There used to be a time where I’d be talking to my friends and say “EP” and everyone would start saying “Phoooooone hoooome”. That time is usually referred to as “the past fifteen years or so”. So let me bring us all up to speed; an EP (short for “extended play”) is one of the three mediums used to release music; the others being the single and the album. Without boring you with the history (short version: all three terms date back to vinyl records), an EP is basically the middle child of the two: more material than the lone single, but leaner than a proper album. Since vinyl phased out, EPs have been used as afterthoughts; throw down a new song or three, tack on some live cuts of old favorites, give it a low-key release, and you’re done. Alternatively, new artists recently signed to labels make an EP to test the waters for a proper album. Basically, EPs have become reserved for die-hard fans or music geeks.
In the past year, we’ve seen big artists start dropping EPs. The alpha example is Lady Gaga, whose EP The Fame Monster affirmed the pop megastar status that her lackluster The Fame implied. Usher also released Versus to compliment Raymond V. Raymond a few months back, and as I learned today (to my disdain), Ke$ha is releasing Cannibal with Animal. Rihanna has something similar going on with Loud, but that has enough material to put it into Album territory (Rated R just came out in 2009).
So why the change in tactics? Why is the method used by no-names and undergrounders gaining more mainstream use?
I might have an answer. Pop artists’ album sales are declining. And usually, there are at least some duds in a 13-16 song album. In the whole digital distribution fiasco, iTunes’ pick ‘n choose individual download friendly tactic has become the norm for pop music. That means that in a lot of cases, you’re able to look at an album, download the singles and a handful of the album tracks, and be done.
Boy, wouldn’t it be great if the artists just cut the filler out and put their best material forward? Like, the best twenty to thirty minutes of music? The best seven or eight songs?
Because that’s exactly what an EP is. With an EP, artists are able to streamline their best ideas and not pad out the rest with filler. It fits iTunes to a tee, too: fewer songs, lower price.
But there are downsides: EPs aren’t the norm for a reason. Building an EP as a main event means you’re delivering a slimmer package with less room for experimentation, which can lead to musical stagnation and fewer new ideas. Also, EPs every 10 months to a year means less turnaround for touring, and breathing room. If you keep it up, it also gets your fans used to new music, and when you fall behind, they leave you (but that barely scratches the surface on today’s instant-gratification problem in music). An EP won’t be a saving grace for artists that can’t sustain quality for a full album either; they can still feel very underwhelming.
But since an EP is the happy middle of an album and a single, I do think we’ll see more of them in the future. Hopefully they’ll be good.