We have never lived in a time when it was more convenient to listen to music. In the age of streaming platforms, all it takes is a device and a login to immediately access thousands of artists, podcasts, and curated playlists. And still, in the age of ads and endless options, enduring love of vinyl prevails, especially for 7 inch vinyl.


For some, collecting vinyl records is as much about the archival experience as the music itself. As each year passes, owning physical media becomes rarer, and playing an album on a turntable can feel like stepping into a time capsule. It can be grounding to tap into the technology of recent history and see how quickly the medium and sound quality has evolved. One of the distinguishing markers of vinyl LPs is their size, and RPM (revolutions per minute). The size and RPM of vinyl can tip you off to the basic time period it was pressed in, or at the very least, give you an estimate of how much music is packed in.


The history of the 7-inch vinyl showcases shows us how flexible and curious audiophiles have been about vinyl’s versatility. Whether you’re a life-long collector, new to the world of records, or you simply love queuing up the dive bar’s jukebox, this refresher on how 7-inch singles hit the scene will likely inspire a visit to the record store.


The beginning of vinyl

Before we jump into the arrival of the 7-inch rpm records, it’s important to rewind back to how it all began. Music made the jump from a purely live experience to a massively recorded art form in 1877, when Thomas Edison first patented the phonograph. Edison had been working on an invention similar to the phone when he discovered he could use his discoveries to create a machine that could record and playback sound. The first official recording was “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” and Edison quickly made headlines with his massive breakthrough.


78 RPM records

For the first few decades of its existence, the phonograph was an expensive and niche product that needed to be operated by experts. By 1901 phonographs were finally getting mass-marketed, the first 10-inch 78rpm record came out, and the machines entered people’s homes.

78s were the only format of record for decades, they were generally pressed on 10 or 12-inch records, and could only hold about three to five minutes of music per side. Naturally, the short runtime limited the number of songs each record could hold. While many people associate the term “vinyl” with all records, the original 78s were made out of shellac. Shellac is a material created with natural resin that female lac bugs leave on trees. The resin is mixed with alcohol, then formed into shellac. It’s easy to scratch shellac, which made cutting the record grooves a breeze, and the material also resists moisture which made storage simpler. 


Vinyl LPs

It was hard to imagine any format replacing 78s until 1948, when Columbia Records released long-playing albums pressed on a new plastic called polyvinyl chloride. As a material, vinyl was much tougher than the shellac used to make 78s, which gave records a longer shelf-life. Even more importantly, vinyl allowed grooves to be cut even closer together which meant you could store far more music in one record. Rather than topping out at four minutes per side, an LP extended play to as much as twenty or twenty five minutes of music before being flipped over. This was possible because the record pressing cut the grooves closer together, but also because LPs were played at 33 RPM, which allows the needle more than double the time to arrive at the center (when compared to a 78).


The arrival of 7-inch vinyl

As with most inventions in the history of humankind, a competitive spirit was what ushered in the 45 RPM single. It’s crucial to note that RCA was Columbia’s major nemesis, so when Columbia licensed their first LPs in 1948, RCA vowed to enter the arena. For over a decade, RCA had developed similar technology capable of creating LPs, but their patents had expired so they didn’t beat Columbia to the chase. 


Rather than riding the tail of Columbia’s invention by releasing their own LPs, the company released 7-inch vinyl singles as another answer to 78s. Visually, 45s made a splash as they were much smaller, with large holes in the center, and originally printed on colored vinyl sorted by genre. Country records were released on green vinyl, hues of blues and reds were used for popular music, R&B, and classical, and children’s music was on yellow vinyl. 


Public reaction

At first, the arrival of 33s and 45s caused a lot of public confusion. Neither the full-length 33s nor the 45 singles could be played on a gramophone, due to the different RPMs, which meant people interested in “upgrading” to vinyl had to buy a new record player altogether. This meant you had to choose between a Columbia record player compatible with 33s, or an RCA turntable compatible with 45s. 


Nowadays, most record players have adjustable speeds (like the Signature 12 from Pro-ject USA) with the capability for both 33s and 45s (some rare ones can even play 78s, like the Debut PRO from Pro-ject USA). But during the advent of vinyl, you needed to pick a team or shell out for two new record players.


Luckily, the public was clearly ready for change.


The explosion of the 7-inch vinyl

Within one month of the format’s debut, RCA sold a million 45s, and struggled to keep up with the immediate demand. 45s were cheap to produce, and easier to move around and hand out to radio stations, which made them an ideal vehicle for pop music. Vinyl singles sold for 65 cents (roughly $7 today), which made them affordable for people across incomes. In contrast to LPs, which sold for $5 or more (roughly $60 today), singles were one dollar Itunes digital download of their time. You didn’t have to commit too much money or time to a musician in order to see what they were all about.


The rise of rock n’ roll singles

Timing is everything, and when it came to the advent of the single, the iron was hot. The vinyl pressing of the first 45s came a few years before the birth of “rock n roll,” and a whole teenage subculture surrounding it. One of rock’s earliest major hits, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets sold three million singles in 1955. The affordable promo friendly format of 45s was soon in its heyday, with everyone from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones releasing best-selling singles via 45. On top of the affordability, one of the appeals of the single was the excitement of fishing out the inserts and stickers, getting your hands on a hot picture disc, or flipping the 7-inch vinyl to check for surprising b-sides. Fans who flipped over Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” in 1977 got a b-side of “Silver Springs, the Stevie Nicks breakup anthem that got cut from Rumours


Singles proved a popular and lucrative way to release music for decades, reaching their commercial peak in 1974 when a reported 200 million were sold. Since then, the global demand has gone down, but they’ve held on in creative ways.


Singles in the time of CDs and the internet

The arrival of the compact disc in 1982 was one of the many factors that began to tank the sales of 45s (and flexi discs as well). Even before the CD arrived, many artists were experimenting with longer song formats, some of which couldn’t be contained on a six-minute side. On top of this, the number of jukeboxes in bars was going down, cassettes had hit the scene, and even cassette singles were competing with 45s. By the time CDs were in the mix, it was a death knell for the 45s. At least, for a couple of years.


Wherever there’s passion, there’s sure to be a revival. And in 1988, the indie record label Sub Pop launched a “Singles Club,” where they mailed 7-inch singles to members, and introduced the world to Nirvana. The club continued to grow, featuring many more household names like The Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and Babes in Toyland


Around the same time, early 90s dub, techno/house, and hip-hop DJs created tracks in-home or local studios and would press as many as 500 to 1000 singles on 12-inch white labels to sell at dance music record stores. While these were a larger physical size than the 7-inch singles, they were still played at 45 RPM and promoted in a similar fashion. Just as the Sub Pop “Singles Club” harkened to an earlier era in rock music, the DIY ethos of mass pressing white labels gave a nod to the 1970s, when the disco era ushered in the first 12-inch singles.


Where are 45s sold today?

One of the biggest current proponents of the 45 format is Jack White of The White Stripes. Over ten years ago, Jack White started to resuscitate the 45 on his Third Man label, starting with his Dead Weather single. Since then, Third Man has released over 300 7-inch vinyl singles, with each averaging around 2000 sales per single, enough to keep the labor of love worth it for the musicians and the audiophiles. 


Online marketplaces like Discogs offer music lovers seeking everything from reggae to psych, to classical the chance to scope out limited edition singles, box sets, rare reissues, and truly whatever your heart wants to add to cart before checkout. 


And of course, your favorite local record store is the ultimate place to dig into some crates and score a 45 that transports you to another time in music. While 45s have fallen from their original throne, the fact that they’ve outlived CDs and are facing a resurgence of interest shows they refuse to go down softly.