The simple power of b-sides

The digital native generation has never experienced owning music in the form of a physical tape or disc. CD’s have become relics, as useless as 8-track tapes. Growing up in the 80’s (the heyday of the cassette tape), moving to CD’s in the 90’s, and then to streaming radio, podcasts, and downloads in the last decade, I have to acknowledge the leaps & bounds that the music industry has made in improving the quality, portability, and durability of their product. However, since I spend a decent amount of my time listening to DJ’s playing old vinyl, I sometimes ponder other aspects of what was better, worse, or just different with the old modes of distribution.

One big difference: iTunes lets you buy any single song, one at a time. We’ve always had singles, and record companies have always pushed individual songs rather than whole albums, but we’ve lost an important piece of the concept: the b-side.

B-sides gave artists a chance to show you something different. They knew you were buying the single for the a-side, and that you’d buy it no matter what was on the flip side of it. So the b-side gave artists the freedom to experiment, and show you a side of their personality that was a little less of a surefire hit.

Full albums could also show off an artists’ range, but they didn’t have the same power to highlight an individual song. With a single, whether it was a 45 rpm record or a cassette single, your attention was drawn simply to just two focal points: the main hit that was being pushed, and one other “why don’t you check this out” suggestion. In most albums, it’s easy to pick out the intended hit songs, but harder to distinguish the potential sleeper hits from the lower-quality filler songs.

Several times I’ve heard DJ’s talk about the b-side of a 45 taking off as a surprise hit, leaving the a-side in the dust and sometimes even launching or redefining the artists career. Would that be possible today? Maybe the wisdom of the crowd could succeed in anointing a deserving #2 track, but there’s something lost, I think.

From a quick google search, it looks like Apple tried a “digital 45” concept in 2009, but I don’t see any recent mentions of it.

In my job as development director at Numara Software, we sometimes debate the packaging of new features and fixes, whether to release them in yearly big releases (like albums), in a steady stream of individual improvements (such as I see Google doing with their apps that I use), or somewhere in the middle, such as smaller releases containing just a couple of enhancements and a small number of fixes. It seems to me that the “somewhere in the middle” has a lot of power for both the vendor and the customer, much like the 45. Imagine if every release only had 2-3 features. It would force the vendor to make sure that every feature is great, because with only a couple of features in the release, every feature is in the limelight. In return, it gives the vendor a powerful chance to draw attention to a “sleeper hit” type of feature that might otherwise be obscured in a pages-long list of what’s new.