What is an EP? Defining the ‘extended play’ record format

What is an EP? Well, to start with, EP stands for an ‘extended play’, 12″ vinyl record, thus distinguishing it from a 7″ ‘single’ or a 12″ LP (‘long play’) record.

In this sense, the definition of an EP reflects a happier, simpler time (perhaps) when records were all issued on vinyl, and cassingles, CDs and streaming services did not exist. But don’t get me started on all that.

Let’s delve deeper into the mechanics.

An EP is generally longer than a 7″ single and usually features between 4 and 6 songs. You could also define an EP in terms of overall length in time: if it’s shorter than 10 minutes, it’s a single; if it’s between 10 and 35 minutes it’s an EP.

But then again, an LP might only be 30 minutes long (see e.g. Wire’s Pink Flag), so the definitions are porous.

While the notion of an EP has become less important in the CD era, you still see a whole lot of bands putting out mini-albums that are basically EPs.

Early EPs, due to the fact that so few copies were pressed each time, are now often more valuable to audiophiles than the music perhaps warrants.

The high point of the EP era was probably the late 1980s and early-1990s, when you could still purchase vinyl relatively easily.

An entire generation of indie bands revolutionised the EP, notably USA-slackers Pavement and Sebadoh and UK indie darlings Ride and Swervedriver.

While for some of these bands, the EP functioned as a kind of filler between album projects, in a postmodern sense these EPs have now taken on a language all their own. To put it another way: they have been “reterritorialised”, and have taken an altogether different line of flight from the norm.

In recent times the EP has given way in popularity to the “Tour EP”, released whenever a band finds itself on foreign shores. Such discs often feature alternate takes of “hits”, live renditions and other b-side type trax.

It’s interesting to think of single releases that actually function as EPs too. Using the definition above, and bearing in mind how much more one can fit on a compact disc these days than was possible with, say 12″ singles and remixes, most single releases would qualify as EPs today, being usually over 10 minutes in total track length.

What’s hilarious is when a band releases a “single” on CD along with a “b-side” and even go so far as to dress the CD cover up as if it were vinyl. I know The Strokes did that with their early releases (“The Modern Age” and “Hard To Explain” were strictly singles).

The fact that they have yet to release a real EP suggests that The Strokes are a band going nowhere.

Or else, it’s me that’s out of touch.

You decide.

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