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How the EP Killed the LP Star

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Thanks to digital streaming, YouTube, Record Store Day, and any other distribution platform out there not named MTV, more than ever, music comes at us fast, furious, and in bite-sized pieces.

Artists don’t take time off between albums anymore. Instead, they’ll throw out a random single that may or may not be tied to any forthcoming album. Beck just did it a few years back with the tandem of “Dreams” and “Wow,” well before he included them on his eventual album Colours.

“Luminous moose” aside, he’s not alone. Artists are now releasing new music like social media posts on sites like SoundCloud. The music industry has basically become its own form of social media, as fans have come to expect rapid fire releases from their favorite artists, and it’s changing the way we experience musical media.

It would seem that EPs have become the new LP. Less is more, and more of less is king. We want it faster, stronger, and shorter, no filler and no filter. This notion is probably why Sheryl Crow announced on July 2 that she’s going to stop making full-length albums and only put out tunes in bits and pieces from now on. Why? Crow told Billboard:

“Albums as an art form are a bit of a dying art form.”

Today’s artists release new material right away, and don’t always write songs with the intention of joining them together with 10 other to form a cohesive work. Rather than burn valuable hours in the studio padding out what might be a full-length, they just take their best stuff and put it out into the universe immediately. It may serve as a “proof of concept,” a way to test the waters before spending extra time developing more songs in the same vein.

But some artists have gone even further with the slimmer “Extended Play” (EP) format.

In 2016, Nine Inch Nails announced they’d be producing a trilogy of EPs, and released the final installment Bad Witch this summer (though there’s some debate as to whether, at 30 minutes, the end of the trilogy counts as an EP or LP). Also recently, Kanye West dropped Ye, a 24-minute full release that can only be categorized as an EP.

Despite its rising success over the past 25 years, the EP has been around for quite some time. The first ones landed in the 1950s as seven-inch vinyl EPs with just under 15 minutes of music. As time went on, the lengths and formats of EPs changed and more variation came in. But it was still generally accepted that EPs were mini-versions of an album.

They were sort of an appetizer versus buying the whole meal; for the most part, EPs were retreads. They featured the hits, and not much more. In the 1960s and 1970s, essentially glorified and expanded singles, they were mostly used for jukeboxes and promotional not-for-sale sample applications like radio play.

They sold decently, especially in the UK, and eventually artists including Buzzcocks, Devo, and Kate Bush used them to break through on. By the 1970s, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recognized them as up to five tracks that are under 30 minutes. In other words, EPs weren’t singles, and they weren’t LPs. Then Alice in Chains changed everything.

In 1994, the Seattle grunge icons hit #1 on the Billboard Album Charts with their Jar of Flies EP, the first time an EP had ever charted that high. And subsequently the term “EP” became a household term. Although artists like Elvis and the Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour) had released EPs in the past, and Disney had even released some story-and-song records for kids in this format, the success of Jar of Flies really helped the music buying public see this format as something worthy of attention.

Jar of Flies also paved the way for artists like the Strokes, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, and so many others to push the needle further. Think about it: Would there have been a Linkin Park and Jay-Z Collision Course without Jar of Flies or would they have abandoned all that is good and holy and cooked up a full-length instead?

OK, let’s not think about that. What is true is that in this millennium, some of the best releases, some that will certainly stand the test of time, have come as EPs. Even the “internet’s busiest music nerd” Anthony Fantano, started noticing a general trend towards the short stuff back in 2010.

They’re still used in gimmicky ways, like for custom Record Store Day releases, short-run limited edition pieces, Japan import albums, tour-only EPs, etc. But more new, original music is being released to wider and wider audiences on this format now, and it’s altering our need for our favorite songs to be part of a larger collection.

The bottom line is, like print publications, the LP might be slowly fading in plain sight. To quote Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell,” off their EP, “we face the path of time.”

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Jon Chattman
Jon Chattman

Jon Chattman has shared a Reuben sandwich with Randy “Macho Man” Savage, somehow ignited Snoop Dogg to sing Dean Martin, and questioned Meryl Streep on what she’d do during a zombie apocalypse. He has written for a variety of outlets including Huffington Post, Inked Magazine, and USA Today, and runs his own music series (“A-Sides”), which has drawn such acts as Gary Clark, Jr., Imagine Dragons, Sleigh Bells, Joe Perry, and Alice Cooper, to name just a few.

  • G L Wilson

    The history of the EP as explained here is highly suspect. And that “Alice in Chains changed everything” remark. Really?