12 inch single dj grandmaster flash

A Brief History of the 12-inch Single Format

At around 1 million listings in the Discogs Database, the volume of the humble 12-inch single sits somewhere between the much less popular 10-inch at 300,000 listings and the 7-inch at 2 million. Nowadays, if you’re a casual collector, the appeal of the 12-inch may be somewhat of a mystery. They lack the portableness and uniqueness of the 7-inch and contain much less music than a traditional full-length LP at the same size.

Discogs as a catalog originally focused primarily on dance music 12-inch singles, so it’s only appropriate that we dig into the history of the record format, its current status in the Database, its dramatic fall in popularity over the years, and what we can expect in the future.

The Advent of the 12-inch

Coming to prominence in that mid-1970s disco era — 12-inch records were initially called “Disco Disks” — these singles were usually cut at 45 RPM with wider grooves, giving the songs more volume and power while allowing space on the B-side for extended cuts, remixes, and instrumentals. Producers enjoyed the freedom of stretching songs well past the previous 7-inch time constraints. DJs, the primary audience for the 12-inch, immediately loved the lengthier cuts filled with booming bass as they were ripe for a bangin’ time at the discotheque.

Interestingly, 12-inch singles were originally a fortuitous mistake. Tom Moulton, who was neither a DJ nor a musician at the time but is now known as “the father of the disco mix,” simply had the ear for a hit record and an immense passion for music. After making his name known by creating elongated mixes of funk, soul, and early disco hits, Moulton and mastering engineer José Rodriguez created the 12-inch out of necessity: they had to finish a mix by the end of the weekend and were out of 7-inch blanks. Moulton stretched out the grooves to fill in the 12-inch blank, and history was written.

While there are some conflicting reports on the very first 12-inch single, Moulton points to I’ll Be Holding On by Al Downing. Funnily enough, the Database has yet to receive an entry for the then-not-commercially-available 12-inch.

12-inch Singles in the Database

According to the Database, there are approximately 1 million 12-inch single listings spanning 1975 to the present day. The growth of the 12-inch in the mid- to late-70s was fast and furious, starting with 135 listings in 1975 and ending at over 10,000 by 1979. An initial dip in the early ’80s led to a glorious renaissance by 1985, with 12-inch singles averaging around 29,000 listings per year from 1985 to 1989. The 12-inch hit a high mark in the 2000s, just shy of 340,000 releases. The 1990s are only slightly behind, too, a mere 4,000 or so away from that 2000s topper. Here’s a look at the number of 12-inch single listing in Database ranked by decade:

If we dig a little deeper and sort by year, an interesting story emerges. The first half of the ’90s saw a steady increase in 12-inch listings, hitting a high in 1996 at 38,000 listings before settling at a steady pace of around 36,000 listings per year. Going into the 2000s, we see an even more substantial increase and another high mark: over 42,000 listings added in 2001. While no year has yet to break that record, 12-inch listings steadily decreased while still holding around 38,000 a year until 2007 when we see our first drop to under 30,000 (roughly 28,000) since 1992. Another two years later, the format witnessed another significant decline to 19,000 in 2009. The 2010s saw considerable decreases in listings, averaging around 15,000 listings per year with a slight increase to 16,000 from 2016 onwards.

Electronic Music and the 12-inch

The years 1995 to 2005 were undoubtedly halcyon days for the 12-inch, mostly thanks to a heavy focus on electronic music and DJing. At the aforementioned peak year of 2001, 35,000 electronic 12-inches were released. The second highest genre? Hip-hop with a mere 5,000. In terms of genre, there is no equal to electronic. Here are the top 10 years for 12-inch single listings ranked by year and divided by genre:

Yep, all electronic records. You’d have to go back to 1982 to find a year where electronic wasn’t the No. 1 genre, and you’d have to go back to 1986 to find the highest amount of listings in a genre other than electronic. (The most collected 12-inch single from that year? The Final Countdown by Europe!) As recent as last year, electronic music has held an extraordinary dominance over the format. So it’s reasonable to assume the popularity of the 12-inch, especially form 1995 to 2005, relied heavily on DJs spinning then-new electronic pressings.

Pioneer’s CDJ-300, the first CDJ (aka the device designed specifically for DJs), was first introduced in 1992 and it faced a steep battle in popularity against the classic turntable. That all changed in 2001 when the CDJ-1000 was released, which was Pioneer’s first product to feature coveted analog hallmarks such as the ability to scratch. It’s ironic that the first CDJ to make a massive impact on some of the biggest DJs was due to an unintended turntable function.

Is it any coincidence that the 12-inch single reached its zenith during the same year the CDJ-1000 was released? Doubtful. You can connect that steady decline in 12-inch releases throughout the 2000s to the CDJ-1000 and the massive drop in the 2010s thanks to the 2009 release of CDJ-2000, which allowed DJs to use MP3s via USB sticks, and 2011’s more refined CD-2000 NXS.

The Future of the 12-inch Single

What does the future hold for the 12-inch single? The drop in 12-inch releases could be attributed to both the decline in 12-inch singles actually made nowadays combined with the all-encompassing nature of the Discogs Database (as always, a big thank you to our many contributors!). While there’s always new-old music to find, what you see in the Database just might represent the vast majority of historical 12-inch releases.

With most DJs rocking some sort of digital set-up, combined with the prevalence of streaming, the 12-inch is, at best, a niche beloved by those in the know. At a steady rate of 16,000 new listings in the Database per year since 2016, the 12-inch definitely still has its fans! Just as we are still witnessing the vinyl boom and the small yet pronounced cassette revival, it’s safe to assume there will always be a place for 12-inch singles as long as our passion for physical media remains.

If you need some classic 12-inch suggestions to add to your collection, we got you covered. Have a 12-inch that isn’t in the Database yet? We’re always ready for new submissions.

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19 Comments
  • Jul 19,2020 at 14:35

    As a former record pool feedback coordinator in the late 70s-early 80s, labels generally sent only 12″ singles, not full albums (assuming an LP was available), to pools to control which album cuts were being played in the clubs and in what order to maximize the number of “hit singles” for the artist.

  • Jul 13,2020 at 22:00

    I echo the comments already made about the absence and recognition of reggae in this article. As a life long collector of reggae with 7” 10” & 12” records and buying my first 12” in 1976 (U Roy’s Small Axe) l get optimistic when l see headings such as this article and dismayed part way through and at the end with the realisation that the music the l love is totally ignored.

  • Jul 11,2020 at 13:39

    Tip for the writer: the graphs used in the article are a bit, well, ‘suboptimal’. When you order chronologically, you can easily spot a trend from the graph.

  • Jul 11,2020 at 04:11

    At All Music Guide we used to say that the problem with milestones is that they’re only milestones until somebody comes along with something earlier to debunk them. I think we see a really good example of that in this thread. UD

  • Jul 9,2020 at 22:44

    A discussion of the 12 inch 45 rpm format should include a look at EMI’s Angel 45 Sonic Series which they describe, I believe accurately, as providing “…greater clarity of transient and high frequency response, better definition of mid-range voicing, greater ability to accommodate sound below 100 Hz, more overall level, [and] higher peak dynamic events due to measurably larger groove geometry during the cutting process.” Or as you wrote, wider grooves with more volume and power.

    I was totally convinced of this by their Brandenburg Concertos, DSSC-4504, release (https://www.discogs.com/Johann-Sebastian-BachLos-Angeles-Chamber-Orchestra-Gerard-Schwarz-The-Six-Brandenburg-Concertos/release/3307566) when I first heard it in 1980. Still an excellent listen.

    Also, the late 70’s and 80’s saw a lot of New Wave extended mixes, and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has issued many highly praised albums in the 12 inch 45 rpm format.

    The decreased length per side aside, a very good format for those interested in quality.

  • Jul 9,2020 at 16:36

    Why no reference to Reggae at all!!!! Reggae provided so much influence on the 12 inch single, with the fatter bass due to the wider grooves providing extra appeal at the dances.

  • Jul 9,2020 at 15:31

    Once again, another article doing it’s best to discredit Reggae & rewrite history. Nice try.

  • Jul 9,2020 at 15:09

    Attention:

    AUSTRALIA WINS – The first proper 12″ remix and release was Marty Rhone’s “Mean Pair Of Jeans” remixed in 1974 and released in 1975.

    The single was 3.30 and the remix was 6 mins.

    https://www.discogs.com/Marty-Rhone-A-Mean-Pair-Of-Jeans/release/8408875

  • Jul 9,2020 at 14:56

    I’m a big fan of singles and have more 7”, 10” and 12” singles than albums. I even recently acquired an 8” single, which I didn’t realise even existed! I have some tracks on 7” and 12” and I very often find that the 12” sounds far better (I’m very much an amateur but guess it is to do with the track angle or something?)

  • Jul 9,2020 at 08:13

    Like Paul Wateridge above, I am surprised by the lack of mention for Reggae 12″ releases. The first Reggae 12″ was released by Channel One in 1975. It is “Truly” by the Jayes. I believe it predates any 12″ coming from America. Jamaican influence on American music and vice versa was going on for decades. Witness DJ Herc and the beginning of Hip Hop.

  • Jul 9,2020 at 06:41

    https://discogs.com/user/djbryanc points out the key factor in the release of the 12″ format.
    Here in Toronto Canada, the 12″ version was primarily released by the major record labels to radio station jocks, club DJs and dance music record pools as a tool in breaking and selling their new singles.
    At the start, these special remixed and/or extended versions created with the dance-floor in mind were only available as ‘For Promotional Use Only’ copies and handed out to DJs.

    Since these remixes and extended versions were only available on the 12″ versions, needless to say they became not only a staple but an exciting tool for DJs who embraced this new format.
    Obviously the sound quality of these pressings were close to ‘audiophile’ standard containing a dynamic range (especially in the bass frequencies) so that DJs could play them at a loud volume in the clubs without any distortions in sound!

    ‘DJs have 12 inches or More’ and ’12 inches of Pleasure’ was the time when the 12″ ruled the DJ industry and DJs like myself immediately became junkies and addicts to the 12″ format and eagerly awaited new releases each week.

    As a brief history, in March 1970, Cycle/Ampex Records test-marketed a 12″ single by Buddy Fite, featuring “Glad Rag Doll” backed with “For Once In My Life” and was sold for 98 cents a copy at two Tower Records stores.
    Notably, famed disco mixer Tom Moulton took the first steps in the production of 12″ dance releases. His innovative remixing of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘Honey Bee/Never Can Say Goodbye/Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ was an 18-minute mix optimised for dancing and was the very first “DJ mix” to appear on vinyl.
    As the 12″ versions boomed, there were no restrictions of genres of music appearing on these releases. From the advent of disco music in the 1970s and the hundreds of 12″singles issued in Jamaica, remixed versions of singles from Rock and Pop artists were made available commercially.

    Then the CD Single/maxi-single format was introduced in the mid-1980s for the DJ market with the Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” reportedly being the world’s first CD single.
    By the 1990s this then was pretty much the demise of the 12″ vinyl format.

  • Jul 9,2020 at 05:53

    Me too! ALthough the very first versions of this were (of course) Ten Per Cent (not Ten Percent).

  • Jul 9,2020 at 02:15

    The first pioneer CDJ was not the CDJ300 it was the CDJ500. The year was 1992 and I bought 2 of them and very expensive they were too. They both still work to this day 28 years later. I don’t use them now I went back to vinyl long ago.

  • Jul 9,2020 at 01:30

    The first test of a 12″ single I could find was in Billboard March 14 1970 !!!
    It was to see if people would move away from the traditional 45’s and who knew what would happen.
    Sorry about the link but the stuff is copyrighted so I cannot reproduce
    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NSgEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA4&lpg=PA4&dq=tower+tests+market+12%22+single+1970&source=bl&ots=7azGx014Y9&sig=ACfU3U0HY3JopVZRoQp9mEuSrcIk3ljVRw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjvj4Sc37_qAhUCuHEKHQibBvgQ6AEwCnoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=tower%20tests%20market%2012%22%20single%201970&f=false

  • Jul 8,2020 at 18:59

    I too thought the Who’s “Substitute” (Polydor Records) was up there with the initial 12″ releases although I always suspected that this accolade went to their release being the first Rock/Pop release in the 12″ format. Still have my original copy and love it!

  • Jul 8,2020 at 15:40

    You forgot about one key part of 12″ history…the record pools, the key reason they kept being made

  • Jul 8,2020 at 13:22

    To add to the comments above, I am surprised at no reference to the Reggae – Dub 12″ Records released from the late ’80’s onwards. There are a lot of Classic 12″ singles out there that were only pressed in quantities of a few thousand.

  • Jul 8,2020 at 13:02

    I always thought it was Substitute by The Who

  • Jul 7,2020 at 09:41

    Good article but i’m surprised it hasn’t mentioned Ten Percent by Double Exposure which was supposedly the very first commercial 12″ release. My own record collection began with buying 12″ singles in the 1980’s (mostly electronic dance orientated)and I continue to buy them to this day although the number of new releases available commercially has dropped off markedly since around 2006. Due to the limited runs of most new 12″ releases nowadays they cost a bit more than the standard £3.99 from HMV as most used to be…collecting has got a lot more expensive!

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