Why disco made pop songs longer

I Feel Love is Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s
1977 disco anthem. It’s THE song that signaled the beginning
of electronic dance music. Its production is almost entirely built on
synthesized sounds. There’s a propulsive bassline with a delay
effect, a four-on-the-floor kick drum, Snare hits and hi-hats, and Donna Summer’s soaring vocal. These elements make for a dance track that is hypnotic in its repetition. I Feel Love is a song that illustrates just how much disco
changed pop music. Not only through its sound and structure,
but in the newly invented vinyl format that gave it a natural home: A 12 inch single. This is a 7-inch single, it pretty much ruled
pop music since the beginning of rock and roll. It’s the format that powered jukeboxes,
teen record players, and most importantly the radio. It was a small, cheap, and durable record
that, when spun at 45rpm, was just large enough to fit three and a half minutes of good audio
on each side. You’ve probably heard it called a “45.” This chart shows just how much the 7-inch
single dominated pop music. From the 1950s through the 60s the average
length of number one hit songs averaged about 2.5 to 3.5 minutes. Paul: It was only in pop music that there
tended to be this sense that it needed to be three, three and a half minutes, and that
was radio and because of the seven inch format. That’s Paul Morely. He’s known for a lot of things. I’m an author, critic, broadcaster, and occasional musician and occasional remixer. Okay, back to the story. Those 3 minute singles had become a standard
on the radio, but dance clubs demanded a totally different musical experience. In the early 1970s in New York City a handful
of scrappy DJs made the dancefloor more important than ever. One of them was Nicky Siano. Nicky: I owned a club called the Gallery,
which was the template for every club in the later ’70s. At his club, Siano figured out the best
songs and techniques to keep people dancing. Nicky: There’s this song called
Cymande called by Bra. “Dun dun dun dun dun.” And we would take that record and play it
over and over and just go back and forth and back and forth with that break. By using two turntables, sometimes 3, DJs
like Siano could make that break last forever. Nicky: Flipping those forty fives, that’s
work. That is work. It was work because the naturally short length
of 45s left little time for DJs to plan their next move. So, they started searching for longer material
to work with. Eddie Kendrick’s “Girl You Need
a Change of Mind” is often cited as one of the first disco records. Nicky: When that record came on it filled
the dance floor. And it was peak record, anywhere you went in
New York City. It was a gospel-inspired track that had an
extended two minute break. The single version was over six minutes long. The only way it fit on a 45 was because it
was split it across two sides of the record. It bastardized the song. I had to play it on the LP. I just felt the fidelity, everything, was so much better. The longer the song on a 45 the more narrow
and compressed the grooves have to be so it can physically fit on the tiny amount of space. But that compromises the quality of the audio
because its those grooves that determine how the record sounds. You’ll hear less bass and dynamic range
on more compressed grooves. Paul: You put four minutes, 4.5, five minutes, it tended to get smaller and be squashed. The grooves were too squashed, the sound would be too squashed. By 1973 a number of unconventional tracks that blew up in New York City’s discos crossed over to
the billboard charts. The success of Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango
was single handedly propelled by its heavy play at New York City clubs. Atlantic records re-released the single in
the US due to its popularity in New York City and it made it on the Billboard charts. Same thing happened with “Love
Theme” arranged by Barry White. It was a number one hit, a very rare feat
for a fully instrumental track. Nicky: We started playing it really heavy. Siano: It made the charts before it ever was played on the radio. And that’s how we became more influential. This 1974 Billboard article captures just how much
influence DJs had on the music industry. It says record labels were mixing records specifically
for New York City clubs. They were making those edits longer, and more
importantly, they were bringing DJs in the studio to pull it off. But the dilemma with distribution remained:
cut the song down for the radio, split it across two sides, or squeeze the 5 plus minute
remix on one side of the single, compromising the quality of audio. Almost by complete accident a disco producer
came up with the solution: 12-inch single. The man behind the discovery was Tom Moulton. He had a remix of a song on tape, which he
would typically then record onto a disposable 7-inch for reference. Paul: But he didn’t have any acetate that
he could do that with, so he just put it on a 12-inch acetate, which usually you would
put 10 songs on. Immediately he discovered that stretching
one song across 12 inches dramatically changed the sound of the record. Paul: Because the grooves were
wider spaced there would be more power and force. He realized that this would create
a more energetic and more lively sound. In short, producers could dramatically stretch
out the length of a single. Which proved very handy for DJs. Nicky: It was revolutionary. You know, I was like “wow.” We can go to the bathroom. We can go do drugs. We can go, you know, smoke a joint. Almost immediately 12-inch singles replaced
45s in clubs But a debate erupted on whether or not they
were worth the production cost to sell to everyday consumers. The success of “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure, the first commercially available 12-inch single, proved its worth. Though based on these singles it was still
unclear what they were called. Paul: Very quickly in the disco
world, the 12 inches were turned into commercial formats because there was a demand for them. Those that like dancing to the 12 inch in
the clubs wanted to be able to buy it. And that’s exactly what happened with I
Feel Love. Paul: Very exciting, you know, because it sounded space age, it sounded other. You know, the idea of setting up rhythm and repetition, and almost drone, if you like, you could start to do that in a more exciting way using synthesizers and sequencers. The song was originally the B-side of a 7-inch single. By the end of 1977, it had been released in various forms, finally finding its most iconic home on 12 inches of vinyl. Paul: In many ways it gave a whole
new lease of life to the idea of pop music and it’s that lease on life that really has
kept pop music going to this day. The 12-inch single ruled nearly every genre
in the 1980s. Not least because releasing a 7-inch version
and 12-inch version of a track at precisely the right time in a promotional cycle often
kept popular songs on the charts for longer. Paul: The record companies loved
it because it gave them the opportunity to sell more copies and keep the profile up. But more importantly, the 12-inch single allowed
for unfettered musical exploration. Paul: The one that I fell in love
with as soon as I heard it, and still love it to this day wasn’t really a remix as such
at all it just existed in itself. Which was Blue Monday. Blue Monday by New Order is the most commercially
successful 12-inch single of all time. It was released in 1983 and was packaged in
sleeve that looked like a floppy disk. Paul: It’s not a 7-inch turned into a 12. It begins life as a 12-inch. It’s not a remix, that’s the length that it
was. From 1970 through the 1980s the average length
of #1 Pop songs nearly doubled and the 12-inch single probably had a lot to do with it. Paul: Any music that’s made electronically and is made with a kind of experimental purpose, whether that’s in hip-hop or electronic music, its beginnings, in many ways, was the 12-inch remix. Making Earworm takes a lot of time and energy, and when I’m on hour 14 of animating, the last thing I want to do is stare at my screen and try to remember old passwords or worry about my data being hacked. That is why I’m excited to tell you about Dashlane. Dashlane is the perfect tool to help keep you safe online. You don’t have to worry about getting locked out of accounts, resetting your passwords, or your internet history being monitored. All you have to do is download it and Dashlane will take care of the rest. It’ll notify you if websites you have logins for get hacked, or if your data gets compromised. Dashlane also includes a secure multi-country VPN for all your devices, at a much lower cost than its competitors. So go to dashlane.com/vox to get a 30-day free trial of Dashlane Premium. And if you like it, you can use promo code “VOX” to get 10% off Dashlane Premium. Dashlane doesn’t directly impact our editorial, but their support makes videos like this possible. So click the URL in the description and check them out.

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