big pile. You just had to rummage through it to see who, if anybody, had released a new record that week - assuming the shop had decided to order it in in the first place.

I began to feel a twinge of sadness towards the old single. The album, well, I had given up there. That was safe, multiple albums being pressed and repressed, that wasn’t on it’s way out - so I simply bought albums at random, caring little if it was a limited edition one or not, the labels had beaten me on that score. Just being able to afford a record of any description, be it with bonus tracks or not, felt like a victory in my cash addled state. But the 45 was different. I had often used it as a barometer of pop culture - it was always interesting to see if what you had bought would make the top 40, and - back in the day - whether or not it would then get the band or singer on “Top Of The Pops” at the end of the following week. I couldn’t just let it get away from me. I figured I needed to keep buying them to try and keep in touch with reality.

In late 08, Florence And The Machine arrived on the scene. We saw them bottom of the bill on the NME Awards tour early next year, and liked what we saw. Kate Bush lite, admittedly, but it never did Tori Amos any harm. With the band relatively new on the scene, I was determined to get in early, not to miss any rarities that might emerge were they to turn into superstars. “Kiss With A Fist” was doing the rounds for less than a tenner, “Dog Days Are Over” was purchased on some bizarre looking 12” that looked like a bootleg, but was apparently official, and when the promo for their first album started “proper” in the summer of 2009, I was - sort of - ahead of the game. Florence’s label were not adverse to a bit of multi formatting, and “Rabbit Heart” appeared on both 7” and CD - but I had made a promise. I purchased the single, CD only because it had more tracks, and felt quite pleased with myself that in a download encrusted world, I was still keeping it real - just about.

But I was in a minority. The long lamented Teletext page, “Planet Sound”, claimed later that same week, that although the single had charted inside the top 20, only 64 copies had been sold in physical form as part of those sales. That, if it was true, was a ridiculous figure. They laughed at Scott when “Climate Of Hunter” dented the album charts on about 15000 copies in 1984. But 64 copies? The single was, more or less, dead.

Singles continued to trickle out, and often, my previously “measured” approach was abandoned. When the so-called “mail order only” Ash singles as part of their A-Z series starting turning up in HMV, it was impossible to resist them. I continued buying the Florence singles, Girls Aloud split up, and Britney stopped issuing singles completely in the UK by the time “3” was being prepped for release. Hell, I even bought a Biffy Clyro 7” in 2010, when the sublime, near perfect power pop of “Bubbles” was too much to resist owning on 45. But it cost £3.99, which seemed an awful lot for an album track backed with a single b-side. Had I bought the other 7” and the CD, it would have come to £9.97. You could buy their latest album for less than that. And it was this insanity, coupled with the rise of the download, that murdered the single. They were being released in small numbers, certain shops simply saw no reason to stock them, and the vinyl editions seemed to be edging up in price. The idea of the 7” being the “cheap” format was no longer valid when the likes of Stephen Malkmus began knocking out 45’s at a fiver a throw. The likes of iTunes, with their “79p for the hit” approach simply appealed to the techies, those careful with their cash, and those people too lazy to actually go to a record shop. The physical single was, more or less, over. All we needed now was a ridiculously priced album format to finally make record collecting even more miserable.

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