Friday, February 22, 2013

The EP




There has been many writers online in the past few years bemoaning the death of something or other thanks to digital downloads – the death of the single, the death of the album, or even the death of music.

This is obviously mostly the death of making money from music. Many people seem to think that making music (and for that matter, art it’s self) means that artists should be able to make their living from that. I guess that’s they way it used to be, when albums were selling millions and people actively bought music. But the major problem is that the generation below me have grown up with no need to buy music ever, and that’s a major problem if you are aligned to make money from the industry.

Of course, what many people are also realising is that it’s actually the death of the music label, and from that the birth of the new direct-selling industry occurs. The middle man, labels, which were needed to sell and make albums, are no longer needed.

This post isn’t about that though – it’s about the humble Extended Play. The EP originally was simply a competing method of packaging albums – 78rpm records, or even seven inch, ten or twelve inch albums, could be regarded as EPs if they were developed in such a way. The EP was later mostly used for extended singles, with more B-sides, or even as an album sampler. Now though the term EP is pretty fluid – sometimes it is three or four tracks, either recorded specially for the release, or album session off cuts, or even a remix EP.

The definition of what an actually EP is is pretty hard to pin down – for example, Modest Mouse’s 2009 EP No One’s First But You’re Next is eight tracks and 33 minutes long, whereas Radiohead’s 2011 album The King of Limbs is eight tracks and 37 minutes long. The definition is primarily determined by the artist themselves.

However, there is a compelling argument that seems to suggest that in the post-label world we are approaching, an EP might be the more obvious format for releasing material. Singles themselves are either one of two things – a chart baiting release, designed as a promo for the upcoming album, or a stream online. If you are releasing a single many people (myself included) simply just pop onto Spotify or Youtube and listen to it when we want to. There is no need to worry about buying it as it’s always there to listen to. Even a B-side that I might like can be bought a-la-carte, without the parent single, and it’ll probably end up online anyway. Lost B-sides are rare now thanks to the archiving nature of Spotify. For example, I’ve made two full Coldplay “albums” using B-sides from Spotify. This would have been impossible 10 years ago without buying all versions of all singles. It’s brilliant.

The album format too is dying – I love the format. 40-50 minutes of music from my favourite artists is perfect. I adhere to the album format too – despite building playlists weekly, I rarely listen to out of sync music from my artists. I have hundreds of discography playlists made which each album running in order, and I don’t dare pop on the shuffle feature. I don’t blaspheme against the craft gone into an album. In this, however, I am in the minority. I took a quick scroll through a friends iPod recently and found miscellaneous tracks from hundreds of album, cherry picked. This too, would have been impossible years ago – building a mixtape used to take as long as it took to play it, but now it’s simply a matter of picking a choosing tracks.

So the real question is why would an artist spend months and years building a cohesive album of material, potentially spending hundreds of pounds on production and pressing, only to find people only download the singles, or only buy one or two tracks from it?

And this is where the EP comes in – a single is worthless, a simple stream, and an album is too expensive in time and cost to produce. Instead, cranking out an EP or two a year, in sporadic sessions in the studio, with a smaller price than an album and a higher price than a single. It’s economical too, with the ability to tour more often rather than spend months on albums.

And it’s not just me who thinks it – EPs are in vogue again – big name artists like Radiohead, The Antlers, Burial and even Take That (though, the Progressed EP did smack more of a special edition of the original album than a stand alone EP) have all released EPs out of album cycles. It all really depends on how the artists conduct themselves really – a story from the Mars Volta tells that their second album, Frances the Mute, was originally due to be a five track album, but their label would have only paid them an EPs wages – instead, the band arbitrarily split the last track, the 32 minute Cassandra Gemini, into eight tracks.

I love the EP too. My favourite releases from some artists are EPs – Boards of Canada’s EP output eclipses their LP output almost entirely, for example. The EP might be out of date technologically, but as a format for consumption I feel it’s ready-made for the music industry’s future. I might be wrong (I am regularly) but it feels right. The natural extension of this is a reduced album – a mini-album, like ErrorsNew Relics from 2012 – a half way house between the EP and the LP.

Long live 20 to 30 minute EPs.

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