Following Arcade Fire and The Killers’ label, Mercury, choosing to axe physical singles aside from rare one-offs, Matt Wilkinson argues we’re losing a vital part of what makes great bands great.
I’ve been trying to find a positive in the announcement that Mercury is gearing down production on physical singles to save money. The only thing I can think of is: fewer Razorlight 45s. A label spokesperson said they were being “more cautious” with the move, but that one-off releases would appear “when there is a demand”.
That’s a ray of light, at least – as I was pretty fond of my Arcade Fire singles. Ryan Adams, too. Hole. Yuck. Giggs. Portishead. Oldies like Dexys, and even Macca, who’s kind of affiliated with the label at the moment. You never know, he could still churn out another ‘Penny Lane’.
Well, theoretically. I like buying CDs and vinyl singles, I like playing them, I like poring over the songwriting credits written on them, I like holding them, smelling them (shurrup at the back!) and properly owning them. I hate it when they get scratched and I always feel stupid when I leave that slab of black plastic in the sunlight so long it begins to warp and fuck up.
I had an ask-around, and thankfully no other labels have come out and said they’ll follow Mercury’s example yet. Which is a small relief at least, because it sucks that this could have a knock-on effect and I might not get the chance to do all the above for much longer – if a single isn’t deemed ‘big enough’ for release. ‘Supersonic’ charted at Number 31. ‘Popscene’, Blur’s gateway into the mainstream, a measly 32.
Best of all? A little known ditty called ‘This Charming Man’, upon its first release in 1983, sailed in with the flailing stupor of a frayed pub dart to the lofty heights of Number 25. Seismic in sound, all of them. Not so much in chart placement.
This is an important point, because what every record label in the world needs to realise right now is that, unless you’re Justin Bieber, there is still a real importance in getting physical when it comes to singles. Labels should be working to meet that demand in order to grow their artists, big and small.
That’s what QOTSA did in February with their ‘How To Handle A Rope’ seven-inch. Initially limited to 1,000 copies, the record sold out online in minutes, meaning that – if need be – another batch could be pressed up in the confidence it would probably sell out again.
Supply and demand, innit. It’s what everyone out of the industry loop – from WU LYF to John Lydon – is embracing right now (the latter with his ludicrously priced biography, which he prints in batches so miniscule it’s almost inconceivable for him to ever make a loss).
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Of course, accountants could argue that Mercury’s decision to shut up shop on physical singles makes financial sense. But it’s also a worryingly unhealthy move for any act clever enough to believe in their own brilliance/hype/aesthetic.
Whether you’re U2 or Yuck, you depend on physical singles to keep your hardcore fanbase happy (incidentally Yuck say that they’re in talks to set up their own label purely to release seven-inches, should they end up having to). And, still, great single releases can turn good bands into brilliant ones.
A lot of the time even the sleeve designs tell you almost everything you need to know about a band (Jamie Reid, Brian Cannon, Peter Saville, Morrissey, The Libertines, The White Stripes – all understood the magic held both on the inside and outside of a single). Meanwhile, name one genuinely great band who released awful B-sides. OK, apart from The Strokes, who just don’t bother writing any.
While there’s no surefire suggestion that this artform will shrivel up and die quite yet, you’d be hard-pushed not to wonder whether bands on Mercury will actually be allowed to approach the recording of B-sides. It’d be a crying shame if that is the case, because it’ll only serve to curtail the number of times we get to hear something as mindblowing as ‘Play With Fire’, ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘My Insatiable One’, ‘Maggie May’, ‘The Delaney’ or ‘The Masterplan’. Throwaway classics.
“I can see CDs being a thing of the past, but not vinyl,” The View’s Kieren Webster – whose band are releasing the official anthem for Record Store Day, which takes place on April 16 – conceded. “I think a lot of our fans buy our seven-inches even if they don’t even have a record player…”
As Kieren suggests, it seems clear that there most definitely is still a market for this stuff. With its enthusiastically attended events and releases, Record Store Day proves that. I was there last year, 7am, about 400 people deep in the queue to get into Rough Trade East in London. I waited a few hours, just like everybody else.
I still go to Rough Trade East loads now. It’s always busy there. And most people you see there are young music fans snapping up new releases – which seems to put paid to the suggestion that people hankering for physical singles are out-of-touch nostalgia-grabbers set to die out with natural selection.
Freddie Cowan from The Vaccines agrees: “That whole experience adds a new dimension to the music, it’s something I don’t get anything from when I buy something from iTunes. It adds importance.” And he’s hardly an old fogie.
Labels shouldn’t be ignoring stuff like that – they should be embracing it. ‘Golden Touch’? Soft touch, more like.
This article originally appeared in the April 9th issue of NME