RCA’S FIRST “EP” WASN’T WHAT YOU THINK! Three years before they signed Elvis Presley, RCA Victor introduced record-buyers to the 45 rpm, extended-play EP record. This new format was an extension of their 45 rpm single that had been launched in 1949. That format had been devised to sally forth into the marketplace and do battle with Columbia’s 33⅓ rpm long-playing LP album.
In 1952, RCA was trying to whittle away at Columbia’s growing album sales so they introduced the “extended play 45” record. This new format had finer grooves than their 45 rpm singles that allowed up to eight minutes of playing time per side. Each EP record was housed in a cardboard jacket similar to an LP.
RCA hoped this more affordable mini-LP would draw customers away from Columbia’s more expensive LP. The so-called “Battle of the Speeds” lasted only a few years and ended up a draw as both the LP and the 45 became the industry norms. 1
The Battle of the Speeds between Columbia’s 33⅓ rpm LP and RCA Victor’s 45 rpm single ended a draw as both formats became industry norms.
Below you will find nineteen pages of advertising that RCA Victor ran in the October 25, 1952, issue of Billboard. Each page was a full-page in that over-sized magazine, making it an impressive and expensive ad campaign. I am posting these pages as they help to settle three questions about the format:
1. When did RCA Victor introduce the 45 rpm, extended-play record?
2. What did RCA Victor suggest as a retail price for this new format?
3. What did RCA Victor call this new format?
On March 23, 1956, RCA Victor released three Elvis Presley albums simultaneously: one LP and two EPs. All three were titled “Elvis Presley” and bore the same cover art and shared from the same pool of recordings. The single-record EPA-747 quickly sold 400,000 copies, giving the format its first real best-seller. 2
Extended-play economy packages
Aside from those three questions, I assembled this post to show readers how charming and effective advertising can be using simple, cartoon-like line-drawings! Here are the answers to the three questions:
1. RCA Victor introduced the 45 rpm, extended-play record in 1952, not quite three years after the 45 rpm single.
2. RCA Victor’s initial EPs from earlier in the year had carried a suggested retail price of $1.49 for single-record pop titles but that price was lowered to $1.40 with this October ad campaign.
3. RCA Victor referred to this format as an “extended play 45” and a “45 rpm single-record album.” In later ads, they referred to it as an “economy package.”
By the time Presley signed with Victor, the price of EPs had come down to $1.29! This was indeed an economy package as purchasing four sides on two singles would have cost almost two dollars! The price for EPs remained at $1.29 until the format was finally discontinued by RCA in 1969.
EPB-1254 was the only two-record Elvis EP album that RCA Victor released to the general retail marketplace. It sold a respectable 150,000 copies, which may be the most ever by a two-record EP in the US. Later in 1956, they did a second two-record EP along with a three-record EP (SPD-22 and SPD-23, respectively), although they were used as bonuses with the purchase of an RCAVictrola record-player. 2
Evolution and expansion
The RCA Victor ad campaign began on page 27 of Billboard and was titled “Evolution And Expansion – A Review of the RCA Victor Fall/Winter 1952 program.” Three more pages of articles follow that addressed the record company and its product, many of them were about the new EP format. The articles end on page 52 with a catalog of EPs that provided “Music to Play on Christmas Day.”
On the reproductions of the pages below, I included the original Billboard page number below each image. The images are small but if you click on them, they expand to 600 x 800 pixels. Even then, the text in the ads may not be readable. Should you want to read the teeny weeny print, click HERE.
In early 1952, RCA Victor issued both one-record and two-record EP albums as part of their inaugural releases. The artist that RCA Victor chose for the first two-record EP was Beatrice Kay (EPB-3000), a pop singer who is all but forgotten today. But Kay’s career began in 1913 when she was 6 years old and lasted until 1974. Along with being a recording artist, she also starred in vaudeville, radio, movies, and television.
Decline and deletion
The extended-play album never really caught on in a big way in the US. The only EPs have passed the million mark in sales and been certified as million-sellers by the RIAA were both by Elvis:
• Elvis – Volume 1 (EPA-992, 1956)
• Jailhouse Rock (EPA-4114, 1957) 3
The Beatles self-titled album on Vee-Jay (VJEP-1-903) probably sold a million in 1964 but was never certified by the RIAA and the requisite documentation for that certification is long gone. 4
Finally, in his book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, Richard Osborne summed up the life and times of the EP albums with three sentences on page 106:
“Its main advantages were soon perceived to be the format’s lower price than the LP as well as its ability to house the best songs from an LP, or, alternatively, four previous hit singles. Populated with previously released material, the EP found it hard to produce an individual identity and sales never matched those of the cheaper two-track, seven-inch single. Moreover, the EP failed to match the single’s public performance ability due to the fact that its narrower grooves rendered it a quieter format.”The Battle of the Speeds in the early 1950s between Columbia’s 33⅓ rpm LP and RCA Victor’s 45 rpm records ended up a draw as both formats became industry norms. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The drawing at the top of this page is by an uncredited artist, possibly a member of RCA’s art or promotional department. Art such as this was standard fare for advertising and general illustrations in magazines of all stripes back in the ’50s. This figure was cropped from page 31 of the RCA Victor ad campaign. I darkened the image a few degrees so that it contrasts with the white background of the page.
1 The EP format quickly adopted two-tracks-per-side as the norm for pop music, meaning most EPs had about five minutes per side.
2 The Beatles 1967 Magical Mystery Tour was a two-record EP that easily passed the million mark in global sales. Unfortunately, as the EP format was considered dead in the US, it was not issued here. RCA Victor issued a second Elvis two-record EP along with a three-record EP (SPD-22 and SPD-23, respectively), although these were intended as giveaways with the purchase of an RCA Victrola record-player.
3 Aside from those two, fourteen other Elvis EPs have been certified by the RIAA for Gold or Platinum Record Awards.
4 At the height of Beatlemania, Capitol released two attractive Beatles EPs with the almost identical titles of Four By The Beatles and 4-By The Beatles. Despite everything else with their names on it selling millions of copies at that time, these two records tanked.