Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 31, 1949: The 45rpm Single is Launched

The new format would play a huge part in the success of rock 'n' roll.

rpm vinyl single
Source: mega

The humble seven-inch single would change the world.

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On March 31, 1949, RCA Victor unveiled the 45rpm single – and changed the world. Until the previous year, recorded music had only been available on 10-inch 78rpm shellac discs – fragile, brittle and scratchy, they were also prone to degrading after 100 or so plays and only capable of holding around four minutes of music.

In 1948, 78s had been superseded by Columbia’s innovative 33rpm long-playing vinyl records – not only were they more robust, vinyl LPs also delivered a vastly superior listening experience, and could hold over 20 minutes of music on each side. But they were still expensive (the equivalent of around $60 in today’s money), and were seen as the preserve of the afficionado, rather than the ordinary consumer… who, for the most part, was happy to stick with what they were familiar with.

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The 45rpm single changed all that. Like Columbia’s long-players, RCA’s singles were made of durable, higher-fidelity vinyl, but at only seven inches (rather than 12) were handier, cheaper and easier to store. And they came with a bold new medium on which to play them – a turntable that could stack up to ten singles at a time and play them continuously, one after another.

“People are used to having records with just one song per side,” ran an RCA advert at the time. “And our new turntable allows you stack records on its ultra-tall spindle! Once a record finishes playing, the tonearm swings back, a new record falls into place and the listener continues to enjoy a continuous stream of music! Up to an hour’s worth!”

The new turntable wasn’t RCA’s only smart idea. Singles were color-coded by genre, to not only make your record collection look a little brighter, but also so buyers could find what they were interested in at a glance (and presumably, music snobs could judge each others’ taste at a distance). Popular music was cut on traditional black vinyl, country records on green, classical on red, musicals on blue, rhythm & blues on orange, children’s on yellow, and “international” on light blue. (Sadly, the idea would peter out by the mid-50s, with black vinyl as standard.)

Among the first releases was "Texarkana Baby" backed with "Bouquet of Roses" by Eddy Arnold – watch and listen below.

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But if RCA expected a stampede at the record store checkouts, they didn’t quite get one. Although 45s were considerably cheaper than LPs, at the equivalent of $7 a disc, they weren’t exactly a bargain… and converting to vinyl also meant buying a newfangled record player to replace the trusty family gramophone.

But then something happened that nobody saw coming.

In 1950 Sam Phillips opened a recording studio in Memphis Tennessee, and in 1952 launched his own label, Sun Records. The following year he met an 18-year-old Elvis Presley… and suddenly a new craze swept across the nation.

Rock ‘n’ roll and the 45rpm single were made for each other – and in the teenage market (a hitherto all-but nonexistent demographic), found an audience eager and willing to buy in huge numbers. By 1954 U.S. sales of pop music on 45rpm singles had exceeded 78s – and when Bill Haley and the Comets released “Rock Around the Clock” on seven-inch vinyl the following year, the single sold three million copies on its own. If LPs remained the purists’ choice, 45s were for the kids.

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And the kids were alright: as singles became the preferred medium of jukeboxes and DJs, prices fell – and after the Beatles started a whole new revolution a decade after rock ‘n’ roll, 45rpm singles were what millions spent their pocket money on every week. Even as the more experimental groups of the 1970s largely eschewed single releases in favor of the creative and artistic space offered by longer-format LPs, the market thrived: in 1974 more than 200 million 45s were sold.

And then, in 1982, another music format revolution. Launched in the summer of that year, the Compact Disc at a stroke threatened to do to both vinyl formats what vinyl had done to 78s. By 1991 CDs were outselling all other audio media, and by 2000 accounted for 92 percent of all music sales.

inch singles
Source: Richard B. Levine/Newscom/The Mega Agency

The market for vintage 45s is growing.

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And yet, somehow, the format survived. In 1988 Sub Pop launched its “Singles Club” with a release by an unknown Seattle outfit called Nirvana, and underground and cult bands continued to cut 45s… whether from obstinacy or nostalgia, or simply because, ultimately, they looked a lot cooler than CDs.

Today, vinyl LPs are enjoying a huge resurgence… and even if the market for new 45s remains tiny, vintage singles are hugely collectible. In 2020 a seven-inch copy of Frank Wilson’s 1966 Northern Soul classic “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" reportedly fetched over £100,000 (or $125,000) in a Market Harborough sale.

Will the seven-inch, 45rpm single join vinyl LPs in making an unlikely comeback? It might be wise not to bet against it.


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