History is littered with dead audio formats, from Elcaset to 8-track tapes, wire recording to “talking rubber.” Yet so far, vinyl has consistently resisted going quietly into that good night. Today, unit sales are up 800 percent from ten years ago, and companies continue to produce turntables of all shapes and sizes (they even steal CES headlines from the latest Internet-of-whatever device).
So while we may no longer want them in our automobiles, in home record players appear to be thriving whether due to an appreciation of physical media, tactile rituals, or multi sensory experiences. And on this wave of modern record appreciation, one of the most obscure vinyl formats is getting a second lease on life thanks to Record Store Day.
If you’ve heard of 3” vinyl singles at all, you have the enigmatic frontman of The White Stripes to thank for that. Jack White’s label Third Man Records imported the tiny format from Japan nearly 15 years ago for a limited series of White Stripes singles. The original player—a cheap toy from Japanese maker Bandai—was abandoned almost as quickly as it launched. Outside of a few rabid White Stripes fans or Japan-o-philes willing to part with anywhere from a few hundred to as much two-thousand dollars on eBay, few in the US have even seen one, let alone listened to it.
Enter Crosley, a consumer electronics company most known for their kitschy, retro-styled portable record players. For the 2019 edition of this spring vinyl holiday, the company is teaming up with Record Store Day in an attempt to revive the short-lived miniature record format with a portable player dubbed “RSD3”. The new player will launch on Record Store Day—Saturday, April 13—with four collectable singles each from Third Man and punk stalwarts Epitaph Records.
Though many vinyl collectors are known to be rather enthusiastic, and the annual Record Store Day event generates tons of sales for independent record stores, for now the 3” format remains a curious footnote in the history of vinyl formats. Technical limitations put an upper limit its audio quality, the records themselves are quite rare, and this new turntable’s price isn’t far off from an entry-level, full-size model. Can vinyl’s surprising staying power really launch such a niche comeback in 2019?
The short, short history of 3” records
It should be no surprise that the 3” record format originated in Japan. Toyokasei, effectively the only record pressing plant of note in Japan, came up with the format in the early 2000s. The discs are molded from a thin layer of vinyl, which is fused to an ABS plastic substrate for added durability. Because of this, they only have sound on one side. And because of size constraints, the maximum length that can be reproduced is about three minutes.
Not the first rodeo
The 8ban format was far from the first attempt to market a portable record format. In 1967, Philco, a division of the Ford Motor Company, test-marketed the Hip Pocket 4” format. These were essentially 4” 45rpm flexi-discs marketed to teens and young adults as a cheaper, more portable alternative to vinyl records. They could ostensibly be carried in the back pocket of your flared corduroy hip-huggers. The records sold for just 69¢, and you could buy a portable Philco player with 10 Hip Pocket records for $24.95. But a rival manufacturer snagged a deal with The Beatles for its knockoff Pocket Discs, which were cheaper and sold in vending machines. Ultimately, the the flimsy format wasn’t very durable and couldn’t hold up to more than a dozen spins and the whole plan was canned after about a year on the market.
Toymaker Bandai—perhaps most well-known in the US for its Gundam mechs and toys—developed the decidedly lo-fi 8ban Player (pronounced “eight-ban”) to play the diminutive records and launched it in 2004. (The records are nominally 8cm in diameter, hence the “8ban” name.) Made of white and red plastic in a decidedly retro style, the players sold in Japan for 3129¥, roughly equivalent to $28 at the time. At least seven series of 8ban records were planned, though only three—including “Oldies: The Hits” from the likes of Judy Collins, Otis Redding, and The Monkees; a series of theme songs from anime and other Japanese shows from the magazine ; and a series of songs from the Japanese kids show —appear to be easily found on eBay. The tiny records sold for 367¥, or about $3.25, and they came “blind-bag” style, in a thin box indicating what series they were from, as well as a list of possible titles on the back. Otherwise, there was no way to know before buying exactly which song you would get. In this light, the experience wasn’t unlike buying trading cards or those tiny Tsum Tsum figurines.
In a moment of music nerd serendipity, Jack White had seen the 8ban player and the tiny records while on tour with The White Stripes in 2004. In a very idiosyncratic Jack White move, he came back from Japan and told his Third Man team that “we should press White Stripes singles in this format,” according to Third Man’s Ben Blackwell.
“We came up with a set of six White Stripes songs that fit the relatively short time limit of the format,” Blackwell told Ars. “We also planned to release a single that would exclusively be available in the 3” format, called ‘Top Special,’” he explained. “And since the Bandai player was already white and red and black, we arranged to buy 1,000 of them from Bandai. It was Jack’s idea to call it the ‘Triple Inchophone,’ even though the records aren’t exactly three inches.
“We spent months coordinating with Toyokasei to order the records and make covers,” Blackwell continued. “But when we asked Bandai to ship us the players, they told us they had all been destroyed. Apparently warehouse space in Japan is at such a premium that it makes more financial sense to get rid of overstocks than to let them sit in a warehouse.”
In other words, Bandai had discontinued the players already despite making a custom pink and black color for retailer HMV. Bandai had junked its remaining stock of the original red and white player that would’ve been perfect for The White Stripes brand at the time.
“We were like, ‘Oh, shit, we have 1,000 sets of singles!’” Blackwell said. “But Bandai came back and said they found 400 in a different warehouse, so we bought all 400. We got them just in time to debut them at the merch table at a White Stripes show at Coney Island in 2005. The player sold with six singles for $120, and the ‘Top Special’ single sold separately for $30.”
“But,” Blackwell said, “nobody bought any.”
Jack White posted a note about how the “Triple Inchophone” came to be on a White Stripes forum the next day, warning that “you can only buy them at our show so too bad internetists, you have to actually breath the same air as other people and converse and exchange currency in person.” The next night, fans swarmed the merch table. Interest was soon so rabid that the band had to limit how many sets it would sell each night.
Those 400 sets sold out, and the remaining 600 sets of singles eventually sold at White Stripes shows and at the Third Man Records storefront in Nashville. An eighth single, called “Denial Twist,” finally became available in January of 2006. Since the players had long sold out, Jack White decided he would personally give them away to fans that he met at shows.
According to Blackwell, not all 1,000 have been given away. “It’s just a really cool treat, if you encounter Jack White in person,” he told Ars.