Why disco made pop songs longer

Disco, DJs, and the impact of the 12-inch single.

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In the early 1970s, a musical sensation took over New York City. It was called Disco. Before Disco became synonymous with Saturday Night Fever, Rod Stewart, and celebrity-fueled parties, it was an underground movement powered by the innovations of young DJs challenging themselves and each other to throw the city’s most adventurous dance parties.

By 1973, their influence as musical taste makers became apparent, and a handful of unconventional dance tracks became pop crossover hits. With barely any radio airplay, songs like “Love Theme” and “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” became defining tracks of the disco era.

These songs were repetitive, hypnotic, and funky, and they were also pretty long compared to other pop hits. That presented a problem for DJs using 7-inch 45rpm singles, which fit only 3:30 minutes of quality audio on them, during their night-long sets. They needed a vinyl record that could make their most popular tracks sound powerful on a dance floor and last the whole night.

In 1976, an accidental studio discovery by Disco pioneer Tom Moulton provided the solution: A 12-inch single. By stretching one song across 12 inches of vinyl, a format typically reserved for full-length albums, those extended dance tracks had room to breath.

By the 1980s, the 12-inch single dominated pop music. It not only changed the sound of records, it allowed for music producers to experiment with length and structure.

SOURCES:

While I dug through hundreds of pages of billboard charts and oral histories of the disco era to research and write this piece a few select sources proved incredibly helpful and they are linked below. I highly recommend checking them out if you want to learn more about this story.

Books:
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster

Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979
by Tim Lawrence

Articles:
Mix Mag’s collection of stories on Disco and I Feel Love
https://mixmag.net/feature/the-master-patrick-cowley-created-the-definitive-i-feel-love-remix

Red Bull Music Academy’s Disco story archive:
https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/disco-collection

Note: The headline for this video has been updated since publishing.
Previous headline: The disco invention that changed pop music

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Some songs don’t just stick in your head, they change the music world forever. Join Estelle Caswell on a musical journey to discover the stories behind your favorite songs.

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Comment (44)

  1. Donna Summer – Packed the dancefloors, raised the bodyheat, rattles the glasses on the tables, left your ears ringing. By the time you walked off the dance floor you were drenched in sweat and felt giddy high…yeah, I WAS THERE!

  2. It's worth mentioning that 12" LP' ran at 33 1/3 RPM's. 12" singles ran at 45 RPM's. The groove velocity is important to the sound as well. Spinning it faster on a bigger record gives the audio more detail.

  3. Great work Vox… But I think the real story here is…. Dance Clubs.
    From what I understand, the music industry (business) was desperately trying to catch up with them.
    Dance Clubs is the heart of where real innovation was going on.
    The music industry only benefited from it.

  4. One manifestation of the change disco made to pop music that I remember was when tunes from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack began hitting the airwaves Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You" had a running time of 2:57 (which in the 60's was about average for a pop song), but many radio stations began extending it by repeating the second verse.

  5. NOTE : The American 7 inch had NO middle and required a plastic adaptor. European singles especially British ones came with a centre hole built in. The latter was more convenient but if the manufacturer made that hole slightly off IE too big by a tiny fraction you had to force it on and pull it off which could cause warping.

  6. How much streaming is now influencing the length of the tracks to be shorter? With modular synthesizer and other electronic music performances, the length of the performance is a bit less than 20mn. I recently released an ambient modular synthesizer album with 4 tracks of 15mn each. It feels like not the way to do music nowadays…

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