I Miss Singles

NOTE: this photo is NOT of the author…

I call myself the Post-Punk Monk. Mainly due to my interest in the dramatic explosion of creativity in music during the ’78-’83 period. It’s primarily for this reason that I spend more time gazing in the rear view mirror of music for the last 25 years. But there is another reason why I tend to dwell in the past. As one with the collector’s sickness, the options to feed that particular obsession was infinitely more plentiful in days of yore. Growing up in the seventies and becoming expert on music collecting in the 80s, there were many venues available to stoke the fires of music fandom, from a collecting point of view.

No singles from THIS record!

B-SIDES

With the Punk/Post-Punk/New Wave movement, there was a shift back to the emphasis on a great single after many years with The Album as the primary music carrier of cultural value. Albums as deep artistic statements were typical of the 70s Rock Hegemony® [as seen at left]. Singles were derided and scoffed at. Led Zeppelin refused to allow singles to be taken from their albums [in the UK, anyway]. Naturally, when the time came to put this pomposity all to a grinding halt, the lowly single was seen as a viable thing once more. Singles could be non-LP tracks, that added further value for the buyer’s money. Better still, extra tracks could find their way out of the studio to reach the fan’s ears. The glory of the non-LP B-side exploded in the late 70s as a return to pop values and that made record collecting much more interesting for me.

12″ REMIXES

After buying an album, I could collect the singles from the album and get new songs by my favorite artists. The emergence of the 12″ single format in the late 70s, now added extended 12″ versions of songs that were longer than radio airplay would allow for. When the machine was humming along steadily, I found myself buying albums and if I was particularly enamored of the artist in question, I also had singles to also buy. 7″ singles and 12″ singles. Sometimes with different tracks. Then, when ZTT threw down the gauntlet, the idea of multiple 12″ remixes began to spread. All of this meant that an album worth of material could conceivably generate another album’s worth of material not specifically on the original album. Sometimes more.

PROMO SINGLES

Catnip for the hard core music collector were the various promo singles that labels would release in various territories. Sometimes with the elusive POPS [promo-only picture sleeve]. club and radio DJs were regaled with rare tracks, live cuts, unique edits and mixes of everything under the sun. These records could be hard to find, due to their relative low numbers, but that offered extra challenge to collectors like myself who broke out the issue of Goldmine Magazine every fortnight and tried to scoop all of the other collectors gunning for that one single you saw in 3 point type on a blurry newsprint set sale ad.

FOREIGN TERRITORY SINGLES

One interesting about promos. A band’s label in their home territory could have a promo single with certain tracks, and one of their foreign labels could have another promo with completely different tracks. Rabid fans could need both! Then there’s the rabbit hole of foreign picture sleeves. I usually try to only buy records that have music on them that I need, but in more fiscally comfortable times, I was known to buy records that offered me nothing that I didn’t already have, with the exception of a unique cover design. Decadent, I know! Don’t get me started on Japanese sleeves. They were often radically different covers; usually band shots where there were no images of the group in their home territory.

CD SINGLES

By the mid 80s, CD singles began to proliferate. the three main formats [7″, 12″ CD single] all needed to be fed. Sometimes there was enough material generated to make purchasing all three viable. At others, one could buy just one format, and get all that was out there. All the better when that was the CD single. Then in the 90s, there were multiple CD singles that could happen. All of it offered collecting possibility. This ended abruptly with file sharing.


File sharing dramatically impacted the music industry which immediately began convulsively contracting to a fraction of its former size. The biggest casualty, from my perspective, was the loss of singles as a value added proposition. These days, a favorite artist can put out an album, and I may buy it. And that could be it. In the last decade while singles have all but dried up as physical artifacts, the alternative, from the industry point of view, was to offer multiple versions of albums with different tracks. It used to be that one could buy an album and spend often far less on a single to get some new tracks or mixes. Even so, at the end of an album campaign, I might have spent $18 on an import CD and $75 on all of the import CD singles to get the associated tracks and mixes.

At least collecting singles offered much visual interest as well as music to hear. Now, the idea might be to have a version of an album for this retailer with these exclusive tracks, while offering an alternative package for another retailer. Since single sales are dramatically lower than in the past, the notion of propping up album sales by having multiple versions of an album for a collector to buy was one way to put the squeeze on fans. And that was last decade. Now, all of these multiple album packages may be DL only with no physical copies for sale. Worse, the versions with the tracks that I might want, might be restricted to certain territories; preventing my legal purchase.

It’s bad enough that I have to listen to music on download; it’s insult to injury to hold it away at arm’s length because of where I live. In 2014, I bought the deluxe edition of Simple Minds’ “Big Music” album. The DLX package had more songs on a second disc and a DVD. Not too shabby! The extra material had some real gems and the price was modestly higher than the “regular” album. One could look at this as the B-sides on disc 2 that were no longer available on singles since physical singles were dead in the water. A second album of bonus tracks is convenient if not as interesting as 3-4 individual singles, each with different packaging, but it’s good enough for me. But what about remixes? Simple Minds got Johnson Somerset to make remixes of four of the songs from their new album. These long [Johnson Somerset favors an expansive, widescreen remix style of 8-10 minutes per track] remixes formed a DL EP that is selling in territories other than America. A Simple Minds collector like myself, has no way to legally buy these tracks. A promo CD-R of a scant number of copies [good luck in finding/affording a copy] did leave the nest but CD-Rs are a very fragile medium. An hour in a hot car can render one unplayable. I can easily imagine spending a small fortune on one only to have it arrive in an unplayable condition.

While the present has been a hellish landscape of no singles to buy from my favorite acts, this is not always the case. There have been a few bright spots. When OMD reunited in 2009, they have released several singles from their two album thus far. There were 7″ and 12″ vinyl and CD singles, though not one of each single. Better still, the last CD single of each run from the two albums featured all of the B-sides that may have been on vinyl only. This certainly helped, thought there was also a welter of remixes for some singles that were DL only with some tracks impossible to legally obtain in my territory.

The best case scenario thus far was when Visage reformulated and released six singles from their “Hearts +Knives” album. A full five of these were CD singles, meaning that almost every remix and every B-side were out there on CD. Even so, they had some vinyl/DL only remixes for my favorite of their singles. But I can’t be churlish about Visage. they showed how even late in the game and band could work that single action like it was still 1983. What I’d give for some more of that.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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16 Responses to I Miss Singles

  1. Jon says:

    I’ve always been fond of singles and 12–inchers also. Discovery of a great non-album b-side always like striking gold.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Jon – 12″ers with great B-sides were the best. That German 12″ of Ultravox’s “The Voice” didn’t have an extended version [the LP track was six minutes] but look at what you got: “Paths + Angles” [their finest song?] in sound quality superior to the LP. Or “The Thin Wall” another long LP cut but the B-side, the compulsive “I Never Wanted To Begin,” was extended on the twelve inch single!

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      • Tim says:

        Ultravox really went the extra mile with the vinyl 12”, which was very maddening to me as first, someone who really liked their albums, secondly, a collector, and thirdly a collector living in a small burb in the States that didn’t have stores that stocked these. I literally didn’t know about a lot of them (or their contents) until the early 90’s and was saved by those two Ultravox Collected cd’s.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Tim – Wow! You lived in a burb smaller than mine? I must say it was pretty easy to keep up with every Ultravox import single [at least through the “Lament” years] at stores in Orlando, Florida. The B-side CDs were pretty amazing in that they delivered exactly what I wanted as a fan… even in vol. 2 was pretty much a wash.

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  2. Echorich says:

    My 7″ single buying was corrupted by the surge in 12″ singles in the early 80s. To get at minimum 3 and even up to 5 songs on a 12″ single became catnip for my spending. Then the 12″ single became part another run at my hard earned cash when multiple 12″ singles could be had with different remixes, b-sides and the like. The one thing that would kill me was how many included out of context live versions of songs from a band’s catalogue.
    In the 90’s the cd single began to eat into my vinyl single purchasing in a big way. There was the 3″ single which was fine if you had a spindle cd player, but required the cd version of a 7″ single adapter to use in drawer players. The 3″ cd single went the way of the Cassingle – although I have a number of “cigarette box” cassingles from the early 80s. It was blatant money grab of the multi-part cd single that really got my goat. You normally ended up buying the album or single version of a song twice if not 3 times to collect the musical ephemera included. The other thing was that you might end up with unnecessary single packaging as the part 1 usually held a space for part 2 or part 3 once they were collected.

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    • Echorich says:

      Favorite 7″ singles in my collection – to look at – B52’s picture single for Planet Claire, clear XTC’ Life Begins At The Hop clear vinyl packaged in a clear vinyl sleeve with a tone arm imprinted on it and Magazine’s Song From Under The Floorboards classic cardboard sleeve with Malcolm Garrett’s Correct Use Of Soap logo imprint.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich – I also have the XTC single you speak of. Had to buy it in the mid80s since the 1st UK CD of “Drums + Wires” did not have the track as a bonus [though it should have]. Now that I think of it, I still don’t have it on an XTC CD, but I do play the copy on Rhino’s DIY: “Starry Eyes – UK Pop II (1978-1979)” disc, which is half of a godlike pair of comps.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – I’m with you on the 7″ drop off by 1982. I had a limited budget and usually went for the 12″. It sounded better. Had more music. And early on, usually had the 7″ material inclusive and more as its makeup. I went back to 7″ singles in the Internet era with record collecting information letting me know of all of the 7″ers with tracks exclusive to that format.

      Then you mention chart manipulation. The BPI limited chart representation to just four formats in the mid 90s but until then it was no holds barred! I sort of liked the 2xCD single era. Usually 8 tracks to play with but most acts could not fill almost an album’s worth of material for each single, so you had the hateful exploitation of having one track you needed on each CD apart from the A-side, with two back catalog filler hits per disc. Or less interesting live cuts, as you pointed out. I guess singles were never a perfect dream, though I still miss them.

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      • Tim says:

        If I remember right there was a price fixing suit in the UK over the singles. Basically folks did the math, hmmm, Depeche Mode’s “Violator” is about 50 minutes long and costs me $13 Then there’s a single that has about 50 minutes of mixes and b-sides on it and that only costs me something like $5, So price and content (in terms of length) have no correlation. If my memory is right this all went down in the early 90’s, say 1992.
        Part of the deal reached was that a single had to be capped around 20 minutes in runtime. I remember buying some last gasp singles at that time, one is the Orb’s Blue Room that has one mix on the single that is forty minutes long, the other is a Moby single for Hymn, same deal, one track and I think it’s just under 40 minutes long.
        The chart manipulation is a by product of offering singles, now they’ve got you. Spread out the mixes and b-sides over two singles and not only are they getting more money for the same content (now spread over two discs) but each disc counts toward chart placement.
        This is, for me, one of the ways that mp3 are great, because I can cherry pick what I want from singles after previewing them either via Amazon or YT. Gone by and large are also the days of buying a soundtrack for that one Costello song on it.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Tim – All well and good for you on the surgical downloads to buy only the music you want, but when it’s not on disc, and DL only, I am very often denied the ability to purchase it because I live in America. This is why I hate DLs. I can’t buy about a third of what I might want to because of the licensing issues between territories. And I hate it. In the old days of physical music, there was no way to fully stop the flow of it over territorial lines. They tried, but it could not be stopped.Legal downloads? Very easily controlled. Digital music is a wet dream for labels control of the always thorny import issue.

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          • Tim says:

            I agree with you, I run into the same problem.
            I am told that using a VPN or somesuch foils that but the last time I tried Amazon UK just to see on a whim if maybe something had changed…..no dice, it said US dollars were no good and it could tell that my payment source was from the States.
            It’s things like that which give me 0% sympathy to the labels when they cry about piracy.
            Stop delivering the content like it’s 1985, the world has changed.

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              Tim – Oh, I assumed that you were in the UK. So you’re stuck here with me? Hard core folks usually have proxy buyers in foreign lands to surmount these obstacles, but I’m so cool on DL material, I have not yet bothered trying that.

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  3. Brian says:

    As ridiculous as this sounds, I have bought a lot 7″ singles in recent years because I have the room for them. My shelves for albums and CDs are overflowing. When I hit a used record shop, I go for the 7″ singles first, followed by the 12″ singles because the paper covers are usually nice and thin.

    Love OMD’s Night Cafe CD single for all of those collected B-sides from the era. Hope they do that again this time around.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian – You are lucky! It’s a rare record store where you can still find 7″ singles to buy in any case. Usually the space has been ceded to more profitable neovinyl LPs by this time. And even so, the fact remains; all of the 7″ singles that I want to buy are 30-40 years old, and probably not hanging around anymore.

      I recall the first time I went to Wax ‘N Facts in Atlanta. It was 1985 and it was PACKED with 7″ singles that I wanted to buy. But think about it… Most of what I wanted to buy was less than five years old, and was probably ordered as new stock at the time. Fast forward just seven years when I went to Wax’N Facts the second time in 1992 and the amount of must-buy 7″ stock was halved. By 2002 I stopped looking at 7″ stock (which was a fraction of what it was in 1985). Not worth my time as the stock was largely 90s hipster indie 7″ singles.

      12″ singles, being LP sized seem to hang on a bit longer. In 2017 they are an endangered species. If I see anything much these days it’s hip hip or techno 12″ers; usually in generic sleeves. Alas, there are plentiful US promo 12″ers on my want list that don’t have picture sleeves, so I usually have to give a cursory glance to see if I have a ghost of a chance in buying anything. 99% of the time, no.

      Part of why I wrote that post was because from the artists that I like, there are simply no physical singles issued at all. Even DL singles often lack B-sides or remixes, obviating any need to purchase.

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  4. Mike Wilson says:

    I miss singles…Yes !……….I’m one of those sad individuals who since the onset of the singles chart in 1952 have collected every Number 1 single….These days it is nearly impossible….Even when we moved from vinyl to CD i managed to keep up but now….On the odd occasion I can pay an arm & a leg for a promo disc but it is not the same……My tears are welling up

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Mike Wilson – Welcome to the comments! I feel for you pally. You have a particular musical fetish that the modern world simply has no more time for. At a certain point the radio/airplay/sales/charts became meaningless and I’d just find a line somewhere and draw it. 1952-2002 makes a certain kind of sense.

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