A-side and B-side
The A-side and B-side are the two sides of phonograph records and cassettes, and the terms have often been printed on the labels of two-sided music recordings. The A-side usually features a recording that its artist, producer, or record company intends to receive the initial promotional effort and radio airplay and hopefully become a hit record. The B-side (or "flip-side") is a secondary recording that typically receives less attention; although some B-sides have been as successful as, or more so than, their A-sides.
Use of this language has largely declined in the early 21st century, given that the music industry has transitioned away from analog recordings towards digital formats, such as CDs, downloads and streaming, which do not have physical sides. Nevertheless, some artists and labels continue to employ the terms A-side and B-side metaphorically to describe the type of content a particular release features, with B-side sometimes representing a "bonus" track or other material. The term B-side carries a more expansive definition in the K-pop industry, referring to all tracks in an album that are not marketed as title tracks.
The first sound recordings were produced in the late 19th century using cylinder records, which held approximately two minutes of audio stored upon a single round surface. One-sided disc records made of shellac co-existed with cylinders and had a similar capacity. In 1908, Columbia Records introduced double-sided recordings with one selection on each side in European markets. Although cylinders and discs remained comparable and competitive for a time (by 1910, both media were able to hold between three and four minutes of sound), discs ultimately superseded the cylinder format, rendering it obsolete by 1912, largely due to its shorter play times. By the mid-1920s, double-sided shellac discs playing at 78 rpm (and known as "78s") had become an industry standard.
Record producers did not initially have reason to value either side of double-sided records as being more important than the other. There were no record charts until the 1930s, and most radio stations did not broadcast recorded music until the 1950s, when the Top 40 radio format overtook full-service network radio). In June 1948, Columbia Records introduced the modern 331⁄3 rpm long-playing (LP) microgroove vinyl record for commercial sales, and its rival RCA Victor, responded the next year with the seven-inch 45 rpm vinylite record, which would quickly replace the 78 for single record releases. The term "single" came into popular use with the advent of vinyl records in the early 1950s. During this period, most record labels would designate one song an A-side and the other a B-side at random. (All records have specific identifiers for each side in addition to the catalog number for the record itself; the "A" side would typically be assigned a sequentially lower number.) Under this random system, many artists had so-called "double-sided hits", where both songs on a record made one of the national sales charts (in Billboard, Cashbox, or other magazines), or would be featured on jukeboxes in public places.
Conventions shifted in the early 1960s, at which point record companies started assigning the song they wanted radio stations to play to side A, as 45 rpm single records ("45s") dominated most markets in terms of cash sales in comparison to albums, which did not fare as well financially. Throughout the decade the industry would slowly shift to an album-driven paradigm for releasing new music; it was not until 1968 that the total production of albums on a unit basis finally surpassed that of singles in the United Kingdom. In the late 1960s, stereo versions of pop and rock songs began appearing on 45s. However, since the majority of the 45s were played on AM radio stations that were not yet equipped for stereo broadcast, stereo was not a priority. Nevertheless, FM rock stations did not like to play monaural content, so the record companies adopted a protocol for promotional recordings for disc jockeys with the mono version of a song on one side and a stereo version of the same song on the other. By the early 1970s, album sales had increased and double-sided hit singles had become rare. Record companies started to use singles as a means of promoting albums; they frequently placed album tracks that they wished to promote on side A and less accessible, non-album, instrumental songs on side B. In order to ensure that radio stations played the side that the record companies wanted to promote, they often marked one side of a record's label as a "plug side".
The distinction between the two sides became less meaningful after the introduction of cassettes and compact disc singles in the late 1980s when 45 rpm vinyl records began to decline. At first, cassette singles would often have one song on each side, matching the arrangement of vinyl records. Eventually though, cassette maxi-singles containing more than two songs became more popular. As the one-sided audio compact disc became the dominant recording medium in the late 1990s, cassettes began vanishing and the A-side/B-side dichotomy became virtually extinct. The term "B-side" continued to enjoy varying levels of use in reference to the "bonus" tracks or "coupling" tracks on a CD single.
In the last few decades, the industry has largely shifted away from physical media towards digital music distribution formats, further diminishing the relevance of terminology or marketing strategies based on "sides". Today, companies label non-album songs and tracks deemed less desirable or marketable using terms such as "unreleased", "bonus", "non-album", "rare", "outtakes", or "exclusive". Such material is sometimes grouped for downloading or streaming together into "bonus" or "extended" versions of an artist's albums on digital music platforms.
B-side songs may be released on the same record as a single to provide extra "value for money". There are several types of material commonly released in this way, including a different version (e.g., instrumental, a cappella, live, acoustic, remixed version or in another language), or, in a concept record, a song that does not fit into the story line.
Additionally, it was common in the 1960s and 1970s for longer songs, especially by soul, funk, and R&B acts, to be broken into two parts for single release. Examples of this include Ray Charles's "What'd I Say", the Isley Brothers' "Shout", and a number of records by James Brown, including "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud". Typically, "part one" would be the chart hit, while "part two" would be a continuation of the same performance. A notable example of a non-R&B hit with two parts was the single release of Don McLean's "American Pie". With the advent of the 12-inch single in the late 1970s, the part one/part two method of recording was largely abandoned. Modern-day examples include Fall Out Boy's EP My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade: The B-Sides.
Since both sides of a single received equal royalties, some composers deliberately arranged for their songs to be used as the B-sides of singles by popular artists. This became known as the "flipside racket". Similarly, it has also been alleged that owners of pirate radio stations operating off the British coast in the 1960s would buy the publishing rights to the B-sides of records they expected to be hits, and then plug the A-sides in the hope of driving up sales and increasing their share of the royalties.
Occasionally, the B-side of a single would become the more popular song. This sometimes occurred because a DJ preferred the B-side to its A-side and played it instead. Some examples include "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor (originally the B-side of "Substitute"), "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice (originally the B-side of "Play That Funky Music"), "I'll Be Around" by the Spinners (originally the B-side of "How Could I Let You Get Away") and "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart (originally the B-side of "Reason to Believe"). Probably the most well-known of these, however, is "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets (originally the B-side of "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town))".
The song "How Soon Is Now?" by the Smiths started out as the extra track on the 12-inch of "William, It Was Really Nothing" but later gained a separate release as an A-side in its own right, as did Oasis's "Acquiesce", which originally appeared as a B-side of "Some Might Say" in 1995, but gained subsequent release in 2006 as part of an EP to promote their forthcoming compilation album Stop the Clocks. Feeder in 2001 and 2005 had the B-sides "Just a Day" from "Seven Days in the Sun", and "Shatter" from "Tumble and Fall", released as A-sides after fan petitions and official website and fansite message board hype; they charted at No. 12 and No. 11 in the UK. In 1986, "Grass", the first single from XTC's album Skylarking, was eclipsed in the U.S. by its B-side, "Dear God" – so much so that the record was almost immediately re-released with one song ("Mermaid Smiled") removed and "Dear God" put in its place, the replacement becoming one of the band's better-known hits.
On many reissued singles, the A- and B-sides are two hit songs from different albums that were not originally released together, or even that are by entirely different artists. These were often made for the jukebox – for one record with two popular songs on it would make more money – or to promote one artist to the fans of another. It has even come about that new songs have been relegated to B-side status: for example, in 1981 Kraftwerk released their new single "Computer Love", its B-side being "The Model", from the band's 1978 album The Man-Machine. With synthpop increasingly dominating the UK charts, the single was re-released with the sides reversed. In early 1982 "The Model" reached number one.
A "double A-side" or "AA-side" is a single where both sides are designated the A-side, with no designated B-side; that is, both sides are prospective hit songs and neither side will be promoted over the other. In 1949, Savoy Records promoted a new single by one of its artists, Paul Williams' "House Rocker" and "He Knows How to Hucklebuck", as "The New Double Side Hit – Both Sides "A" Sides". In 1965, Billboard reported that due to a disagreement between EMI and John Lennon about which side of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" and "Day Tripper" single should be considered the A-side and receive the plugging, "EMI settled for a double-side promotion campaign—unique in Britain." They continued to use the format for the release of the singles "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine" in 1966, followed by "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" in 1967 and "Something" / "Come Together" in 1969. Other groups followed suit, notably the Rolling Stones in early 1967 with "Let's Spend the Night Together" / "Ruby Tuesday" as a double-A single.
A double-A-sided single is often confused with a single where both sides, the A and the B, became hits. Although many artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, the Beach Boys, Brenda Lee, and Pat Boone, routinely had hit singles where both sides of the 45 received airplay, these were not double A-sides. The charts below tally the instances for artists' singles where both sides were hits, not where both sides were designated an A-side upon manufacture and release. For instance "Don't Be Cruel", the B-side of "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley, became as big a hit as its A-side even though "Don't Be Cruel" was not the intended A-side when released in 1956. Reissues later in the 1960s (and after the Beatles' "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out") listed the single with both songs as the A-side. Also, for Cliff Richard's 1962 "The Next Time"/"Bachelor Boy", both sides were marketed as songs with chart potential, albeit with "Bachelor Boy" pressed as the B-side.
In the UK, before the advent of digital downloads, both A-sides were accredited with the same chart position, for the singles chart was compiled entirely from physical sales. In the UK, the biggest-selling non-charity single of all time was a double A-side, Wings' 1977 release "Mull of Kintyre"/"Girls' School", which sold over two million copies. It was also the UK Christmas No. 1 that year, one of only two occasions on which a double A-side has topped that chart, the other being Queen's 1991 re-release of "Bohemian Rhapsody" with "These Are the Days of Our Lives". Nirvana released "All Apologies" and "Rape Me" as a double A-side in 1993, and both songs are accredited as a hit on both the UK Singles Chart, and the Irish Singles Chart.
Occasionally double-A-sided singles were released with each side targeting a different market. During the late 1970s, for example, Dolly Parton released a number of double-A-sided singles, in which one side was released to pop radio, and the other side to country, including "Two Doors Down"/"It's All Wrong, But It's All Right" and "Baby I'm Burnin'"/"I Really Got the Feeling". In 1978, the Bee Gees also used this method when they released "Too Much Heaven" for the pop market and the flip side, "Rest Your Love on Me", which was aimed toward country stations.
Many artists continue to release double-A-sided singles outside of the US where it is seen as more popular. Examples of this include Oasis's "Little by Little"/"She Is Love" (2002), Bloc Party's "So Here We Are"/"Positive Tension" (2005) and Gorillaz's "El Mañana"/"Kids with Guns" (2006).
|Nat King Cole||19|
|The Everly Brothers||13|
|The Beach Boys||8|
|Creedence Clearwater Revival||7|
|Bill Haley & His Comets||6|
|The Rolling Stones||6|
- Perry Como (12) and Nat King Cole (19) both had additional double-sided singles on Billboard's pre-1955 charts.
|Creedence Clearwater Revival||6|
|Nat King Cole||5|
|The Beach Boys||5|
On vinyl, double-A-sided singles had one song on either side of the record, while double B-sides contained two songs on the same side (on the B-side, making three songs in all). When such singles were introduced in the 1970s, the popular term for them was "maxi single", though this term is now used more ambiguously for a variety of formats.
The concept of the B-side is so well-known that many performers have released humorous versions or commentary on the phenomenon, such as Paul and Linda McCartney's B-side to Linda McCartney's "Seaside Woman" (released under the alias Suzy and the Red Stripes) which is titled "B-Side to Seaside"; Blotto's 1981 single "When the Second Feature Starts" that features "The B-Side", a song about how bad B-sides are compared to A-sides; Three Dog Night's 1973 single "Shambala" with "Our 'B' Side", about the group wishing they could be trusted to write their own songs for single release; and the B-side of George Harrison's "I Don't Care Any More", which starts with Harrison saying, "We got a B-side to make, ladies and gentlemen so we better get on with it."
The term "b/w", an abbreviation of "backed with", is often used in listings to indicate the B-side of a record. The term "c/w", for "coupled with", is used similarly.
- Plasketes, George (January 28, 2013). B-Sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to Popular in Music, 1960 to the Present. Ashgate Publishing.
- "These Were The Top 50+ Best K-Pop B-Sides In 2020, According To Fans". Koreaboo. January 25, 2021. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
- MacDonald, p. 296
- Billboard (June 25, 1949). "Rhythm & Blues Records". Billboard. Vol. 61 no. 26. p. 30. ISSN 0006-2510.
Savoy and Paul Williams Lead Again with ... The New Double Side Hit – Both Sides 'A' Sides
- Hutchins, Chris. "Music Capitals of the World" Billboard December 4, 1965: 26
- 1977-12-24 Top 40 Official UK Singles Archive | Official Charts
- Nirvana – UK Singles Chart Archive officialcharts.com. Retrieved October 23, 2013.
- User needs to do an artist search for "Nirvana" irishcharts.ie. Retrieved October 23, 2013.
- Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955–2006, Record Research Inc., 2007
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- "The Straight Dope: In the record business, what do "b/w" and "c/w" mean?". Retrieved January 12, 2009.
- MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties – ISBN 1-84413-828-3
- "A History of the 45rpm record" Martland, Peter. EMI: The First 100 Years – ISBN 0-7134-6207-8