Releasing music today is very different than it was five decades ago. Although vinyl is still around, catering to audiophiles and collectors, artists are no longer held back by its constraints, with various other formats at their disposal, from mixtapes and CDs to digital releases on Spotify or Apple Music.
However, the notions of single, EP, LP, double LP, and album still exist, and they can cause confusion, especially for newcomers in the music business. Deciding whether to release an EP or an LP could have a significant impact on your career, so it’s important to carefully weigh your options before committing to one option.
But how do you decide? Which is better, an LP or an EP? We’re here to help you make an informed decision and discover the differences between the most popular formats in the music industry today.
What is an album?
The notion of ‘album’ became commonplace in the 1950s, when turntables became affordable for most people around the world. Everyone had a turntable, or record player, in their home, and they eagerly waited for the next studio album by their favorite band or artist. The Beatles were one of the first bands to popularize the album format, as a collection of 10 or more songs on sides A and B of a long-playing vinyl record, or LP.
During the 1960s and 1970s, musicians spent a lot of time in the recording studio, creating and recording songs to fit on an upcoming album release. There was no Apple Music or MTV at the time, so the notion of ‘single’ didn’t even exist in people’s vocabulary, at least not the way we think of it today. You had to wait for your favorite band to record and release their next full-fledged studio album, go wait in line at a record store to buy it, then rush home and give it a full listen on your record player.
It was an immersive experience, listening to the entire album the way the artist intended it, without skipping to the next song or rewinding - it’s basically considered a sacrilege to skip or shuffle songs on Tommy by The Who or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This is the LP experience, so whenever people talk about albums, they’re really talking about long-playing records, or LPs.
What is an LP?
Like we’ve already mentioned, LP stands for ‘long play’ or ‘long-playing,’ and it’s synonymous with a full-length album. The first LPs were created in 1948 by Columbia Records, and they completely revolutionized the music industry. At the time, the industry standard was a 12-inch vinyl that could be played at 78 rpm, which translates to just 5 minutes of play time per side, so 10 minutes in total. Columbia’s LPs could be played at a reduced speed of 33.3 rpm, increasing the audio capacity of the 12-inch record, which means more songs could fit on each side of the vinyl.
Back in the 1950s, a 12-inch LP could play roughly 23 minutes of music on each side, amounting to a total of 46 minutes. That’s why most albums released during that time fit into this time frame, and why this was the industry standard for close to 50 years. However, LPs can have a shorter play time - some albums feature only 30 minutes of play time, but are still considered long-playing records. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all time, features 42 minutes of music, but is still considered an LP.
What is an EP?
EP stands for ‘extended play,’ and while it sounds like it would be longer than an LP, it’s actually shorter. The EP is basically a mini-album, or a half-length album; it’s called ‘extended’ because it’s longer than a single release.
The first EPs were developed by RCA Victor in 1952, to compete with Columbia’s super-popular LP format. The company created a smaller, 7-inch record that is played at 45 rpm and features just 7.5 minutes of audio per side. This shorter length and smaller frame allowed artists to release singles, B-tracks, rarities, or covers between LP launches, to keep their fanbase engaged and anticipating new releases.
There’s no definitive standard length for an EP; it’s longer than a single and shorter than a full-length album, but other than that, it can vary in length. However, most EPs feature around three to six tracks and have a total play time of 15 to 30 minutes long. Of course, this varies depending on genre or the artist’s preferences, but anything longer than 30 minutes would be considered an LP, and anything shorter than 15 minutes would be a single.
Extended play vs. album
If you’re a newcomer artist, which should you go for, an LP or an EP? The answer will depend on a variety of factors, including budget, time frame, and your overall objective. If you’re looking to build a fanbase and get your music out there for people to discover, an EP or single is your best bet. Most new artists don’t have a huge budget or backing from a record label, so creating an EP is the least time-consuming and most cost-effective option.
As a new artist, your marketing strategy will most likely include releasing singles, which are short, catchy songs that are meant to generate engagement and help you build a fanbase by getting airplay on the radio. Over time, you’ll be able to pick the most popular singles and compile them into an EP release that gives fans a taste of what a full-length album would sound like. This is what we call the ‘waterfall strategy,’ and it’s a great and easy way to test the waters, if you will. What’s more, listeners on Spotify follow algorithmic playlists like Discover Weekly to find new artists, and with an EP and a batch of singles, you’ll have more chances of getting your music featured on these playlists.
Launching an EP is a good way to see if there is enough interest and potential for a full-length album, but it’s also a way of keeping fans entertained between LP releases. Recording and releasing a full-length album can take a long time, and you want to keep your fans interested and build anticipation for your next album launch. The best way to do that is through EPs, giving your followers a taste of what’s to come, or keeping them engaged with your work while you work on your next album.
Other common album formats
The double LP
The double LP is exactly what it sounds like: a double album release that comes with two vinyl records and four sides, amounting to roughly an hour and a half of music. Because they are expensive to make, they’re usually reserved for ‘best of’ or ‘greatest hits’ compilations by established artists.
They’re not a popular option for a new album release, but instead are used to showcase an artist’s best, most successful work. You might have seen those heavy, 180-gram double LP reissues that usually come with an extra booklet or information that delights collectors and die-hard fans. They are costly to make and distribute, and you want to be sure there are fans out there ready to shell out the extra money to purchase a double LP.
Singles are incredibly popular among electronic music artists, and a great option for new artists looking to establish their fanbase. The single is used to promote an upcoming release, featuring a short-length tune that’s fit for radio, TV, and digital play. Artists usually pick the most catchy, mass-appealing song from an upcoming album to promote the new release and build anticipation for the LP. A single is almost always short in length, at around 3 or 4 minutes, to get as much radio play as possible and get featured in Spotify and Apple Music playlists.
Back in the day, singles were released on double-sided vinyl, so they naturally featured two songs to fit the format. Nowadays, a single release can feature just one song, or different versions of the song, like an extended version, a radio version, or an instrumental version or remix.
In the 1990s, releasing music was a very costly affair, and for artists looking to break out into the music scene, cassette tapes were the most affordable option. The mixtape was the most popular release format for rap artists, because it was easy to record and hand out for free to spread the word on their music.
Back then, rappers relied heavily on live performances and word of mouth, and handing out mixtapes to other artists or producers was the de facto marketing strategy. Rap was still in its infancy, so there was not a lot of interest from labels yet, and artists didn’t have the budget to book studio time or market music to listeners. It was very much an underground movement that relied on rap battles and ‘dropping mixtapes.’
Even today, artists like Drake or Chance the Rapper release digital mixtapes that compile their music for fans to enjoy. The nostalgic nod to the golden early days of rap is an added bonus that fans tend to appreciate.
Frequently Asked Questions about album formats
How long is an EP vs LP?
An EP (Extended Play) typically contains between 4 to 6 tracks, while an LP (Long Play) usually contains 7 to 10 tracks.
Why do artists release EPs?
Artists release EPs for various reasons, such as introducing themselves to a new audience, experimenting with new sounds, or providing a taste of what is to come in a full-length album.
What sets an EP aside from a mixtape?
An EP typically has more original songs than a mixtape and has a more cohesive concept or theme, while a mixtape can include a variety of songs and may contain remixes or covers.
Can an EP have 9 songs?
Yes, an EP can have 9 songs, but it is less common than the standard 4 to 6 tracks.
Can an EP have a single?
Yes, a single can be included in an EP, along with other tracks.
How long is an LP?
An LP usually contains between 7 to 10 tracks, and its length can vary from 30 to 60 minutes.
Which is better, LP or EP?
The answer to whether an LP or EP is better depends on the artist's intentions and the listener's preference. EPs can be an excellent way for an artist to showcase their work and experiment with new sounds, while LPs can provide a more immersive and complete listening experience.
Are 7 songs considered an LP or EP?
Typically, 7 songs are considered an LP, but they can also be considered an EP, depending on the artist's intent and the listener's interpretation.
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