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The Return Of The B-Side Single

How An Old School Tool Of The Record Industry Is Making A Comeback In The Age Of Spotify

On February 7, 2017

Collectors of vinyl know the distinct pleasure of flipping a record over to the other side after the first half of the record is over. What might be considered an inconvenience to users who use modern music listening measures, the physical act of moving the turntable needle to the beginning of second side of the record can provide a sense of clarity, flipping to the next page of the story told through songs. The second side of a hit single 7” or 12” record can give one further appreciation for songs that weren’t destined to be hits on the radio, but hits to your ears all the same.

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“The B-Side,” among other terms, has been etched in music history since recordings were first composed with a mixture of shellac and slate dust in the late 19th century. The records, just by mere physical composition of being a flat disc, have been two sided. The music industry followed the time-tested tradition of using Side-A to include the most radio-friendly singles in an attempt to be “the hit,” while Side B consisted of tracks designed to act as supplementary material—songs that were good, but not quite good enough.

Instances of the B-Side performing better than the A-Side are plentiful across music history. “God Only Knows,” released by the Beach Boys in 1966 as a B-side to “Wouldn’t it be Nice” attained critical prowess with its use of inverted chord structures to accompany the lyrical theme of contemplating life after death. It’s considered by many all-time lists to be one of the greatest songs ever recorded and its legacy proved rock music to be more than just a fad—a true art form.

Bands like the Smiths would release entire albums filled with B-sides, and other bands would follow suit as a cash-grab to sell units off recordings not intended for major commercial releases. The B-side compilation albums were packaged in similar ways greatest hits albums were, but instead were intended to give hardcore fans the behind-the-scenes non-hits that got them closer to their beloved artists. 13 years after Kurt Cobain’s passing, David Geffen released a three-CD Nirvana boxset With the Lights Out consisting of old demos and unreleased material that ended up going platinum.

As music recordings phased out the A-Side/B-Side single format as the popularity of digital downloads and streams rose, the B-Side became less important and the term forged a whole new meaning altogether. Today, referring to something as a “B-Side” is commonly used when a song that isn’t good or popular.

"Today, referring to something as a “B-Side” is commonly used when a song that isn’t good or popular."

However, labels have brought back an old tradition to newer platforms that can be just as smart and profitable as it was in the old days: releasing two songs side-by-side. Record labels have come to realize that B-sides are now profitable--particularly thanks to streaming services-- and a way to get the most out of their artists on a yearly basis and to keep them in the spotlight in off-years during touring and recording seasons. There is also no need to initially press physical copies of the singles or B-side compilations anymore—unless it’s an unquestioned hit. Kendrick Lamar released a compilation of eight demo tracks for Untitled Unmastered in 2016, consisting of tracks that didn’t quite make it onto 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but still performed well commercially. The TPAB leftovers received universal critical acclaim and debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 178,000 units its first week. While not as successful as its origin, the B-side collection still fared mightily, even in the face of no promotional push.

In the same vein, many of the leftover tracks from Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 effort, Emotion were repurposed for Emotion: Side B. The blatant use of “Side B” as an adjective was to align itself with the original Emotion album, a commercial failure, but a critical darling. The album was present on every year-end list from Time to Pitchfork, jump starting a culmination of eight songs left over from Emotion to ride the wave generated by the appeal to its cult celebration on Twitter feeds and in music outlets. It was released only in digital download and in streaming formats. The physical CD and vinyl pressing were released exclusively through Jepsen's official website. Similar to its predecessor, it did not fare well in sum total album sales, but was a worthwhile effort to hold fans over until the next major release.

In an age of over-abundant music consumption where artists are given the lofty expectations to release an album every single year, the Kendrick Lamar/Carly Rae Jepsen way of using leftover content to appease fans another year until the next album comes out is a way to stay relevant. Kendrick Lamar’s effort was recognized with album sales and Carly Rae Jepsen’s wasn’t. In either case, it’s still a low cost, low risk way to keep fans and labels happy. For promotional singles, it can completely change the conversation. Ed Sheeran released two new songs together on January 6th. While not in the traditional A-Side/B-Side that was released in 7” records, but a bundled release all the same—”Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill,” one track with a pop-jam vibe and the other with a quick-tempo folk style-- the two tracks are specifically meant to appeal to both sides of Sheeran’s fan base. By releasing songs in this manner, it creates a new dialogue than releasing single songs. It shifts the talking point from “Is the song good?” to “Which track is your favorite?” Billboard even tweeted a poll for fans to decide which song was the favorite (“Castle on the Hill” won by the way, 3,202 votes to 3,069.)

Both of Sheeran’s songs completely blew away previous records for Spotify streams. “Shape of You” was played 6,868,642 times after it was released according to Warner Music, while its other side, “Castle On The Hill” was listened to 6,168,395 times. The previous record-holders, One Direction, had only eclipsed 4,759,698 back in July 31st of 2015.

Just a week prior to Sheeran’s double song release, one of country music’s most popular young stars, Sam Hunt, dropped a surprise set of songs on Soundcloud on New Year’s Eve called “Drinkin’ Too Much” and a stripped-down, acoustic version of the same song, entitled “Drinkin’ Too Much: 8pm.” While it may not be a conscious effort by Hunt to appeal to the pop charts, it still gives the audience a new talking point: “did you like the regular version, or the acoustic version of ‘Drinkin’ Too Much?” It also gives the song crossover appeal to both pop and country genres, which makes the most sense for a multidimensional artist like Hunt, whose 2014 album Montevallo went double platinum, and at the end of 2015, ranked at number one on the Top Country Albums chart and at number eleven on the Billboard 200 chart. Hunt wants to follow his last hit record with one that’s on a higher level, appealing to the music world at large. And he can do it.

Are A-Side/B-Side single releases the way of the future? It’s certainly a useful promotional tool, one that worked for several decades when physical records were bought and sold. Vinyl diehards will keep collecting singles, both old and new, and listening to both sides, A and B, some rare collector editions and some, just two songs on a piece of plastic. Labels today can use traditional A-Side/B-Side or double A-Side song releases to promote an album, because in the end, we all just want more music.

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Keith Evanson

Keith Evanson is pitching on the block like Nolan Ryan as an Iowa-based freelancer. He's ranting and raving on Twitter.

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