Is the EP a Relevant Format in Today’s Music Climate?
When Trent Reznor revealed that Nine Inch Nails' latest release, the six-track, 30-minute Bad Witch, is not being treated as an EP but a full-length album, some fans were left confused. One fan, in particular, was irate enough to take to a forum to lambast Reznor, who retorted that streaming services like Spotify don't prioritize EPs, burying them under the catalog of full-length releases on the artist page. (Reznor is an executive at Apple Music, so he should know.) Then he told the user to suck his "entire cock."
It got us thinking — with the release already announced and detailed, does it even matter if it's called a full-length album or an EP? Sure, when we assess the catalog, Bad Witch now enters the conversation of "How does it hold up against other albums?" Branding Bad Witch as an LP isn't cataclysmic, but it does raise questions about the legitimacy of the EP format in the current music climate.
With the ability to release a song at any given moment, artists have an opportunity to feed and engage their audience more frequently than before as the industry navigates the open ocean of this new streaming medium.
So, where does the EP fit in? Four members of the Loudwire team answered five questions all about this curious and dynamic release format.
When a band announces they're releasing a new EP, do you care as much as when it's an album?
Brian Ives: I care whenever a band that I like announces new music. In the '90s and earlier, if I liked a band, I was always a bit of a completist. In the playlist era, I like to find good songs by a band, no matter what you call the collection that it those songs were intended for. For instance, my Nine Inch Nails mix includes songs from movie soundtracks (like "Perfect Drug" from Lost Highway), tribute albums (their cover of U2's "Zoo Station"), albums, B-sides, and EPs.
Chad Childers: In the old days, not as much. It often felt like EPs were leftovers or a showcase for one particular track. They were viewed more as specialty releases. If I loved the band and was a completist in terms of trying to purchase everything they had or if the EP contained something I knew I wanted, sure, I’d pick it up. But I think it’s a different conversation today in the instant gratification world we live in. The downloading and streaming culture have placed more emphasis on singles and EPs have been a way to keep the flow of music coming and a way to get music to fans quicker than having to wait for the traditional album cycle. There’s a little more weight to the importance of what’s being released as an EP in some cases. It still depends on whether the music moves me, but I’m a little more attentive to what’s released as an EP these days.
Joe DiVita: For reasons I don't even know, I don't. Too often it feels like a faceless release to tide fans over until the next album. Previously unreleased live tracks? Eh, who cares at this point? So many unreleased songs (either in the studio or live) have been tacked on to countless reissues and, besides, there's YouTube where you can watch classic footage. I still check out the EP if it's a band I like, but if those tracks were really worth something, they'd be held over for the next record. There's exceptions, of course, and the format has produced some real gems over the decades, but in the modern age, it just gets lost in the excess.
Tyler Sharp: Personally? Given the current state of the industry, the streaming revolution and where rock music stands, I’m always interested to see the context of why a rock/rock associated act is releasing an EP. If it’s an acoustic or covers EP, I couldn’t care less. But if it contains a collection of completely new songs, then they have my attention.
I don’t think the album is dead, or will ever be dead, but attention spans are shorter than ever and a consistent stream of new music (whether that be loosies or EPs) is more likely to keep a band’s fanbase more consistently engaged. This is why hip-hop is on top: it has managed to not only gain the undivided attention of the youth, but also generate a formula to pump out music on a basis that maintains that attention.
Where does the EP fit in with streaming culture?
BI: Albums can take a long time to make, and these days, lots of bands don't seem to want to go too long between releases, so a four-song, or six-song, EP can be something to hold fans over between full-length albums.
CC: As streaming has become more prominent, bands have had to adapt. The EP is a way to keep your name out there in the public eye and not disappear for chunks of time while you work on a full album. It also allows the artist to showcase where they’re mindset is musically at that particular time with a relatively short turnaround and the instant gratification is perfect for a format like streaming.
JD: iTunes initially signaled a bit of a death knell for the full-length album, putting a higher price tag (figuratively) on singles, devaluing the album format for a lot of genres, though metal still clings to this. Streaming may finish the job iTunes started as bands notice the number of plays on bloated 14-track albums diminishes with each ensuing track. This could make it difficult to justify the cost of recording an LP, especially in an age where the industry has yet to find a resolve for the bottoming out of traditional album sales, ravenous for an influx of cash any way it can be generated. The EP could rise as a new alternative as the adoption rate for streaming music climbs, cutting production costs while trimming the fat from an LP. The concept of an attention span also seems to be entering antiquity, so give 'em your best and leave 'em wanting more.
TS: I maintain that shorter-yet-consistent releases are more likely to keep a fanbase engaged, rather than releasing an album and touring off it for 2 years.
I have been encouraging the bands I work with to record “albums” and then we decide how to appropriately release them in portions over the course of a year. That may be a single once a month for three months, a three-to-four song EP at the beginning/middle of summer, then loosies to finish out the year.
What makes an EP successful and in what instances does it devalue the format?
BI: I think if the songs are undeniably great, and the fanbase is open to hearing new music, then the EP is successful. Nine Inch Nails' Broken and Alice In Chains' Sap and Jar of Flies are the gold standards, as is Tool's Opiate. When Metallica released the Beyond Magnetic EP, it just felt like they were giving us stuff that just didn't make Death Magnetic. I don't think it devalued the format, but none of those songs are impactful in the context of Metallica's discography. No one is hoping to hear those songs in concert, but "Wish" and "Happiness in Slavery" and "Gave Up" are highlights of Nine Inch Nails shows.
CC: With a shorter timespan, you have less opportunity to tell a full story. It’s more about grabbing attention, so you have to have at least one killer track that pulls the listener in and makes the experience worthwhile. With the shorter format, it really makes the act narrow their focus down to what they do best to really sell their music. The downside is you may not get as much variety in sound and the “flow” may not be as prominent as it is in the album format. And it may be less about telling an overall story than it is about featuring a particular track or tracks.
JD: As I mentioned before, the addition of previously unreleased live tracks has little value. It's an obvious promotional gimmick and one that's played out. What I enjoy most about the format is that it affords an artist the opportunity to deviate from their signature sound at times and get a little experimental without pissing off their worldwide fanbase by changing direction on a full length. It lets the musicians work these stylistic changes out of their system, ensuring the LPs are more on track.
TS: Obviously there could be a saturation point if bands are continually branding releases as EPs. I could see die-hard fans getting pissed after a while, asking “Where’s the album?” (This happened with the pop-punk band Real Friends.) But I think the success would be seen in streams. I think a shorter/consistent release approach for rock bands would ultimately help the genre in the streaming game because there would be less of a focus on the physical side of things. Ultimately this would either force rock fans to evolve their listening habits, or they’d just abandon the bands altogether - but I always maintain that if the music is genuinely good and hits a certain pulse, it will always ride in some capacity.
Does it work better for established acts or newer ones?
BI: It probably works better for newer acts, as their fans tend to be younger and are more ravenous for new music. Although it could work for older artists: if you have a thirty-year career, there's probably less room in your live set for tons of new songs; I'd think that EPs would make sense for veterans. The problem is, record labels or management companies don't really like to put too much muscle behind a batch of only four songs. So as Trent Reznor said, they're not always well marketed, and as a result, they can go unnoticed, particularly by bands with older audiences who aren't always looking for any new bit of music from their favorite artists. Some great bands have debuted with EPs: Tool and Queensryche come to mind. And it seems to have worked for Greta Van Fleet.
CC: I feel it would work better for established acts, given the interest already put toward their catalog by fans. The EP is more of a way to fill the gaps and keep the interest going. For a newer act, it’s really a harder sell. It really is about having that one breakout song and then having people discover the rest of your music and even then, an EP may only be a teaser of what you can offer but doesn’t show completely what you could deliver in range and conceptualization over the length of a full album.
JD: I wish more of the legacy artists (the ones who have been around for 25+ years) would utilize this more. Very few bands are still putting out some of their best material and the new albums tend to be overblown. What happened to the days where a 40-minute album was totally acceptable? The CD presented a longer runtime and bands seem to see that as a challenge to fill all the space and rarely is it "all killer, no filler." So, for the older bands — write five or six airtight songs and scrap the rest (or save them for a reissue).
For newer artists, it can be a perfect format to test the waters, find successful markets and discover if it's worth pursuing a full length or inking the group to a multi-album deal. If a band does well on radio or gets a buzz in the underground, the full length will be anticipated and if the artist doesn't wind up meeting expectations, not as many resources were wasted in the discovery process.
TS: This is interesting when you look at the industry as a whole right now: You have one of the biggest streaming artists in the world right now - Post Malone - dropping an 18 track album. Why? One reason is to game the charts. Kinda typical supply and demand - there is a significant demand for new Post Malone music, and he delivered an album that not only his current fanbase will love, but is versatile enough to offer significant growth. He broke a TON of streaming records (plus the album was certified Platinum the second it was released due to how well the two loosies he dropped long before the album’s announcement performed.)
So for A-list acts, there are more options. For mid-to-lower acts, I would certainly recommend a shorter/consistent release schedule. It will help in maintaining the attention/engagement of their growing fanbases. If you fall out of the conversation on social media, good luck getting it back. We’ve seen it with the majority of scene bands lately - sales/general numbers are down across the board.
What EPs stand as classics and hold up to some of a band's greatest albums?
BI: Nine Inch Nails' Broken, Alice In Chains' Sap and Jar of Flies, Tool's Opiate. Even though Metallica's Garage Days Re-Revisited is all covers, I love it. And even though Iron Maiden's Maiden Japan is short, it's probably my favorite live Maiden release.
CC: Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies and Nine Inch Nails’ Broken are the two that stand out to me, but both push to the limit of what is technically considered an EP in terms of tracks and length. Each was a bit of exception to the norm at the time they were released, showing more stylistic range... and they were also both widely marketed.
JD: Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales and Emperor's Return, Godflesh's Godflesh, Mayhem's Deathcrush, Sodom's In the Sign of Evil, Suffocation's Human Waste and Despise the Sun, General Surgery's Necrology, Hellhammer's Apocalyptic Raids, Queensryche's Queensryche, Helloween's Helloween, Mercyful Fate's Mercyful Fate (sensing a trend here?) and still a bunch of others. For almost all of these, they pre-date the first full-length album as bands worked to define their sound and unknowingly cement their place in metal's pantheon. There's no substitute for raw ambition and these are some of the most exciting releases ever in heavy metal.
TS: Definitely Saosin’s Translating the Name and A Skylit Drive’s She Watched the Sky. To a lesser extent Escape The Fate’s There’s No Sympathy for the Dead, The Word Alive’s Empire, and Emarosa’s This Is Your Way Out. Then there are also new-wave pop-punk releases such as Real Friends’ Everyone That Dragged You Here and Late Nights In My Car and Neck Deep’s Rain in July. These were all released within communities that were so healthy, those within it were simply seeking out new bands as much as possible. Dropping a short collection of songs (as long as they were good enough/the band fit their look) was an easy way to gain traction on MySpace and even on into Facebook up until about five years ago, simply because those communities have dwindled far away from their peaks.