In recorded music, the terms A-side and B-side refer to the two sides of 7 inch vinyl records on which singles have been released since the 1950s. By extension from their usage to refer to the two physical sides of the disc, they have come to refer to the types of song conventionally placed on each side of the record. An A-side song is generally more prominent and more important than a B-side song, but the categorisation is loose, and is complicated by the several senses of the terms.
In the era of the 78 rpm shellac records A-sides and B-sides existed, but for the most part radio stations would play either side of the record. Neither the A_side nor the B_side was given any preference per se. Often more than one song was put on one side of the record, so these weren't even singles in the sense understood in later eras.
The terms came into popular use with the advent of 45 rpm vinyl records in the early 1950s. It became conventional to release "singles" containing two songs, one on each side of the record. At first, most record labels would randomly assign which song would be an A_side and which would be a B_side. Because of this, 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).
As time wore on, however, the convention for assigning songs to sides of the record changed. Generally, the song on the A-side was the song that the record company wanted radio stations to play. By the mid-1970s double-sided singles had become rare. B-sides had become the side of the record where non-album tracks or inferior recordings were placed.
The advent of cassette and compact disc singles in the late 1980s spelled the beginning of the end for A-sides. At first cassette singles would often have one song on each side of the cassette, matching the arrangement of vinyl records, but eventually cassette maxi-singles, containing more than two songs, became more popular. With the decline of cassette singles in the 1990s, the A-side/B-side dichotomy became virtually extinct, as the remaining dominant medium, the compact disc, lacks an equivalent physical distinction.
B-side songs are 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:
- a different (sometimes instrumental) version of the A-side
- another song from the same album, which the record company does not want to release on its own
- a song not considered good enough for the album
- a song that was stylistically unsuitable for the album
- a remix
On a few occasions, the B-side became the more popular song. This was usually because a DJ preferred the B_side to its A_side and played it instead. Then the B_side would in a sense become the A_side, by virtue of being the preferred side. Examples:
Even more rarely, both sides of the single would become hits. This feat was done repeatedly by some artists. Examples:
The flip side of a single does not necessarily contain B-side material. A single containing two songs of normal quality is referred to as a "double A-side". In reference to this convention, Marvin the Paranoid Android released a "double B-side" single in 1981.
On some reissued singles the A- and B-sides are by completely different artists, or two songs from different albums that would not normally have been released together. These were sometimes made for jukeboxes, as one record with two popular songs on it would make more money.
Other types of non-primary sound recording
B-sides are different from unreleased material, outtakes and demos. Unreleased material, for obvious reasons, usually doesn't see the light of day. On rare occasions, particularly for reissues, these songs are in fact placed on albums, often with that description after it. In an extreme case, singer Moby's DVD titled "18 B_Sides and DVD" featured 21 of them.
Outtakes are songs recorded for an album but, either for technical or artistic purposes, not included in the released album. They occasionally appear on reissues of albums, billed as "bonus tracks". Georgia group REM's album titled "Dead Letter Office", for example, is largely a collection of outtakes from their previous albums.
Demos are early versions of songs which, like "unreleased material", seldom see the light of day. Demos of songs often have additional or alternative verses. Often more demos than full songs are recorded, as an artist goes back and retools what is already present. Singers Moby, Prince, and Billy Corgan of now-defunct group Smashing Pumpkins are rumored to have large personal collections of demos.
On occasion, artists release albums of compiled B-sides and rare tracks, making it easier for fans to listen to new and unheard material from discontinued singles. Nirvana's Incesticide and The Smashing Pumpkins' Pisces Iscariot are examples.
Albums Featuring Extensive B-Sides