Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Curious Phenomenon of the EP



With physical audio formats seemingly disappearing and then reappearing again these days, it can be confusing to work out what exactly is the product an artist is really trying to sell.

It's pretty easy to work out what an album is, or a single, but an EP (extended play) is a format that is ambiguous at best. especially when you introduce the Mini-LP into the mix.

In the earliest part of the 20th century, up until 1948, the single was the dominant format. Two sided 10-inch diameter shellac records, playing at 78 rpm, with one song on each side. At that speed, it confined the playing time to little over 4 minutes per side. Longer pieces, such as classical music needed to be split across multiple records, and as such they would be bundled into large books that resembled a photo album, and they would be called an "album". In the early 1950s these were superceded by a 7-inch 45rpm single.



In 1948 the Long Playing record emerged. 12 inches in diametre, playing at 33rpm and allowing for an average of 20 minutes per side. In America the RIAA stipulated that the maximum amount of material on an LP was 35 minutes (it was revised and expanded later on). It took a while but it soon became the dominant recorded music format.

However, as the LP was considered an artisan product, a luxury item with the price tag to match, record labels came up with cheaper alternatives to shore up their revenue base. They introduced the 10-inch LP, a mini-LP usually carrying 8 songs (4 a side) and a maximum playing time of around 13-15 minutes a side. By the 1960s these were all but obsolete, but during the 1950s these were hugely popular, with Frank Sinatra being one of the most popular selling artists with albums like "Songs for Young Lovers".

With the rock and roll boom, it was originally thought that teenagers only bought singles and not albums, but despite Elvis and the Beatles selling large amounts of albums, they were still expensive, so in Britain they came up with a mid-range product that would be a little more collectable and valuable than the single, but not as expensive as the LP. The Extended Play, or EP for short, was a four song 7-inch record that featured similar style packaging to the LP but at a fraction of the cost. They were given unique titles, similar to albums.



The EP was the same size and speed as the single and compressed the grooves on each side to allow for up to 7.5 minutes a side playing time These were massive selling items in the 1960s but fell out of favour with major labels in the 1970s. Independent labels and punk bands took to the EP in the 1970s and beyond, but the majors confused the issue by starting to release 12-inch equivalents of an EP in the late 1970s and 1980s. These usually contained 5 tracks and ran at around 20 minutes.

Major labels also introduced a new format in the 1980s, the 12-inch "Mini-LP" which was longer than an EP but shorter than an LP, but that also confused the classification of certain albums. For example, Alice In Chains compiled two EPs together in one package on two discs as "Jar of Flies/Sap". "Sap" had 5 tracks (4 listed on the sleeve and label) and ran at less that 20 minutes, while "Jar of Flies" has 7 tracks at lasts for almost 30 minutes. Is one an EP and the other a mini-LP? "Jar of Flies" topped the Billboard Album Chart. Is it regarded as a short LP?

Elvis Presley's first LP had 12 tracks and lasted 25 minutes while Pink Floyd's "Animals" has 5 tracks and has a 40+ minute duration. Is one a mini-LP?

Not exactly. The British Recording Industry classifies the EP as "any record with more than four distinct tracks or with a playing time of more than 25 minutes is classified as an album for sales-chart purposes. If priced as a single, they will not qualify for the main album chart..." as described by the Official Chart Company.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) defines an EP as "3-5 songs OR under 30 minutes, whereas a single is allowed to contain up to 4 songs."

In this modern age of downloads, the EP still exists in the form of a short release of just 4-5 songs lasting less than 20 minutes, and it still a common release format for young artists who don't yet want to create a longer form piece, and to attract all the scrutiny and analysis that goes with it.

This probably doesn't simplify the matter, however it is not a simple matter to begin with. In my own mind, if the release has 4-6 distinct tracks, lasts around 20-25 minutes and as a unit it has a title unto itself, it is an EP. A single has a lead track that gives the unit its name plus a number of b-sides or bonus songs (sometimes up to 4 or 5, not counting remixes). A mini-LP has 6-7 tracks and lasts up to 30 minutes. An Album has a duration of over 30 minutes and, unless they are long songs, 8 songs or more.



Using this criteria, I don't consider "For The Working Class Man" by Jimmy Barnes as an album, but rather a double 12-inch EP. It is billed on the sleeve as a having 5 new tracks and a "bonus disc" of seven remixes. Both discs total 45 minutes and is a single CD. It charted at #1 on the Australian album chart in spite of this.

Do you have a favourite EP? Tell us below in the comments.

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