Home > Essays > EPs versus albums: artists struggle to balance cost & creativity

EPs versus albums: artists struggle to balance cost & creativity

The music industry is landlocked: stuck between traditional methods of music releases and capturing fleeting attention spans in the streaming age. In April, Nielsen reported a 20.2 percent drop in album sales (physical and digital) in the first quarter of 2017–40.3 million units sold, down from 50.7 million during the same timeframe in 2016. Meanwhile, on-demand streaming catapulted to an impressive 133.9 billion streams, a 35.2 percent jump from 99.1 billion the previous year. Unless you can mount event releases at the level of Beyonce, Adele and Drake, traditional business models are drying up, forcing artists to reevaluate how they create their art. Many hip-hop performers, for example, are pushing the envelope with what constitutes an album and releasing one, two and even three mixtapes or EPs in any given year.

Conventional releases (e.g. full-length albums) are no longer a surefire plan of success and in many instances, studio records standing at nine or more tracks are not financially feasible. Following a conversation with the now-defunct blog The Critical Abyss, B-Sides & Badlands sought out a handful of artists, spanning country and pop, to hear exactly what decisions go into their creative endeavors and to discuss which medium is better: extended play or long play.

Cost Versus Creativity

“It’s never really been the cost of making the music–it’s the cost of marketing it (as an independent) that can be prohibitive,” says singer Kelleigh Bannen, who was once signed to EMI Records and never released a body of work before last summer’s five-track Cheap Sunglasses EP. Violet Skies, who recently dropped her first EP called This Was Us (seven songs), also finds the post-production to carry the brunt of the cost. “ You can record and produce 10 to 12 songs at a similar cost, but it’s the mix and master that will add up,” she notes.

Elana Belle Carroll, who goes by Party Nails onstage, admits “cost factors into all of my decisions right now, including how much music to produce and release. I’m at a point where I have limited time and limited money, so I have to do as much as I can with what little I’ve got to work with,” she says. Back in February, she dropped her new EP, Come Again. She adds, “I imagine a lot of new artists are in a similar place, and new artists will continue to start careers with minimal resources. Thusly, the EP continues to exist as a form of record releasing.”

Rising pop/rock band Northern National, whose singles “MoneyBlind,” “Dallas” and “Love is Fire” have snagged nearly one million Spotify streams in total, found themselves between a rock and a hard place in determining their next move. “Right now, we’re writing like crazy, and we’re trying to get the songs ready for recording,” bandmate Rossi told Popdust in May. “It’s one of those things: I think as musicians we’re wanting to record all of it and get it out for everybody, but from a marketing and a money standpoint, it’ll probably be an EP. It’ll just be easier for us to work off at this point in our music.”

Another rising duo called Paperwhite would “love to release a full length record,” they affirm, “but it feels like singles and EPs are still a little more digestible in the streaming world. The goal right now is to keep growing our fan base and experimenting with our style. The full length should be for our fans, and we want our first record to really mean something to them.” Katie and Ben Marshall are set to release their third EP together later this year.

Kelleigh Bannen

In a 2014 report, Billboard’s Ed Christman examined the implications of extended plays, writing, “Record labels are moving enough units to build revenue for a baby act with a song on the rise, and could see even greater rewards once the ‘complete my album’ mechanism.” He then cited such big releases as 5 Seconds of Summer’s She Looks So Good EP, Luke Bryan’s Spring Break 6…Like We Ain’t Ever, Austin Mahone’s The Secret and Sam Smith’s Nirvana, among others. Later, he made note that 82 EPs debuted on the Billboard 200 in 2013, compared to just 18 back in 2003. “In embracing the EP configuration as an economic A&R strategy–’The decision to do an EP happens on a case-by-case basis,’ says [Capitol Records executive vp Greg] Thompson — record companies hope to see a better success rate than the industry’s typical one-in-10.”

While record execs and A&R reps are biting their nails to come up with cool, splashy ways to debut new music, whittling an album down to only a handful of songs can take a serious bite out of an artist’s vision. “For better or for worse, we’re living in a space with an increasingly-shortening attention span and, as a result, EPs and shorter listens seem to make more sense,” synth-pop duo Smoke Season–comprised of Gabrielle Wortman and Jason Rosen– explain. “What’s more is that social media and a lot of the promotional tools and platforms indie artists utilize to disseminate their music cater to shorter listens. I think these are the main reasons why single campaigns and EPs have risen in prominence over the last couple years.”

With that said, they find “artistic satisfaction” with both styles. “We feel like both albums and EPs pose different challenges which are equally exciting. With an album, you gave the opportunity to fully realize your artistic vision and the space to say everything you want to.  The challenge here is maintaining strength throughout the entire body of work and finding the funds to produce it to begin with,” they say. “With an EP or single campaign, the challenge is to fit the most powerful execution in a 10 minute span. Cutting away the fat is way harder than many artists realize.  However, it’s endlessly satisfying.”

Carroll then details how EPs play two key roles in an artist’s development in the public eye. “I think there are two basic roles an EP can play, 1) as an ‘intro’ to an artist and 2) as a short album,” she says.

Times might be rapidly changing, but she pledges “artists should probably just do what feels right for them and their fans. I know most people are digital listeners these days, but thoughts on singles versus EP versus full-length seem to vary greatly across ages and fanbases,” she states, confirming the vastly-different music-listening habits a 23-year-old might have up against a 12-year-old or an adult in their 30s or 40s. “Each age group thinks about formats differently. The Arcade Fire’s first EP was a huge success for them at the time [released in 2002], and even now, it is super important to fans that have been with them since that came out. I don’t think any of those fans were mad when the Arcade Fire released that EP, and it continues to be something Arcade Fire fans enjoy listening to.”

Colombian singer-songwriter Kali Uchis, who dubbed her 2015 Por Vida EP a “mixtape,” is set to release a “full-length soon, but if she were to put out another mixtape/EP in a year I can’t imagine her fans would be mad about that,” Carroll says. “Of course, everyone wants more music from their favorite artists, but I don’t know if that means artists should try to avoid making EPs. I think there is a time and a place for them.”

Where’s the Story?

On Bannen’s 2016 EP, she crafted a tight but dynamic thread line. She zipped from the bubbly opening number, “Welcome to the Party,” to a smokey ballad, “Once Upon A,” and closed on an uplifting mid-tempo, “All Good Things”–all in less than 20 minutes. So, it is possible to create a cohesive and compelling story with an EP, but it’s far from easy. “I think you can craft a nice small story around an EP–in fact I think you have to if it’s going to work. But there is more freedom for an artist to really tell a story, and give the listener an experience in an album,” reflects Bannen. “However, as someone who has been in the ‘emerging’ category for some time– I think the focus on radio singles can be very counterproductive to the process of really crafting an album. In the major label world, you don’t usually get to have an album out until you have at least one hit. And there is such a narrow focus on ‘hits’ and that can work against the album process.”

Violet Skies, who is set to drop her second EP later this year, asserts: “A complete story should be able to be told in one song. A body of work needs to be as long as it needs to be. My recent EP dealt with every facet of the story, and the coming second EP is part two of the story but stylistically a step forward/away, and so it actually works better in two parts.”

In the same Billboard, report (above), Ashley Burns, then-general manager of Capitol’s Virgin Records, determined the importance of utilizing EPs is to “see what people are reacting to, which can guide you in how you finalize what’s on the album,” which typically includes the EP, either whole or in part.

Party Nails

From such acts as country belters Lauren Alaina and Maren Morris to pop tunesmiths like The Chainsmokers and The 1975, how you get from an EP to the album can vary. Some, like The 1975, build an album through numerous EPs, while up and coming band Oh Wonder dropped singles leading into the album, and British crooner Sam Smith mixed both until an album took shape. Alaina and Morris both dropped EPs and later tacked on a number of new tracks for the full-length record, following their first bonafide chart hits. “I think it depends on the strength of the songs and what you want to deliver to the mass audience, as opposed to the key initial fans captured by an EP release,” says Violet Skies.

On the other hand, Bannen believes in “the subsequent album [being] a new thing. That doesn’t mean it can’t have a few songs from a previous EP, but maybe not the entire EP,” she says. “Also, I like when there’s a connective thread so it may make sense to include some songs from the previous EP as a jumping off point, thematically and sonically). Sometimes, if you don’t think an EP got as much exposure as it could have, it might make sense to bring a few songs along to the next project.” Carroll agrees. “ I don’t mind some overlap in songs. Also, it’s exciting to hear new productions on familiar songs, like Robyn did with ‘Dancing On My Own’ and ‘Hang with Me’ in her Body Talk series. I don’t believe there are any rules here.”

However, perhaps, an artist’s creativity can only take them so far. “Maybe they were in a place in their art that they only had an EPs worth of songs that were coherent and supportive of one direction but then later wrote an entirely new album that was its own vision. It’s all about how the songs support each other,” note Wortman and Rosen.

Are EPs Confusing?

Regardless of stature, the trend among pop acts, especially, is to get as much music in their fans’ hands as possible. Most consumers are delighted at the prospect of having a couple new songs now, rather than waiting another year for a full-length project that might either be stalled or never actually see the light of day. On the other end of the spectrum, some consumers are not as open to the idea of EPs flooding the marketplace. Kyle Coroneos, owner of a blog called Saving Country Music, recently reviewed the new Chris Stapleton album, From a Room: Vol. 1 (a meager nine tracks, with the second half coming this fall), and in the comment section, he posted a rather scathing statement about EPs and the music industry. “There is a reason the album cycle—even in the era of streaming—is so staunchly adhered to by many in the industry. It’s because it works, and everything else doesn’t. EP’s are systemically ignored by fans and media,” he wrote. “They are half-efforts dealt with as second-class releases. Aside from a few practical applications, they’re the worst thing an artist can do with their music. 80 percent of the music I get pitched is in EP form, and they make up around 10 percent of my coverage.”

He goes on to note, “on artists’ Wikipedia pages, they’re not dealt with as real albums,” which is contrary to results on pages for Sigrid, Chris Janson and Maggie Rose, just to name a few. “Artists think they’re thinking outside the box by releasing singles only, or releasing serial music or EPs. All that does is confuse the public, and allow the music to blend into the background in today’s busy life. Put you best music together, release a stellar album, make a bunch of noise, and hope you can get the public to pay attention. Nobody cares about your EP.”

Wortman and Rosen vehemently disagree. “Blanket statements like this are always wrong.  What’s correct is that there is an audience who wants shorter listens and an audience who wants albums,” the duo reflect on Coroneos’ knee-jerk claims. “Knowing your audience, knowing how and what platforms your audiences use to find and listen to music is the best marketing plan. If your audience is full of 22-year-old females then they are most likely finding their music through TV sync and streaming services and, in that case, it’s all about the impactful singles.”

Carroll goes a bit further, stating, rather candidly, “I think if that if that writer thinks making and promoting a record on a shoestring budget with minimal industry contacts is so easy then he should try it and see what happens. An EP isn’t always meant to function as the final destination. Sometimes, it’s a means to an end, that end usually being enough attention so they can finally start making full-length records. No matter which way you slice it, though, it’s totally possible to make an EP with super good songs that people enjoy listening to.”

Violet Skies

Currently working on her follow-up project, Bannen “had a lot of feelings about that statement,” she says. Admittedly, it is a “constant conversation” she has with her management team, determining which is best for her career: subsequent digital-only singles, another extended play or a full-length record. “First of all, I don’t think anyone would say they’re thinking ‘outside the box’ with an EP. Maybe 3 years ago, but not now. To me, now, an EP is just a smaller body of work,” she says. “I have to take issue with the concept that there is some relationship with number and quality. I get that an album does seem like a more significant effort, but the premise that the number of tracks on a release tells you something about the quality of those tracks is just false.”

“I’m a fan of albums, but they aren’t always a practical business move for an artist. Also, I don’t think the fan is as concerned about the format (EP vs album) as the media is. Certainly, it is harder to get publicity on an EP.”

For the record: no, consumers are not getting “confused” or flustered when artists release shorter projects. More often than not, they are ecstatic and willing to shell out the cash. “They’re only confused if you’re confused. If your EP release has a purpose, a real reason for being an EP instead of an album, then the fans will get it,” Bannen says. Carroll adds, “I think people really like good music and will listen to it even if it comes on an EP. Obviously, everyone wants more good music and more good concepts from their favorite artists. But asking that of new artists is like asking a calf to make milk—they just can’t yet. It’s better to be putting some work out here and there than it is to never start putting out music at all.”

“For a lot of new artists, myself included, that’s the reality of their situation: they only have enough money to do a handful of songs (production, mixing, mastering, packaging and promotion–all cost lots of money and time, even when you are lucky and get some of them for free). To make a full-length record in that situation could take so long that it’s simply not worth it,” Carroll says.

For Violet Skies, it all comes back to EPs representing an artist’s first or second (or maybe even fifth) introduction to the wider public. “The EP is the artist introduction for new or unsigned artists, the same story before the big story. I love albums. I’m not against them but they don’t invalidate EPs. Ed Sheeran had so many EPs that worked in his favour, ‘Songs with Amy’ and various other singles and small collections that were key in his personal and fan growth. Audiences aren’t confused. This author is perhaps underestimating fans, and also I would argue his dislike of EP may be why he doesn’t feature them.”

Dangers of Attention Spans & the Future

During the second annual FastForward music conference set in Amsterdam back in February, Managing Director of Warner/Chappell UK Mike Smith gave an A&R keynote presentation. He discussed the impact of streaming on their business models, how it guides artists in developmental stages and if albums remain integral to promotional campaigns. “We still want to have albums in the market, because albums are where we can make a lot of money,” he said. “At the same time, what drives our business is that it’s still hit-driven. So, when we’re looking for people to sign, it’s really searching out the people you feel confident can create hit records.”

The definition of hit records has expanded, as well, far beyond the confines of terrestrial and satellite radio. New releases are often playlisted across a smorgasbord of brands, on major streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, by curation partners such as Billboard, Pitchfork and other prominent tastemakers. “Playlists are hurtling into the future without completely losing sight of the past,” Pitchfork wrote in 2015, ahead of the streaming boom that hit in 2016. “The seeds for playlists as they exist now were sown by the likes of Napster and then iTunes, which liberated songs from albums and made it easier to enjoy a broader array of music.”

Even the nature of playlists themselves, as a new discovery model, gives way into uncovering longer bodies of work, either in EP or LP form. Streaming might be giving consumers more control over how and what they listen to, but the artform will not vanish completely–at least not anytime soon. “I think there is a future for anything that keeps fans and artists connected. It may depend on a specific artist and their fanbase. Also, I think a very specific EP (thematically or sonically) can make sense–for example last summer we released a very ‘summer’ oriented EP. It would have been overkill to make it an entire album, but it was a great way to release a body of work that made sense in a smaller context,” says Bannen.

Northern National

“There’s a ton of noise out there. I think artists need a real story to get the public’s attention,” she concludes.

The intimate connection between artist and fan has long been critical to an artist taking their career to the next level. EPs assist in connecting those dots, especially from Elana Belle Carroll’s viewpoint. “There is this sense of discovering a new artist and being into them before they really get off the ground, and for some people, that’s the difference between being a fan and being a passing listener. Some people need that sense of ‘on the ground’ connection with upcoming artists because it feels authentic, and that’s what they are looking for as listeners.”

Artists from Superfruit (one half of Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix), David Cook and Coldplay to Nine Inch Nails, Smallpools and Emily West have or will release EPs this year. Fans are craving more music at a much quicker pace than even five years ago. It is a double-edged sword that can lead to a wealth of opportunities for the creators, the songwriters and the musicians–propelling them to hit the studio more frequently. In turn, gatekeepers (media, radio, etc.) have more at their disposal for editorial coverage, on-air playlists and other tangible initiatives.

But Smoke Season warms that constantly shoveling music out to the public can be “dangerous.” They explain, “We are starting to see that the increasing demand for fresh and new is driving us to expire the artists themselves too fast. Younger audiences get super hungry for the new big acts and by their second album, they’ve already burnt out on them. This isn’t fair to the artists, cheapens their career and really has nothing to do with the quality of their output as much as is it does with the changing tastes of consumers.”

The industry is always in a state of transition and likely always will be–but the music, the art, is as alive and well as it has ever been.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.