An essay by Martin Hjorth
EP is an abbreviation of “extended play”, which basically means that we’re confused from the beginning. It may have made sense when we defined different kinds of musical releases based on what actually fit on a particular vinyl. Back in the days, the EP used to be a 7” that contained more songs than the typical single. So far so good.
Before I go on, I should perhaps say that some of my favourite records are EPs. I even released a few EPs myself, so I’m not trying to run this format into the ground. But what is an EP in 2013, and which problems do we encounter when speaking of this format? Let’s start by taking a look at what it’s not.
A friend once said that an EP is merely “a demo with better recordings”. I don’t agree, but symbolically there is some truth to this. I’ll get back to that. Can it then be considered the same as an LP, simply shorter? Again, this simply isn’t possible from a symbolic point of view.
Nowadays, you’ll come across EPs that contain one song in three different versions: An original recording, a remix and a live version – or perhaps an instrumental version. That is basically the same as calling something a “festival” even though it’s only one night. So why not just call it a single instead of an EP? Let’s have a look at this idea of quantity.
After that clumsy headline, let’s have a look at some examples. You might remember the debut EPs by rock bands such as Arcade Fire, Interpol, Vampire Weekend and Tokyo Police Club. These served to build a certain hype before the bands (or labels) were ready to record and/or release their respective debut LPs, which would be known as the official “debut albums”. So in terms of marketing, their EPs weren’t “real” as these weren’t really the “debut”. They were EPs, but the bands released something more “real” when it was an LP? Huh!
This is, however, not to say that many journalists and fans don’t pick up on this; many writers are good at clarifying what kind of debut they’re speaking of (first release, first full-length, first major label album etc.). Let’s stick to Tokyo Police Club for a second. They released their first EP, “A Lesson in Crime”, in 2006, containing 8 songs and a total length of about 16 minutes. Three of these songs were released as singles. Three singles on one EP! In 2007 they released a second EP called “Smith EP”, which originally contained only 3 songs. Back then, Adam Moerder wrote the following in his review on Pitchfork:
“Oh, what a coy temptress is this Tokyo Police Club. With only about 20 minutes of released material under their belt, [they’ve] generated a tidal wave of well-deserved hype... as the indie world collectively holds its breath for the TPC full-length, they first punch us in the gut with the “Smith” EP, a three-song, eight-minute release that could pass for a free iTunes preview.”
Besides serving as an example of building hype through the EP format before releasing the “real” debut album, these EPs also serve as an example of how many tracks you can put on an EP and still release it as the same format. The “Smith” EP was, by the way, initially only released digitally. Personally, I always thought of their first EP as a sort of “mini album” rather than an EP, exactly because of the number of songs - something that also allowed them to test out different styles.
Mini albums and double EPs
Let’s cross the pond and have a look at Wales-based (but English) indie pop outfit Los Campesinos!. After releasing their debut full-length in 2008, they followed up with the quite brilliant “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed” in the very same year. The latter consists of 10 brand new songs and a total length of 32 minutes, compared to the 42 minutes and 12 songs that made up the debut full-length. And yet, somehow, this second album was indeed not officially an “album” or a “full-length”. It was, rather, a “mini album” or an “EEP” (extended extended play). Supposedly, there were contractual reasons behind this.
Right, let’s go back across the Atlantic and have a look at Modest Mouse, a band known for long releases, whatever the format. In 1997 they released “The Fruit That Ate Itself” EP, spanning 9 songs over 21 minutes. Very short songs for their standard! The number of songs is, however, what is interesting here, and the Japanese version even contains five more songs. That is, an EP with 14 tracks. Their EP “No One’s First and You’re Next” from 2009 is a collection of B-sides, unreleased songs and new material. These 8 songs make up a total of 33 minutes, more than many “full-length” albums released today.
Now consider Sufjan Stevens. His “All Delighted People” EP from 2010 is 59 minutes long. That’s almost one full hour of music and only seven minutes shorter than his breakthrough full-length “Michigan” (2003) and ten minutes longer than his LP “Seven Swans” (2004). Sure, he followed his 2010 EP with a full-length that is slightly longer, “The Age of Adz” (74 minutes), but an EP of 59 minutes certainly stretches the idea of an “extended play”.
So we have EPs that could in one way or other also be considered singles, maxi singles, LPs, mini albums. Sticking close to the full-length album is also the quite rare “double EP” (a relatively new example of this is Beirut’s “March of the Zapotec/Holland” EP). And we have the classic and stricter vinyl definitions of the format. But they matter less in this (sigh) increasingly digital world, right?
Cost benefits and indie ideals
The past few decades, the EP format has been popular mainly within a punk and indie discourse (and no wonder seeing how confusing it is to understand what it even is!). If you were buying records in the 80s, the EP was exclusively the output of indie labels and artists. They were simply good value for money. Indie bands were unlikely to compete in the singles market in the UK (the top 40 was all important) as they tended not to be singles-led acts. There were of course exceptions, The Smiths being amongst the most famous, but the EP was seen as value for money and somewhat of an antithesis of what being a major label artist was about.
Back then the Majors brought in the 12” single as their way of offering value for money. These tended to be 3-4 tracks with remixes and instrumental versions of the same song. But what about the cost factor today? You can sell an EP for a lot more than a 7” single, and they are thus easier to recoup on. At the same time it gives you a better idea of what a band stands for. As Kevin Douch, owner of Big Scary Monsters Recordings (based in Oxford), says: “From a fan’s point of view it offers a lot more than a single, musically, so you really get a good idea of a band.”
David Laurie, owner of the London-based label Something in Construction, agrees: “They can be a nice summation of a themed body of work that is more than a couple of songs and less than an album. For new acts, they are a nice way of drawing an audience a little closer to what an artist is about than a single track; and they’re not as, well, time-consuming as an album.”
In the early days, Big Scary Monsters was built on a few key EPs by bands such as Secondsmile, Jeniferever and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly. They all went on to do well and at the same time help build the label’s name. The fact that the EP is neither a single nor an album (the way most people would define ‘album’) is what gives the EP its niche quality. It is, however, also what makes it occasionally problematic: Magazines have never quite figured out where to place them in their reviews section, and shops have never really embraced stocking them.
David Laurie elaborates: “Some media types don’t cherish them quite so much. Many magazines won’t review them, [which is] a shame because they are often not a second tier frippery at all. Many, especially older journalists, who still recall B-sides as a concept, will view them just as a single with extra B-sides.” At the end of the year, you also see plenty of magazines and websites listing the best EPs of the year, while others include them in their list of “best album” (notice how many have included the Burial EP in 2012 in this section).
These might not be huge factors to indie labels, who rely on selling directly to fans via word-of-mouth and very small marketing budgets, but for many others it will make it a less appealing format. In the case of Big Scary Monsters, though, it has been a most useful tool: 8/10 times they have opted to release an EP before releasing a full-length album when beginning work with a new band.
For Hannes Tschürtz, CEO of Ink Music from Austria, the EP is now mainly somewhat of a “bridge” between albums. They occasionally use EPs to open a campaign for a new artist, which gives the format more of a promotional and strategic purpose. In their case, the EPs hardly bring the money back they cost but instead serve as an investment.
Future embrace of the mainstream?
Regarding the mainstream market, there is generally good reason to avoid confusion, and the EP does often represent just that. And how often do you see major artists and major labels release EPs? One infamous example is Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster”. The 8 songs make for 34 minutes of music. Almost 10 minutes longer than the Official Chart Company in the UK defines the limit (anything longer than 25 minutes cannot be an EP). So that was apparently an EP whilst she has only released two “studio albums”. Again: Huh!
We live in an age with easier access to our cultural archive than ever before. Incidentally, we’ve also been called an “ADD culture”. If you consider this combination of technology, attention span, and accessibility there could be a change underway. Maybe not a paradigm shift as such but the idea of the EP as the “mini album” would make sense to a certain extent. Talking to Kamilla Traberg of Copenhagen/London-based label Good Tape Records, she told me that she liked the format because of her own inability to stay focused: The EP has the ability to show what a band is capable of without boring you.
In this hypothesis we would have to consider the dynamic between habit and collective romanticizing: Although more and more established labels sign “singles deals” instead of traditional record deals, the idea of the album transcends idealism and is still somewhat of a “condition” in terms of taste and consumption. It’s what artists are supposed to do - we expect them to release albums. It’s what we’re used to, and it’s what our parents are used to. Major labels have been criticised heavily for not adapting to the new (digital) conditions of the music industry, but there’s a reason why they can actually still sell full-length albums, and it’s more a question of habits than marketing. The EP is still too confusing, too weird, too unusual. But everything needs to start somewhere, right?
Excuses and liberation
But enough about the future and the past. Let’s go back to the idea of the “demo” and “the real” (this is neither a theological nor philosophical notion in this context). When calling something a “demo” you imply directly and literally that it’s not finished, either creatively or in terms of production/mixing/mastering. When putting out an EP the piece of art as such is (or is to be) considered “finished”. And yet we most often don’t take it seriously in the same way as an “album”.
Granted, most of the people who will read this are probably nerds like me who will have several favourite EPs that are right up there with the “real” full-lengths in terms of quality. For some listeners, the EP might even have something more authentic to it; partly because the recording and/or production is often not quite as good or smooth as that of an LP (which is why we have been accustomed to calling an LP a “studio album”), and partly because of who usually chooses to work with EPs – that is, not the mainstream labels and artists.
But even the glorification of the EP underlines its different status altogether. A common joke about music snobs is that they always “liked the EP better”. This actually calls for a discussion of Plato’s “simulacra”, but we can also stick to calling the EP a work of art that is closer to the pure “idea” or even genius whilst the “album” is the somewhat corrupted piece of art. It’s not exactly news to anyone that we often (pretend to) prefer the rough diamond over what we could call “polished”.
In an interview with the blog Aquarium Drunkard in 2011, Swedish group The Radio Dept. expressed something similar to this idea of what is ‘pure’. Martin Larsson from the band said: “An album really defines you in a way, and it’s kind of boring to be defined when you’re trying to be creative or do something different.”
Larsson even speaks of a certain fear of how people will define you for years based on full-lengths, which is why they can be seen as less ‘corrupt’: “I really love the idea of an EP. You don’t have to think and just do what you want. You don’t have to go through the whole media cycle and neither does the audience.”
The Rumour Said Fire had an impressive breakthrough in their native Denmark with their debut EP “The Life and Death of a Male Body” in 2009. Singer Jesper Lidang does see it as a sort of mini-album, but he concedes that the strength of the EP is the fact that you don’t have to create something coherent, which enables musicians to simply share whichever new songs they want to share. This way you don’t have to be held artistically responsible to a possibly dated view of “meaning” and “history”, he says.
David Laurie of the Something in Construction label adds: “For more established acts, they can be a nice mini-statement that doesn’t have the same this-is-going-on-your-tombstone-or-Wiki weight. They can be fun or experimental or just a nice release for ideas that you don’t have to live with for two years.”
So we can also glorify the EP. In the verdict, the judgment of taste, many people do take the LP and the EP seriously, but it still becomes a question of status. If an EP is great and receives glowing reviews, congratulations! If it’s not received well either critically or commercially, well, it was just an EP. It’s an artistic freebie in this sense. Excusable.
Why so serious?
Some would call it a kind of euphemism for a demo, and very often that would be true. But we’re not culturally and socially allowed to call anyone out for having created, crafted, released and promoted something that is “less serious”. This is where the EP format, from a philosophical point of view, gets extremely interesting: It is considered a finished piece of art but is subject to a relativised judgment of taste and not the merciless honesty and responsibility connected to the “album”. It is somehow a piece of art and artistically in transit. Flexible. We can view it as finished or unfinished, something less serious or something less in general, and at the same time as something more pure. There is a kind of magical, aesthetic discrepancy at work here.
So the ‘problem’ might essentially be more of an aesthetic conundrum. We may simply have decided to accept the mystery. David Laurie of the Something in Construction label, categorises the EP as “the middleman”, which might very well summarise some of the problems and paradoxes as well as potential found in this format.
We touched upon the theme of temporality earlier: The length of various releases, attention span and ADD culture. David Laurie half-jokingly remarks how the blogosphere seems to be afraid of albums and of all the MP3s they might miss during the course of listening to one and encourages new acts to make EPs. But despite an intrinsic conceptual arc, they are still advised to put out the most single-y track of the EP first: “Be very prepared for people to only listen to, and thus judge you on, one track. And it’s probably going to be track one or the first one you put out.”
In the spring of 2012 the Gothenburg duo Air France decided to call it a day. They released two brilliant EPs and never a full-length album. The last EP, “No Way Down”, was particularly good (the aforementioned Something in Construction released it in the UK). One song, “Collapsing Outside Your Doorstep”, uses a sample with the voices of two kids. One says: “It’s sort of like a dream… isn’t it?” to which the other kid responds: “No. Better”. The statement is beautiful and much more autobiographical than the band could ever have hoped for themselves.
This last EP was such an accomplishment and did indeed feel like a short album, statistics aside (six songs, a little shy of 23 minutes). Pitchfork included it on their year-end list as one of the albums of the year. And yet people have been lamenting that they never released “an album”, thinking the EP cannot possibly be their best work. They must have been holding something back.
The music itself is dreamy, but the disbandment is what allows the dream to take on a new shape: We can now keep wondering what the band could have become if they had released – dare we say it? – an album.
But this is the key: To keep wondering. We have been busy the past few years criticising major labels for handling the transition to the so-called digital age clumsily. They were sleeping giants. But we must not risk the consequences of not keeping up, major or indie, composer or producer, listener or writer; what we need is to genuinely keep wondering and keep asking (ourselves) questions.
If we cannot define something clearly, we should at least have the decency to reflect on the state of things, and the idea of the EP has so much to offer in this regard: What do we want from it, what can it offer, do we really need to define things? Should the EP format be more accessible, or is it thriving exactly because of the quasi-negation: Its status as a non-album of sorts? Is it even a problem that an EP can be… anything?
Pop music already has trouble being included within the realm of art, so should we be concerned that the EP can be seen as an artistic loophole or freebie that can be excused? On the other hand, its playful character might somehow be able to set it free to make it true or real to many people in a sense the full-length cannot. These are dangerous adjectives to throw around, but if it makes us reflect on the state of music isn’t that exactly what gives it the artistic legitimacy we are searching for?