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Is this difference between individual bonds and bond mutual funds significant enough to warrant my attention?

Yes. As you pointed out the two are not equivalents and thus need to be treated differently. Bond funds have their issues that need to be mitigated. Holding individual bonds has its issues that need to be mitigated. If you understand the risk of either or both then you are half way to managing those risk in a prudent manner.

how can an individual investor buy single bonds without paying huge premiums?

Careful shopping with the right discount brokers and it is not overly brutal. Its not as neat and clean, spreads are far more variable, as stock buying but it is easily workable.

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