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Why disco made pop songs longer

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

In the early 1970s, a musical sensation took over New York City: disco. Before the genre became synonymous with Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees, 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, DJs’ influence as musical tastemakers became apparent when songs they were introducing to the public became pop crossover hits. Tracks like “Love’s Theme” and “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” became defining tracks of the disco era.

These songs were repetitive, hypnotic, and funky. They were also quite long compared to other pop hits. This presented a problem for DJs, who were using 7-inch 45 rpm records. The 7-inch was the standard vinyl format for singles and could fit about three minutes and 30 seconds of good-quality audio — not big enough to hold these new disco singles.

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 long dance tracks had room to breathe.

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

The video above explores the roots of disco and the impact of the 12-inch single.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s Earworm series on Youtube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.

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