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Why Collect 45 Records?

The Joy of 45 Collecting: Why Collect 45 RPM Records?

Last Updated 10/20/16.

Contents: Introduction | A Brief History | Comparing 45s And LPs | 45 Playing Strategies | 45 Collecting Strategies | 45 Grading

Galleries: Labels A-E, F-O, P-Z | Factory Sleeves | Picture Sleeves | Colored Vinyl | Promos | Sound: 45s vs. LPs

Lists:         Retail Edits | Promo Edits | 45-Only Tracks | Unique Mixes & Takes | Censored 45s | Great Short: ≤2:10 | ≤2:30 | Lost Tunes

Reference: Key Producers | Key Arrangers | Key Songwriters

More:         Reissue Labels | Making & Playing Records | Why 45s Sound Better


"Singles are the essence of rock and roll.
They occupy the center of all the pop music that came after it."

Dave Marsh, "The Heart of Rock & Soul"

RCA 45 rpm record playerSo, you've made the decision to start collecting popular music from the 1950s-90s because you want to understand "where today's music comes from." Are you going to buy CDs? Download from iTunes? Rent from Spotify? Grab some vinyl? And if you decide on vinyl, are you going to collect just LPs? How about 45s? Certainly, LPs might seem like the default choice: They're relatively easy to find nowadays, and the few you've bought sound great! This essay will attempt to explain why 45s should also be a part of your collecting strategy, if not in fact the primary part.

Introduction

Before I start, let me digress briefly to put the above questions posed in some context. We make certain assumptions about music and collecting that you should share — at least in part — before the whole discussion will make sense. If you don't buy into those premises, you may find the discussion tedious and irrelevant. So I want to give you a chance to bail before you waste too much time. :-)

RCA Victor 45 SystemIt's also important to make clear that the question posed isn't "45s vs LPs"... I collect both, and if you care about pop music from the 1950s on, you will do the same. Some LPs are as essential to a good collection of Rock'n'Soul as the best 45s, and I don't want to give the impression that you can build the ultimate music collection without LPs. You can't. It's just that my impression is that most music lovers today believe you can have a great music collection based on LPs alone, without any 45s, and that is simply incorrect, as hopefully this essay will make clear.

Briefly, we make 5 assumptions, or premises, about budding 45 collectors:

  1. You are curious about the "roots" of Rock, Soul, Funk, and pop music in general from the 1950s-90s and are interested in hearing it for yourself.
  2. If you want to experience the music as it was first "disseminated," you must seek the original vinyl.
  3. Collecting 45s isn't just about the music: 45 records are a physical medium that, like paintings or books, have appeal even without listening to, reading, or studying them.
  4. As a vinyl collector, you should have purchased a turntable and are able to play 45s and LPs through (preferably) high-fidelity speakers.
  5. In the case of popular songs, in most cases shorter is better; typically, songs lasting more than 4 minutes are simply candidates for good editing... something a surprising number of 45s uniquely provided.

Each of these statements is explained in detail in a discussion of the 5 premises. Show discussion of the 5 premises.

A Brief History and Some Background

The 45 and LP were developed, in part, as a competition between Columbia Records and RCA Victor to replace the 78 rpm format that had been the default since its development around 1900. Made of brittle and noisy shellac — a compound consisting of secretions from Southeast-Asian beetles and actually containing ground up bits of insects — the 78 rpm format was ripe for replacement by the late 1940s. The term "album" actually originates with the, literally, "albums" (like photo albums) manufactured for multi-record 78 rpm releases. Since 78 rpm discs could only capture 3-4 minutes per side, albums were required for reproducing classical, jazz and other genres that typically featured longer performances.

In 1948, Columbia unveiled the 33-1/3 rpm, 12-inch record made of a new "vinylite" (vinyl) plastic that was much quieter and less prone to breakage than shellac. The new format was perfect for reproducing long musical performances, and even though no "album" was required to contain them, single LPs (Columbia copyrighted the term "LP", by the way) became known as "albums."

The 45: Greatest Advance in Recorded Music in 50 Years

Not content to begin using this format for its huge back catalog, RCA Victor quickly resuscitated an abandoned project and released its own 7-inch, 45 rpm format in 1949. Originally, RCA's strategy was to tout its new format's superiority over Columbia's LP, viewing it as a replacement for rather than a complement to the 33-1/3 rpm record. To that end, RCA manufactured inexpensive 45 RPM players featuring a spindle that could hold many 45s, dropping each to the turntable for play as soon as the previous 45 was finished. Part of RCA's thinking was that the 45's sound reproduction was superior to the LP, and part was its unwillingness to cede the long-playing music market to Columbia, even though Columbia was willing to license its manufacturing process to any record company. (Columbia did not make music playback equipment.)

The RCA Victor 45 Player SystemIn the beginning, confusion about the competing formats was rampant among consumers, record companies, dealers, radio stations, and hardware manufacturers. By the early 1950s, it was clear that both the 45 and LP were here to stay, and playback equipment for consumers quickly adopted modifications for playing all three formats. The 78 format persisted well into the 1960s, but its fate was sealed by the sheer superiority of the new 45 and 33-1/3 rpm records. For awhile, RCA tried to position the 45 as the 33-1/3 rpm LP's equal for long-playing classical and jazz music by releasing box sets of 45s intended for use on their "spindle" player system. But by the end of the decade, even RCA had adopted the LP for certain musical genres and helped bring it to the Pop audience as well by releasing LPs for Elvis Presley and other big-name artists.

Also clear by the mid-1950s was that the 45 rpm format was king for satisfying consumers' craving for new songs, fed by the Top 40 radio format becoming standard in that industry. 45s were the first choice of DJs as well as consumers, and it's not an exaggeration to say that the entire Rock'n'Soul revolution was built on the back of the new 7-inch vinyl format.Description and Price ($12.95) of the RCA Victor 45 Player System Part of this was demographic: In the Post-war world, teenagers suddenly had the disposable income to snap up their favorite hits, and they did so with gusto. LPs sold well, but couldn't compete for sales in the emerging teen-driven Pop market.

The 45 remained king of music formats through the early-to-mid 1960s, when a few recording artists from the "Rock'n'Soul" world emerged with more than hits on their mind. Bob Dylan was one of the pop artists who made every moment count on their long-playing records, rather than quickly recording filler songs to accompany the one or two hits LPs typically contained. The Beatles were avid 45 nuts, but even so, they were so talented, had so many great ideas, and were such perfectionists that their early albums contained little fluff.

Slowly but inexorably, both artists and fans came to expect LPs to contain great music not found on 45s, and the emphasis on "hits" diminished somewhat. Those of us baby boomers who grew up in the late 60s and early 1970s came to believe that 45s were for kids and that big boys (and girls) only took LPs seriously. It became fashionable to diss 45s and 45 collecting generally, since the format was viewed as just commercial pablum with no value beyond a song's hit potential. Artists who could not make LPs of the newly expected caliber were derogatorily dismissed as "singles bands" — that is, artists who had lots of hit singles but no LPs of equal quality. Artists who fell into this Rock Critic-created hole included The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Turtles, Paul Revere & The Raiders, the Association, the Mamas & Papas, Tommy James & the Shondells, and many many more.

Dealers Love The RCA Victor 45 Player System While it's true that the LP let recording artists grow beyond doing single songs into whole suites of material, and artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin and many many more were actually capable of making the most of the LP as art form, the fact is that the vast majority of singers and bands (not just in the 1960s, but in all eras) actually only had one or two — or perhaps a whole greatest-hits album full of — good songs in them, but not enough to fill LP after LP with good music. Buying the LPs of such artists could be a total waste of money, since the "hit" you liked was accompanied by some truly mediocre material. And yet, despite their higher cost (LPs in the late 1960s/early 1970s cost about $12, while 45s were about $1) and clear evidence that most albums did not match the consistency and quality of "Rubber Soul," "Highway 61 Revisited," or "Are You Experienced?", increasingly sophisticated and serious consumers of Rock music veered away from the 45 record, with its two typically excellent songs, and toward the musically spotty LP. Record companies' motivations were clear: LPs were much more profitable than 45s, and eventually the 45 merely became a way of promoting the LP. (This is true at least here in the U.S. As the accompanying list of non-album singles and tracks clearly indicates, U.K. consumers never adopted the somewhat snotty attitude U.S. young people had about the 45, and the "single" not only flourished there but even strengthened. U.K. artists routinely released 45s with no accompanying LP throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, something U.S. artists rarely did.)

Toscanini Quote for RCA's New 45 RecordThe trend toward the LP continued until it was replaced by the CD in the 1980s, at which point (according to my own empirical observations as well as testimony from those in the trade as depicted in the excellent movie about the rise and fall of Tower Records, "All Things Must Pass") companies doubled-down on their efforts to kill the "single." Eventually, fed up with high CD prices and their inability to buy the songs they liked individually rather than as part of an "album," consumers turned to their new personal computers and file-sharing services like Napster to feed their music-collecting appetite. It was at this point that the record industry imploded, and iconic record stores like Tower were forced out of business. At this juncture, Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. stepped in and developed what ended up replacing the record as a physical product: The iPod and its accompanying iTunes store. (Or their equivalents.)

In one sense, this was precisely what consumers were craving: Inexpensive songs, individually or as part of albums. Every song suddenly became a single, and you only had to spend 99 cents to get one. Unfortunately, this new paradigm also left consumers without high-fidelity music for the first time since the 78 rpm shellac disk hit the dust. The CD vs. vinyl debate pretty much died for a number of years, but that has now changed, and for the last 5 years or more, consumers' appetite for vinyl has steadily increased. Why? Just listen to the audible difference some time on decent speakers between an mp3 and a vinyl track, and you'll understand why vinyl is back in vogue. Now all that's left is for consumers to recognize that the very best sound is to be found on 45 rpm vinyl, and for record companies to respond by manufacturing the little 7-inch disks in quantity once again. Although 45s are still being pressed, try finding one here in the U.S. that contains a current hit in 2016.

Comparing 45s And LPs

Advantages of 45 Records.—As a collector I concentrate on the little 7-inch 45 record today because (in no particular order) of the format's following advantages over LPs:

  1. Superior Audio: By their very nature, records that play back at 45 rpm have superior audio to those that play at 33-1/3 rpm (assuming the same recording, the same mastering approach, and the same quality vinyl). This is because a 45 rpm's grooves contain much more information, and they are deeper and less vulnerable to surface nicks. To fit 20-30 minutes of music on an LP, manufacturers must make grooves thinner, shallower, and closer together to avoid audio cross-over. For the same reason, they must tone down the audio level, which is why LPs sound so thin compared with 45s. And it's why the big sound on little 45 records sounds so much better than equivalent LP cuts (examples: Buddy Holly/Crickets singles, 1960s Motown singles). Consider that with today's "vinyl revival," some record companies are starting to press even jazz albums on "45 rpm" albums to take advantage of the superior audio characteristics of spinning at 45 rpm. Yes, this means a one-record LP may require two or more 12-inch records to fit the music at 45 rpm, but the music advantage apparently is worth it. See the Music Matters website or Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs for examples. I recently bought "Highway 61 Revisited" by Bob Dylan in this format.
    This page goes into more detail about why properly mastered 45s sound better than LPs.
    Our "Sound Gallery" contains examples of the superior audio you can get from 45s, comparing them to the LP versions.
  2. More Great Music: There's so much more music available on 45! Of all the recording artists from the 1950s-70s who released music in any vinyl format, the percentage who released LPs is small compared with those who released 45s only. Most record companies, especially small independent labels, would take a bet on an artist by pressing a 45 record, or perhaps several, but unless one of them became a hit, that music never got them an LP contract. And just because a record wasn't a hit doesn't mean it's not worth seeking out today!
    In a quick count of the first two pages of the latest edition of the price guide/discography "Rockin' Records," which is 1,255 pages long, there are 125 artists listed. Of those, 76 artists released only 45 records, no LPs. Using that rough count, one can conclude that only 40% of recording artists ever released an LP and that 60% released only 45s. Considering that "Rockin' Records" contains 68,841 artists (according to the author, Jerry Osborne) who pressed music to vinyl since 1949, this calculation means that more than 40,000 of them never made an LP. And I guarantee you that of those 40,000 artists, a large number made music that's actually worth collecting. But you'll never find it on an LP. Another place you may never find a lot of this "lost" music is on the popular music download/streaming services such as iTunes and Spotify.
    See our partial list of "Lost" 45 Tracks Not Available on iTunes.
    • Album Artists on Small Labels: The previous count didn't include artists who did make at least one LP, but who also made a lot of 45s that were never released on LP. This occurred when an artist such as Soloman Burke switched labels and on their new label they only released a 45 or two. Many artists — Soul and RnB artists in particular — switched labels a lot during this period.
  3. Concentrated Goodness: 45s pack more musical punch than LPs. Most 45 records really do contain the very best music the artist had to offer. Quite often, the B side is even better than the "hit" side, as most artists used the B side to put their "best foot forward" or to show another side of their sound. By contrast, most LPs — especially from the 1950s and 1960s — have only one or two hits on them, and then lots of filler. Even "really good" LPs by acts like The Eagles, James Taylor, the Rolling Stones, and Joni Mitchell from the 1970s to the present have songs that aren't up to the artist's highest standard, but the time required to "skip" certain songs on an LP is prohibitive. The number of albums that are worth listening to all the way through is actually quite small, while the number of 45s that have two top-notch sides is very high indeed. One of the reasons for the rise of Napster, iTunes and other streaming/file-sharing services beginning around 2000 was consumers' desire for particular songs. Record companies' policy of over-pricing CDs compared with LPs combined with their attempt to kill the single in all its forms (cassingle, 45, CD single) led directly to file-sharing services like Napster. Today, it's easy to buy just the song you want from iTunes (if you're willing to do with compressed audio), and today's consumers can listen to all the songs on an album before buying. The 45 was a format that gave the people what they wanted: Not only one, but often two of the artist's best songs at a fraction of the cost of a (possibly mediocre) LP. Perhaps the 45 will rise again some day to appeal to those of us who like the physical nature of vinyl and who want the best audio possible.
  4. Non-LP Edits, Mixes, Songs and Takes:
    • 45-Only Edits: Often the hit (45 rpm) version of a song was an edited version of a corresponding LP track. Beginning in the late 1960s, some rock artists began to think that the extended jamming their fans loved in concert was appropriate for album cuts as well. (Hence, Iron Butterfly gave you an LP with "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" consuming an entire side. Believe me, buy the single and you'll get the best bits.) Songs became longer, until by the mid-1970s it wasn't unusual to find hit songs clocking well over 4:00 minutes. Thankfully, either the record company, the producer, or the artist recognized that some songs needed to be edited down for the "hit" version, and today you'll only find those excellent edited releases by collecting the original 45s. (Even reissues and compilations typically contain the album version, not the edited-for-radio cut.) Caveat: In rare cases, the edit was a goof — an attempt to edit a song that really had no "fluff" to edit. A good example of this is "Layla" by Derek & the Dominoes. It was first released as an under-3-minute edit that left off the entire instrumental ending that many consider to be the song's best feature. When the company re-released the song in its original 7-minute version, it became a much bigger hit than originally. But in most cases that I know of, edited 45 versions capture the essence of a song without leaving out essential segments. (As a former professional manuscript editor, I know and appreciate the value of tight editing in telling a story as well as, in this case, producing a song.)
      See our partial list of Retail 45s with Unique Edited Versions.
    • Special Promo 45 Edits: Promotional 45 records from this period often had edited versions that are available nowhere else. The most interesting promo 45s are those that have the album (or retail 45) version on one side and an edited-for-radio version on the other. The specially edited versions available on these promotional 45s were typically never made available on retail copies, 45 reissues or on LP compilations. Besides the value of these edited-version nuggets, collecting promos can be especially rewarding since these were the first 45s pressed from a "master" and so have the most pristine audio possible. They were also less likely to have been made using sub-standard vinyl than retail copies.
      See our partial list of Promo 45s with Unique Edited Versions.
    • Previously Unreleased, 45-Only Songs: Many artists (examples: Elton John, U2, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Beatles) put previously unreleased, non-album cuts on their singles' A and/or B sides, and a lot of these never found their way to a vinyl LP. One of my favorite examples if Joni Mitchell's "Urge For Going," which appeared on the B side of her hit "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" but nowhere else on vinyl. Another of my favorites is Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac," which only appears on the B side of "Dancing in the Dark," the debut single from Springsteen's breakthrough LP "Born In The U.S.A."
      See our partial list of Non-LP, 45-Only Tracks.
    • Rare Takes and Mixes Only on 45: Some 45s have actually different takes or have re-recorded versions with additional or different instrumentation than what appears on the corresponding LP. In some cases, the rare take existed on only a tiny fraction of the record's total press run, as a different take was quickly substituted. One example here is "Shop Around" by The Miracles, which was first released with a different take than the one that became the hit. Typically, these rare "pulled" takes are more valuable than what followed, and they never appeared on the corresponding album or subsequent vinyl compilations. This category also includes songs that were actually re-recorded — completely or in part — when released on as a 45 rpm single. An example of this is "Rock Me On The Water," by Jackson Browne. The 45 version is completely different from the LP version, and today you can only find the real "hit" version of the song by hunting down the original 45. Greatest hits LPs and other compilations almost invariably present the LP version rather than what was the "hit" version on 45. In addition to completely new recordings, many 45s have special mixes that differ from what appeared on the LP. Occasionally, special promos were released with a "new," remixed version of a song — even while the song was still popular. These special mixes typically appear only on the 45, though with the advent of 45 RPM 12-inch singles in the 1970s, a special 45 mix might show up on that format as well.
      See our partial list of 45s With Unique Mixes & Takes
      Our "Sound Gallery" contains examples of a few 45s with versions completely different from that on the corresponding LP..
    • Censored Lyrics Only on 45: In the 1950s and 1960s especially, radio stations and record companies were sensitive to possibly negative audience feedback to certain words and phrases used in early Rock'n'Roll hits. This resulted in a kind of censorship that made singers go back into the studio and over-dub new lyrics over the ostensibly offensive original. An example of this is "Rhapsody in the Rain" by Lou Christie, which Christie had to re-record some vocals when the line "we were makin' out in the rain" was deemed offensive (the new language was "we fell in love in the rain"). As with rare "pulled" takes, the "censored" version is what appears on the artist's LPs and compilations, and today you can only find the original, un-censored lyrics on the rare original 45s.
      See our partial list of 45s With Censored Lyrics.
    • Original Mono Mixes: Records from the 1950s and 1960s invariably sound better in their original mono mix than in the primitive Stereo mixes often found on LPs of the day (unless you seek out the Mono LPs). It wasn't until about 1970 that 16-track stereo recording technology introduced in 1968 was in widespread use; it was this leap in technology that made Stereo mixes finally sound good enough to begin replacing Mono mixes as the default on 45 records. You can often find the Mono version of LPs from this period, but companies made Mono mixes available for virtually all singles through the 1970s on their Stereo/Mono promo 45s.
      Our "Sound Gallery" contains examples comparing Stereo and Mono mixes.
  5. Serious Eye Candy: Compared with collecting LPs, 45s offer much more options for "eye candy", resulting from the way they were packaged and promoted. So if you're a collector who values design and is easily smitten by unique, eye-catching art and design, here are some things you get by collecting 45s.
    • Gallery of 45 Record LabelsLabel Art: Label art from tiny record companies who never pressed LPs adds an eye-candy component not found in LP collecting. Even the labels of larger companies make more of an impression visually on a 45 record, since the label is more prominent.
      See our Gallery of 45 Record Labels to view some of this cool label art.
    • Gallery of 45 Record Factory SleevesFactory Sleeves: Similarly, factory (company) sleeves from small record companies are unique in the world of 45 collecting and again provide an eye-candy incentive. Even large companies seemed to compete among themselves in designing the most attractive sleeves, in some cases changing sleeve designs numerous times over the years. There is no counterpart for factory sleeves in the world of LP collecting, even though a small minority of LPs did come with protective sleeves that weren't either lyric sheets or generic white.
      See our Gallery of 45 Record Factory Sleeves to view some of these cool sleeves.
    • Gallery of 45 Record Picture SleevesPicture Sleeves: While LPs always came in a sturdy, cardboard-weight sleeve, most 45s came in generic white or brown sleeves. Yet many 45s were released with a limited quantity of picture sleeves, which often contain artwork, band photos and other content that add spice to 45 collecting.
      See our Gallery of 45 Record Picture Sleeves to view some of these cool sleeves.
    • Gallery of Colored Vinyl 45sColored Vinyl 45s: When RCA first started making 45s, they had an elaborate system devised to use colored vinyl to designate different markets — e.g., childrens, country, RnB, pop, jazz, etc. They abandoned the system very early on, but record labels continued to release special pressings on colored vinyl throughout the years. Typically, colored vinyl was used for promotional releases, but there are many cases, especially beginning in the 1980s, when specific releases would have part of their press run on colored wax. Examples of the latter include "True Blue" by Madonna and "Purple Rain" by Prince. Collecting colored vinyl 45s is another way to feed your eye-candy impulses, and typically colored vinyl 45s fetch much higher prices than their black-vinyl siblings. As far as I know, record companies did not regularly release colored-vinyl LPs as they did for 45s, though certainly some colored vinyl LPs do exist, so this is an aspect of record collecting unique to 45s.
      See our Gallery of Colored Vinyl 45s to view some of these special releases.
    • Gallery of 45 PromosPromotional Labels: The label designs for promotional 45 records are often different from and even more interesting than the corresponding retail labels. (That said, most record companies used white labels and black ink for their promos, with perhaps a variation in the company logo. So promos with colored ink on the label are relatively rare.) In addition, because some 45s never made it past the promo stage — that is, no retail 45 was ever released if dee-jay response wasn't enthusiastic enough to warrant a retail release — some label designs are unique to promotional releases.
      See our Gallery of 45 Promo 45 Labels to view some of these cool designs.
  6. Compact Size and Convenience: Compared with LPs, 45s take up much less space on the shelf and are easier to lug around. Their very portability is one of the reasons for the format's phenomenal success with teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, and even today, packing up and moving a big 45 collection is a breeze compared with handling a big LP collection. Further, compared with queueing up a particular song on a 33-1/3 rpm LP, playing 45s is much simpler. Both of these factors explains the format's enduring popularity with disc jockeys at both night clubs and catered parties. CDs present the same problem, though they are easier to queue up than LPs.
  7. Greater durability. With their deeper, wider grooves and smaller size, 45 rpm records can take more abuse than LPs and still deliver superior audio. The tightly spaced, shallow and narrow grooves on 33-1/3 rpm LPs means it's much easier to induce a "ding" that will affect the sound than it is with a 45. Styrene 45s start out with superior audio to standard-grade vinyl, but they can degrade quickly on poor equipment. 45s pressed on standard-grade vinyl will last longer, but in my experience they are more susceptible to audio "pops" with light scratches than styrene. Still, a 45's wax, whether styrene or vinyl, can look almost trashed and still sound good all the way through, whereas an LP in similar visual condition is unlikely to be playable. (Again, styrene can be a red flag: It can look untouched but still have distorted audio. This doesn't mean you should shy away from collecting styrene 45s... Just try to find copies that are truly pristine, and you'll be rewarded with audio that's bright, noise-free and clean.)

Advantages of LP Records.—As previously noted, LP collecting will definitely be part of your collecting strategy, since your collection would be incomplete without the many worthwhile LPs that have music not available on 45 rpm. And the format does have its advantages over the 45 record. For example,

  1. Some Genres Best on LP: If you're a fan of jazz, classical or musical soundtracks, in particular, you won't find much on 45 rpm vinyl worth collecting. Those three musical genres have very rarely even pressed a 45, let alone try to generate a "hit" from the music. Of course, there are exceptions, such as "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck, which was a minor hit in the early 1960s. (On the other hand, the arrival of "45 rpm" albums may blunt this advantage.)
  2. More Likely To Retain Sleeves: You don't usually find bins of LPs without their covers, as you do with 45s. As a result, the universe of badly beat-up LPs is small compared with that of 45s. Because 45s came in a relatively flimsy paper cover, users often discarded them and stored them in some other, specially made-for-45s binder. The vast number of un-sleeved 45s that one encounters while 45 collecting makes the hobby especially challenging compared with LP collecting. Don't take this to mean that you won't find plenty of beat-up LPs if you start shopping for them: LPs grooves are more easily damaged, even on good equipment, because they are shallower and more closely spaced, and finding Near Mint or better LP covers can also be challenging.
  3. More Careful Handling: Owners of LPs typically handled them more carefully, and they more often used decent hi-fi equipment to play them on. By contrast, owners of 45s not only discarded their sleeves, they wrote their initials on the labels, or they added numbered stickers to the labels, or they defaced the labels in any number of other ways. This kind of damage is not typically found when collecting LPs. As a result, finding collectable copies of favorite LPs (with un-defaced labels and undamaged audio) is generally easier compared with finding equivalent copies of favorite 45s from the 1950s-60s.
  4. More Music Per Record: Assuming you want to listen to an entire LP, that format is more convenient to play, since one side typically lasts at least 20 minutes, whereas 45s from this period typically run only 2-3 minutes. (Exceptions certainly exist: "Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan was 6 minutes, for example.) To play 45s with similar convenience, you need a 45-changer spindle, like the one shown in the 1950s RCA product (above), but no one makes such a thing anymore.
  5. Larger Format: More Lyrics, Photos and Art: Although many 45 picture sleeves have song lyrics and band photos in addition to special cover art, LPs gave designers a larger canvas to work with, and the results are often truly special. 45s can't compete with LP covers for the kind of eye-candy and information one could cram not only onto the front and back of the cover but into special inserts with full lyrics and more. For example, an album like "Tumbleweed Connection" by Elton John incorporated a 12-page "booklet" with lyrics, photos, and amazing custom artwork.
  6. Album Tracks Unavailable on 45: Although I firmly believe (through experience) that most artists' best work was released on 45 rpm vinyl, it's also a fact that a lot of great music remains locked in the 33-1/3 rpm format. With the rise of college and alternative radio stations in the 1970s, dee-jays delighted in finding obscure but essential music outside of the 45s that record companies released to promote an artist's work. Not only that, but albums were becoming suites of material that couldn't easily be separated into "hit" segments. (Even though "Dark Side of the Moon" is such a suite, the band managed to edit their excellent tune "Money" onto a 45 that's worth collecting in addition to the album.) Until Michael Jackson's "Thriller" LP in 1983, companies were loath to release more than 2-3 singles per album, so a lot of great album tracks got left without a 45 rpm counterpart. Thus, when Bruce Springsteen released a 2-record album chock-full of potential hits ("The River"), Columbia could only find two songs to release on 45 ("Hungry Heart" and "Fade Away"), and one of those was a dud. (45 fans did better with Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." album, which followed "Thriller's precedent by releasing 7 singles!) Thus, songs like "Sherry Darling," "Crush On You," "I Wanna Marry You," and "Cadillac Ranch" can only be heard by buying "The River." Likewise, it's unconscionable that Atlantic refused to release "Stairway To Heaven" as a commercial 45, making it available only as a promotional release for radio stations. Still, the quantity of such album-only tracks pales in comparison to the vast universe of music available on only 45.

As noted, I do spring for LPs that have music worth collecting that wasn't released on 45, so I'm certainly not advocating 45s only. Your Rock collection simply wouldn't be complete without the entire Blonde on Blonde album, for example, or without Sgt. Pepper's, Tea for the Tillerman, Blue, or Dark Side of the Moon, to mention just a few. Those are exceptions, however. In general, you get so much more bang for your buck by collecting 45s. Many times, the B sides of those old singles are rare gems you can't find anywhere else.*

45 Playing Strategies

So, how do you play your 45s? One at a time? If you're used to listening to a continuous stream of music, either from an LP or from a Spotify playlist, that may seem like a lot of work unless you're doing a radio or nightclub show.

Until the iPod and iTunes were invented, I used to methodically record the 45s I collected onto 90-minute, high-quality cassette tapes. I would put together playlists in advance and then make custom tapes. I made hundreds of tapes like this over the years.

With iTunes and a personal computer, custom tapes went out the window, since making custom playlists became so simple. Instead of recording to cassette, I have a turntable with an optical output (as well as USB output), so I simply connect it to my computer's optical input. Using inexpensive recording software (I use Amadaeus Pro on the Mac), I record the sides of each 45 I sell that I want to keep in my collection in the highest quality, uncompressed format possible, and then tag them with genre, year, artist, title, etc. and make them part of my iTunes library. I used to burn CDs, but I haven't done that in years now. Whatever I want to hear when away from my computer, I make available on my iPhone, which I plug into my car's stereo when on the road.

In terms of sharing your music with others, nothing beats taking a box full of 45s to a friend's house and taking turns listening to them — one at a time. At one time, this intimate experience was the default way of sharing. With enough 45-collecting friends and enough 45s, that experience will perhaps one day return.

To transfer your 45's music to your computer — for example, to your iTunes library — there are several approaches. Some manufacturers make turntables specifically designed to do this, complete with USB connections and software. Here's how my setup works and the components I use:

  • Stanton ST.150 turntable. This is a "deejay" table (about $250) with lots of controls I don't use, like "brake" and "start" times, but it has two key ingredients that make it the best choice for me: A USB out interface and an optical-out (TOSLINK) interface. The turntable is "powered" in the sense that you don't need a preamplifier or amplifier to bring the phono line level up to normal. I connect the USB out directly to my powered speakers, and the TOSLINK connector goes directly to my computer's optical-in ports. The turntable has an elliptical stylus, which I understand is best for audiophile playback and especially good with 45 records.
  • Audioengine 5+ powered speakers. I like these because they have not only the usual RCA connections but also a USB port and a port for adding wireless adapters. They cost about $500 a pair and have terrific sound... just right for my needs. It's great to be able to plug my turntable directly in to my speakers so I can listen immediately without any other devices in between.
  • Mac Pro computer. Unfortunately, newer Macs don't come with the TOSLINK optical interface that this baby has, so I may be keeping this computer longer than usual. With the optical-audio in ports, I can connect my turntable directly to my computer... again, with no intervening devices necessary. If your computer doesn't have an optical audio interface, you will have to either use the USB interface (which I understand is somewhat lower fidelity) or purchase a DAC (digital audio converter) to sit between your turntable and your computer.
  • Amadeus Pro software. When the audio comes in to my computer through the optical interface, I need to capture it somehow. There are many good audio capture and editing software programs out there, but my experience is with an app called Amadeus Pro (about $50, I believe). With Amadeus Pro, I can record whatever audio comes into my Mac using a simple interface. Afterwards, I spend some time trimming the file and "normalizing" the audio to 0 db, which basically makes it as loud as possible without introducing distortion. Amadeus Pro lets me capture meta-information about the recording, and I do that next — entering artist name, title, year, and genre. If I have an image of the 45's label (made using a scanner and edited using Photoshop), I drag that to the "art" screen for the song. When I'm done, I save the audio file to my hard drive.
  • iTunes. To get my newly captured 45 record into iTunes, I just drag newly created audio files to one of my playlists. Of course, you can also just add it to your iTunes library as a whole and then add it to a playlist afterwards. All of the metadata I added in Amadeus Pro gets transferred intact, and I can edit it or add to it in iTunes using the iTunes "Info" screen for each song. Once in iTunes, I can enjoy the music on any connected device — for example, on my iPhone or Apple TV.
  • ClickRepair. Not a required component, but a recommended one is a software package called ClickRepair. Created many years ago by an Australian mathematician, ClickRepair magically removes "pops" and "clicks" and other surface noise from your recordings without distorting or degrading the audio. Back in 2005, I wrote a review of ClickRepair which you may enjoy. Using ClickRepair is great for cleaning up somewhat messy audio, and it makes buying less than pristine 45s a reasonable strategy.

45 Collecting Strategies

OK, you're convinced! You want to dip your toes into the world of 45 record collecting, but how? I've been doing this for over 45 years now, and I still feel like there's so many great 45s I've never seen or heard of. The universe really is ever-expanding as one starts to collect 45s.

This is a big topic, so I'm just going to mention a few suggestions to get you going:

  1. Get a chart book. I highly recommend Joel Whitburn's Record Research books, which compile the chart and sales data from Billboard, Cash Box, and Record World magazines — industry trade journals that published weekly charts of the hits in various markets (Country, Black, Pop, Adult, Christmas, Dance, Modern Rock, etc). For example, get "Top Pop Singles", which lists each artist alphabetically and shows all the 45s they released that hit the industry charts. Find the artists you like and begin to collect their hits. In my case, I started by buying "Greatest Hits" albums of artists from the 1940s-60s, but you quickly find favorites that don't appear on greatest hits albums. (And besides, what appears on those albums isn't necessarily what appeared on the hit 45.) Classic 45s provides a way for you to search our inventory by the Billboard charts — check it out!
  2. Collect a list. Given how large the universe of great 1950s-60s music there is, I have found hiring a professional guide to be helpful. The first "list book" that I used was "The Book of Rock Lists" by Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein from Rolling Stone magazine. First published in 1981, it was updated in the 1990s. The book contains, as its title suggests, many interesting lists that parse the rock/soul universe into digestible chunks — for example, "Motown's Top 40," "10 Non-Beach Boys productions by Brian Wilson," "Prehistoric Rock and Roll (10 Records That Served as Important Stepping Stones)," "The 25 Best Instrumentals," "The 50 Greatest Dance Hits," "100 Greatest Number 1 R&B Hits," and "Original All-Time Greatest Top 40 Hits" (which lists the best 40 hits for each year starting in 1956). Here at Classic 45s, we track and tag our inventory with songs from the following three lists, all of which have led me to great music I would never have discovered otherwise:
    • "The Heart of Rock & Soul" by Dave Marsh lists "The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made." Highly recommended for fans of Rock and Soul music from the 1950s-present. You can see what we have from that list here.
    • "The Northern Soul Top 500" by Kev Roberts. Highly recommended for fans of Northern Soul, and of Soul/RnB in general, from the 1950s-80s. The book actually contains about 700 ranked singles if you get the "Special Edition." You can see what we have from that list here.
    • "500 Greatest Songs" by Rolling Stone magazine. Recommended as a starting point, but it's woefully incomplete compared with the Dave Marsh list. Stronger on Rock than Soul. You can see what we have from that list here.
    • "Classic 45s Recommended Singles." Based on the way I rate songs in my iTunes library, Classic 45s gives singles one or two stars (corresponding to 4 or 5 stars in iTunes) as a way of recommending them to fans of the song's genre. Anything we rate 2 stars means you absolutely must have a copy of the single in your collection — I guarantee you'll love it! We only add stars to singles that are not included on one of the three lists above, and the breadth of our recommendations makes clear that you cannot compile an essential 45 collection of only 500 songs, 700 songs, or 1,001 songs. Those lists are simply too limiting. You can see all of our recommended singles here. (Just our 2-star recommendations here.)
  3. Collect writers, producers and arrangers. In my experience there are certain writers, producers and arrangers whose work is consistent enough that I look for them when shopping 45s. If I run across a 45 I don't know, but which was written, produced or arranged by one of the many names I look for, I'm more likely to take a chance and possibly discover something new and wonderful.
    See our Key Producers page for a list of producers to look for in your hunts.
    See our Key Arrangers page for a list of arrangers to look for in your hunts.
    See our Key Songwriters page for a list of songwriters to look for in your hunts.
  4. Collect labels. It's often a good idea to pick up unknown 45s if they're on a label whose artists and music you generally enjoy. In addition, some collectors focus on certain labels and try to collect every record that they released. Some labels employed house bands, producers, arrangers and writers that from experience you know make consistently great music, so it's worth taking a chance on an unknown artist if their work appears on one of these labels. Examples include not only the Motown family of labels (Gordy, Tamla, Motown, V.I.P., etc) but labels like Fame, Stax, Goldwax, Ric-Tic, and Golden World.
  5. Get a price guide/discography. Price guides are only marginally useful for giving you a rough idea of what a record may be worth. No price guide I'm aware of should be used as a reference for what a record is actually worth. The best guide that covers both 45s and LPs is "Rockin' Records" by Jellyroll Productions. It is published each year, and each edition is an improvement on the last. The main reason I recommend "Rockin' Records" is that it offers the most comprehensive discography (either in print or on the web) by covering many more artists than the similar "Goldmine Standard Guide to American Records," which mostly covers big name artists. I use the Goldmine guide in some cases because it provides a full discography for each artist, whereas in many cases "Rockin' Records" simply lumps all singles by an artist into one entry — for example, for Abba, it lists all their Atlantic 45s as one entry with one price range, rather than listing each Atlantic Abba single individually. For Soul fans, get a copy of John Manship's "Guide for USA Rare Soul 45s," which is more comprehensive than Rockin' Records for Soul music. Manship's guide is also useful when you're trying to collect only the "best" 45s from a given artist, assuming you buy into Manship's opinion about the relative value of that artist's singles.**
  6. Originals or Reissues? The ultimate 45 collector's dream is to own pristine original pressings of the 45s that will make up his/her collection. However, not only will this prove to be a daunting task — one that will certainly keep your hobby alive for many years! — because pristine original 45s from the 1950s-60s (in particular) are very rare, but it will be a costly one as well. The value of original-pressing 45s in Mint condition continues to increase, and prices can range from $10 to well over $1,000, depending on the title. So, it's a good idea to incorporate high-quality reissues into your collecting strategy, since these often have the same 45 mix as on the original 45s, are easier to find, and cost much less. Reissue prices (for new or like new copies) generally range from about $4.00 to $15.00 or so. The difficulty with reissues is that quality varies; you can't always be sure you're getting the original mix (Mono is what you want up until about 1968), and some reissue labels are better mastered, producing much better sound.
    Here's a page that describes the various reissue labels and rates them according to quality and archival values.
  7. Clean your 45s well. Even brand new 45s should be cleaned before playing, so it goes without saying (yet I'm saying it anyway) that you should plan on cleaning any 45 you buy before subjecting your diamond stylus to it. The benefits are enormous, in my experience. How you clean the records is up to you, and you have basically two choices: The inexpensive, low-tech approach and the pricey, high-tech approach. At a minimum, you should plan on dampening a clean cotton cloth or sponge and wiping the 45 several times in a circular motion, being careful not to get moisture on the label. Follow this up with a good buffing with another clean cloth. Some records will be so dirty that you may need to repeat the process. When you no longer see dirt, film or other residue on the vinyl, but only scuffs, scratches and any other actual abrasions to the wax, you've done your job. If you have the money, there are many expensive record cleaning machines on the market that you can use instead of, or in addition to, the manual process. I recently reviewed the market for record cleaning machines (again) and found that nearly all of them are geared toward cleaning LPs. The best choice, which is also one of the least expensive, is the Nitty Gritty record cleaner. This type of machine lets you moisten the record and then uses an internal vacuum to suck the dirt out of the grooves. (Newer devices that use sonic waves to loosen dirt particles from the grooves are not suitable for 45 records at this time.) I use the top-end Nitty Gritty system, which moistens both sides of the 45 at the same time and then vacuums both sides simultaneously... a real time-saver. The main downside to this approach is the maintenance required over time: Specifically, the rubber capstan used on the device wears down after repeated use and must be replaced frequently (one or two months), and the velvet pads that moisten the record also need to be replaced periodically. But I can attest to the power of the vacuum: Many times I've had 45s that played with Near Mint audio (only a tiny bit of surface noise) get bumped up to Mint audio after a deep clean with the Nitty Gritty.

That said, keep in mind that the lists and guides are only guideposts to keep you from getting totally lost in the big, bad, wooly universe of 45 rpm records. The opinions of Dave Marsh, Kev Roberts, etc, do not necessarily reflect my own, and if I ever put together a list of the top 45s from the 1950s-80s, you can be sure of two things: (1) It will be a lot bigger than any existing list, and (2) the order and inclusion of songs will certainly differ.

Grading 45 Records

One of the most important things to remember when collecting 45s is that 45 record values are directly proportional to their grade. Grading 45 records (or any records, for that matter) is a difficult, necessarily somewhat subjective task. Unfortunately, there is no single good, easy to use grading system for records as there is for other collectables — comic books, for example. The most widely used grading system today is one put together many years ago by Goldmine magazine, which specializes in the record collecting hobby. Both eBay and Discogs have adopted the system, but sadly the Goldmine gradine guidelines are not well thought out, are hard to use, and cause more confusion for customers than necessary. At Classic 45s, we initiated a hopefully improved system 15 years ago, and that system has evolved continuously over time. Click here for a full description of the Classic 45s grading system.

The Classic 45s system assumes that collectors are seeking 45s as close to Mint as possible, and we define "Mint" the way the dictionary does: "New, like new." We also adopt the comic book guidelines' definition of "Mint," as in "Nearly perfect in every way." This is a major difference from the Goldmine system, which — for some reason lost to history now — defines "Mint" as "Absolutely perfect in every way." With such a definition, no record can be rightfully graded "Mint," since nothing is "absolutely perfect." The Classic 45s system uses "Mint" to help guide customers to records that are either "New, like new" or "nearly perfect in every way," since that, I believe, is what collectors are seeking.

Another problem with the Goldmine system is that it uses a single grade for the entire record, not accounting for 45s that may have perfect labels but lousy sound, 45s with written-on labels but Mint sound, or 45s with scuffed-up vinyl yet play Near Mint. To solve this, the Classic 45s system uses four grades for each record: One for the label, one for the vinyl, one for the audio, and one for the record overall. This gives customers a much clearer picture of the record, which is important since at an online store you cannot examine the record in person.

When you shop at antique stores or most record shops, the 45s show no grade at all, and you are left to "guess" at the overall condition by its appearance attributes. In such cases, if possible, ask the store if you can play the record to determine audio quality. To this end, you may find carrying a portable turntable a good idea when you shop at brick-and-morter stores. For even though a record may look brand new, it may have audio playback problems that are not apparent. This is especially true for "styrene" (polystyrene) 45s, which are actually quieter than vinyl when brand new but which are more fragile than vinyl 45s and easily damaged with poor playback equipment. One key indicator for styrene records is that they have glued-on paper labels, as opposed to vinyl records, which have the labels "pressed" or directly printed on them. Don't avoid styrene (well, you can't, since almost all 45s made by certain companies — Columbia and Epic, for example — were styrene), but be cautious when purchasing styrene 45s if you can't ascertain the audio quality.

Also keep in mind that if you are primarily interested in the audio quality of a 45 record, don't be put off by scuffed-up vinyl or damaged labels. Vinyl 45s (some companies used vinyl exclusively — Capitol Records, for example) can look lousy but still sound great. This is why you should always listen to your old Beatles or Beach Boys 45s before tossing them, since even if they've been abused they may retain highly listenable audio.

The bottom line is that you need to understand the grading system that's been used wherever you shop. Find out if the dealer "play grades" their 45s or if they grade by appearance alone. Unfortunately, in my experience, the number of dealers who grade the audio as well as the appearance of 45 records is a small minority. So be cautious if great sound is your main goal.

That said, one of the reasons the Classic 45s system uses 4 grades is that some collectors are primarily interested in the appearance of the label or the vinyl (or styrene), rather than the audio. Collectors whose primary goal motivation is appearance have it a bit easier than those primarily seeking the best possible audio, but once again be aware that very few dealers grade labels or vinyl separately from audio, so a record's overall grade may be misleading, especially if the dealer is using the Goldmine grading system.

A word about warps: Many collectors new to the 45 record hobby think warps are a reason to reject a given 45 out of hand. Let me weigh in to say that most 45s are warped to one degree or another, and you'll drive yourself crazy chasing after that perfectly flat 45. In my experience, most kinds of warps that you find on 45s do not affect the playback or audio, assuming your tonearm is weighted properly. There are, of course, exceptions, and you don't want a 45 whose warp causes the needle to jump or skip a track. But mild warps, which cause the 45 to spin with a bit of a "wave", or "bowl" warps, which cause the center of the 45 to "bowl" out, are not troublesome and should not be feared. It is perfectly possible for such a mildly warped 45 to have pristine Mint audio, and that should trump your desire for a perfectly flat platter. Further, there are many "home remedies" for flattening vinyl records, and you can try one of these if a given warp really troubles you visually. Just take care that you don't damage pristine sound through flattening. Of more concern to collectors are 45s that are pressed slightly off-center, causing a "wow" in the audio. Such mis-pressings should usually be avoided unless you're just filling a hole in your collection until a better copy comes along.

Bottom line: If you want great audio, you can't judge by appearance alone. If you don't have a portable turntable or any other way to judge audio, avoid 45s with stickers, writing, tears, or other damage to the labels, as such blemishes greatly reduce the record's value regardless of its sound. Also avoid 45s that appear to have scratches, serious warps, or other problems with the wax (vinyl or styrene), as this usually indicates a problem with the audio. Buy the best-looking 45s you can find, but be prepared to pick up a "filler" copy of a rare title in hopes of finding a better copy some day. And please keep a lookout for that rare record that appears to be in VG condition but which may be a treasure in disguise: I paid $1 for a fairly beat-up looking copy of a single recently that turned out to sound better than it looked, and more importantly, turned out to be worth well over $2,000 even in that condition. The key here was that I intrigued by the small Detroit label from the 1960s, a reason why label collecting is a useful strategy.

A note on pricing: Determining the price of a 45 is directly related to its grade. If a record has a book value of $50, that typically means a Near Mint copy. Truly Mint records commmand a premium above book values, whereas 45s in lesser condition get priced lower than book according to their grade. The $50 Near Mint record will be worth only half that much if it's in "EX" condition and only a quarter of that price in "VG" condition. By contrast, that same record in Mint condition will be worth $55-60.

Happy 45 Record Collecting!
Cheers,
Leland


* A point of misinformation: Many casual vinyl collectors (and even those who should know better, such as the, um, inexperienced techies who put together the Discogs website and its arcane guidelines for 45 records) seem to think that most 45s have worthless B sides. This could not be more wrong. With only a few exceptions (singles on Philles Records and some Bubblegum singles), 45s from the 1950s-70s typically have two of the artist's very best songs on them. That's because in the case of U.S. 45s from this period, it wasn't always easy to tell what the A side was (even promos), so 45s offered two great songs hoping one of them would become a hit. Today, any experienced 45 collector will tell you without reservation that B sides are a major reason they collect 45s, and that often the B side has turned out to be better—more enduring musically—than the "hit" side over the long run.

** The Manship Guide is skewed to Northern Soul 45s, meaning 45s popular in dance clubs in Northern Britain. Such music generally refers to U.S. Soul music arising from Detroit, especially Motown-sounding music, Chicago and New York, but there are many exceptions, with "Northern Soul" music also being recorded in Southern studios in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, New Orleans, etc. Where the Manship Guide falls flat is in trying to place valuations on what I loosely refer to as "Southern Soul" (covering genres such as Deep Soul and Funky Soul). For example, Otis Redding's biggest and most popular hit, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" doesn't even show up in the guide's list of Otis Redding singles on Volt. This implies the record is worth less than 10 pounds (about $15), yet I cannot keep the original 45 in stock at $25, and a Redding promo of that single will easily fetch $75 or more. Manship similarly under-values a good many RnB singles from the 1960s and doesn't even attempt to include many titles from the 1950s.

The Joy of 45 Collecting and this Website © 2016, Leland Scott, Classic 45s



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