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Record label ends single production

A major record label which is home to U2 and Arcade Fire has signalled the end of an era for music fans by stopping the production of singles, except for "rare exceptions".

Mercury Records will no longer schedule CD and vinyl versions of singles and will now rely almost entirely on downloads.

The company will only create physical versions when it is guaranteed to make a profit, after it lost money on them as a whole last year.

Label bosses have stopped lining up physical versions of singles with immediate effect, unless there is an "exceptional circumstance".

Ironically, Mercury is home to Sir Elton John, whose Candle In the Wind '97 is still the biggest selling single of all time in the UK. And Sir Paul McCartney, who played on and owns the world's most valuable single, a one-off pressing of That'll Be the Day by his pre-Beatles band The Quarry Men, saw his most recent live album released by Mercury.

It comes as physical sales make up an ever-dwindling proportion of the chart, usually well below 1%. In one recent week, combined vinyl and CD sales in the top 50 totalled only 2,292 - just 0.16%.

Mercury's move marks a symbolic end to the days of music fans heading to record shops and poring over the cover of their seven-inch single or CD sleeve. The 45rpm single was first introduced in 1949 and has been produced ever since, although sales have been pummelled first by the rise of the CD and then the supremacy of downloads.

With the drop in demand, singles have been increasingly difficult to buy on the high street. One of the biggest retailers, Woolworths, has already disappeared and struggling music firm HMV has been devoting more and more of its shop space to DVDs. Despite regular suggestions of the return of vinyl, sales are still tiny - and falling.

Figures compiled by the Official Charts Company earlier this year showed they have now hit rock bottom. While total seven-inch sales amounted to more than a million in 2006, that figure was down 85% to just 152,000 last year. Twelve-inch singles have fared even worse, down from 1.3 million to just 67,000 in four years.

Although overall singles sales have grown hugely each year since 2006, from 66.9 million to 161.8 million, those figures actually include sales of all individually downloaded tracks, in addition to those formally released as "singles".

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