Why the 12-inch Record Still Matters

In an environment of downloads and streams, what explains the enduring appeal of the 12-inch single? Our writer argues that, far from being obsolete, it's the perfect format for browsing, buying and listening

Feature by Tom Hodgson | 05 May 2017

With the recent, nonchalant arrival of record players in big-name supermarkets, it’s now widely accepted that the 21st-century vinyl resurgence is no longer a novelty story to slot clumsily at the end of a news round-up. Vinyl has become just another part of life and musical consumption in 2017; people are willing to pay more to listen in a more focused, more refined way, and so more vinyl albums are being bought.

But what about those big, oversized 12-inch singles that are almost always priced a little higher than you’d prefer? Why are people paying, compared to an MP3 download or stream, what seems like a lot of money for one to five songs?

The 12-inch: an artistic statement

Pressed to contain longer ‘club’ mixes of songs and with a higher sound quality due to more space on the disc, the 12-inch had a very certain and secure place in the pre-digital world – but is it still relevant today? I like to think it is; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the 12-inch single is the epitome of the vinyl medium, the perfect format for browsing, buying and listening.

This is especially true in the electronic music scene. With small, bespoke labels releasing limited runs of 12-inches, often featuring only a couple of songs, the medium becomes a sort of 'captured art-form’ that represents much more than the music cut into the grooves. It represents the label as an independent, small business and a statement against traditional labels and institutions; the (often underground) artist’s work on the cover as a visual expression of music culture; and then finally, the music itself as a lasting physical statement of creative work in a world that champions quick, easy and free online self-publishing.

A voyage of discovery

Then there’s the joy of browsing. So non-committal is the larger single format that it’s much easier to take a chance on a Brazilian soul artist whose name you haven't encountered, or to risk parting with a small amount of money on that new German minimal techno imprint that doesn’t have any words or design on the sleeve, only a robotic series of numbers and hashtags. With most vinyl singles you’re simply not spending as much as you would on an album, and as a result you can be more liberal and spontaneous with your choices – which is what shopping for new music is all about, isn’t it?

It would, at this point, be a faux pas not to mention the cult of the white label. No other format can conjure up so much intrigue, mystery and hype as this label-less pre-release. These objects of obsession and desire are holy grails to the many Discogs-hunters and wax consumers who search endlessly online after watching their favourite DJ spin musical blanks on the latest Boiler Room episode, desperately posting, "Track ID - 33:42?... Anyone?" in the YouTube comments at four in the morning. And when you find it, it’s absolutely worth it; you are now in control of the enigma next time your mates come round and you put ‘that record’ on.

The satisfaction of collecting 

Owning 12-inch singles is also what I’d imagine collecting one-pound notes was like once upon a time: you can have a lot of them for little relative cost, especially if you dig for second-hand bargains. There’s that satisfying feeling of having a much more eclectic and varied record collection when you’ve got a crateload of physical sleeves to choose from; and as you flick through the sleeves deep in the groove, switching the disc with every track, it’s a feeling of pleasure that can’t be matched – as you play them back-to-back to your audience of zero!

While in one sense the single is a more casual format than the LP, there’s also a certain weightiness to it that separates it from an MP3 download or Spotify stream. Whenever I’m selecting a playlist for a radio show or simply setting aside songs that I want to play to myself on a Saturday afternoon, there’s something real about picking out ten records and physically selecting music. By reaching, shuffling and searching through my record collection, I’m giving meaning to what I choose, considering the other songs that will bookend it... all this feels right with the 12-inch single.

In a world where the instant, rapid consumption of media is a 24/7 affair, something as substantial, physical and well-crafted as the 12-inch single is a true artistic statement that lasts beyond a quick listen. It’s also a great way to support independent labels and record shops, as well as expand your collection into more genres and avenues than you potentially would if you only stuck to albums.

Here’s to the 12-inch vinyl single: long may it sit in our record shops and on our shelves.