One More Spin: Which Came First, The 10" Record Or The Three-Minute Song?

We continue our quest to answer your questions about the music industry.

In researching today's question — stay tuned — we got in touch with noted music historian Nolan Porterfield, author of Jimmie Rogers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler. We'll hear more from him later today. But first, he had some thoughts on last week's post about the size of records.

He took a little issue with Michael Biel's observation that "most pop songs were the right length for the 10" record."

Mr. Porterfield writes:

"It's always been my understanding that the reverse is true: prior to the phonograph, pop songs might go on forever, but when the time limitations of the standard 10" record became known, songwriters began to write music and lyrics that could be performed in about four minutes or less — the magic '180 seconds,' although I have 78s that play well beyond three minutes.

In any event, the pro engineers always referred to [recording length] in seconds, not minutes. In the late '20s - early '30s, some dime store labels pressed and tried to market 78s that had two cuts on each side (the second one generic and much shorter than the first) which they billed as the 'four-minute record'. They weren't around very long.

Thus it was not the song length that determined the record size, but the record size which determined the song length."

This actually provides a partial, early example of an answer to another of your questions — from Brockflock, who asked how technology has affected the art of music-making — something we'll try to address in a later post.

As is the case with so many developments over the course of history, the realization and marketing of the 7-inch 45 seems to have had as much to do with commerce as anything else. Mr. Porterfield continues:

"... the 'doughnut hole' was incorporated to make RCA's new format incompatible with the regular size hole in LP's — and for quite a time RCA was making the only 45 player. (This is a marketing gimmick that has prevailed throughout the history of the phonograph — witness, for example, the Busy Bee record, c. 1906-1909, which in addition to the center hole, had a rectangular slot below, which required a Busy Bee phonograph, on which standard records couldn't play — so you had to buy Busy Bee records.)

Although RCA boasted that 45 rpm was the ideal speed for music, in fact the developers were instructed to make it any speed they wanted so long as it wasn't 33 1/3. 45s also allowed buyers to purchase a 'single,' rather than Columbia's more costly LPs, which might have a bunch of songs you didn't particularly want."

Sound familiar?

Finally, Mr. Porterfield took issue with calling the 45 record changer "revolutionary:"

"Phonographs with changers were available in the '30s and '40s — Victor's 'Automatic Record Changer' was introduced in 1927. It might also be noted that Victor tried to market a 33 1/3 record in 1931. Bad timing. In those Depression days, few people could afford the speed adapter for their 78 rpm phonograph."

Thank you Mr. Porterfield. One of the best parts about launching this feature is the response we've gotten — comments and corrections — so please keep them coming. You can also write us at therecord@npr.org.

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