Understanding the difference between an EP and an LP in depth means digging into the history of the music industry a bit. It's really quite interesting, and we'll do that but first I'll answer the questions outright.
As a fan or curious searcher, you want the quick answer. As anyone involved in the music industry, you're going to want to know the full details, because choosing to release an EP (a short album, basically) versus an LP (a full album) has everything to do with your budget, your marketing, and maximizing your revenue.
Let's get past the surface level stuff first so we're all on the same page, and then we'll talk about the nitty gritty and how you can take advantage of these two formats. EP's exist for a very tactical reason now, but it all started with vinyl records...
What is an LP?
LP stands for Long Play. In the past it was synonymous with the standardized 12-inch diameter phonographic record played at a speed of 33.3 RPM's. Today it simply refers to a full-length album, the time duration of which is varying widely due to the rise of the consumer digital audio format.
How Long is an LP?
In the past, we could fit around 15 to 22 minutes of high quality audio per side of a 12-inch vinyl record played at 33 RPM's. That meant a full LP album would range from 30 to 44 minutes in duration. We continued to follow this typical LP length format with analog cassette tapes and compact discs.
This generally meant an LP was around 10 to 12 songs around 3 to 3.5 minutes in length, with the full album ranging from 30 to 44 minutes in duration. This became a comfortable and expected experience for artists to fulfill.
In today's digital age the time limitation is slowly being disregarded. Many artists are releasing albums of increasing length while others are opting for shorter ones. Some are releasing only singles, as often seen is the electronic genre. The idea of a specific number of tracks is already completely discarded.
What is an EP?
EP stands for Extended Play. In the past and present, the label signifies the release of a "mini-album," one that is longer than a single but, typically, about half the length of a full LP album. There are several reasons artists opt for this format at times, including budget, marketing, and appealing to current, die-hard fans.
How Long is an EP?
The usual EP length in the past was largely based on the number of tracks, falling in the range of 3 to 6 songs on the track list. This usually meant the EP's duration landed around 15 to 22 minutes. In the present that time range and song count on the playlist can vary widely, as we'll discuss below.
Even in the present, though there are outliers, the general expectation seems to remain that an EP's length is in between 3 to 6 tracks and 15 to 30 minutes long. The focus is less on the length and more on the purpose of the release.
EP vs. LP - Summarized
To provide a quick recap:
- LP in music means Long Play and is a full length album.
- EP in music means Extended Play and is a half length album.
- EP is extended in the sense that it's longer than a single.
That's the very general answer, and though there are more details, that's all that really matters for the most important part of the discussion below, which is how to exploit these formats to further your music career.
The History of the LP & EP
As stated earlier, the LP was synonymous with the full length album on the 12-inch vinyl record medium. The LP was introduced in 1948 by Columbia and quickly became the standard for the entire industry.
The EP came about as a competing vinyl record format (and wasn't based on the play length originally). It was released by RCA Victor in 1952 as a 10-inch format meant to be played at 45 RPM's, holding around 7.5 minutes of audio on each side. Companies began using it to distribute compilations of singles and album samplers as well.
Due to the ability for record players to use different speeds and the success of 28 Elvis Presley EP albums, Walt Disney soundtracks, and classical music albums, the EP record gained a foothold and remained popular even as cassette tapes and CD's became introduced.
What is important to note is, even though the LP & EP were based on the physical medium of vinyl record diameters and playback speeds, the labels slowly came to signify time length and track numbers. But even then bands were already bucking the creative limitations.
As an example, the progressive rock band Yes released their album Close to the Edge. It contained only three songs. So is it an EP? Well, the first track is over 18 minutes and took up an entire side. The entire play time is 36 minutes and 25 seconds and required both sides of a full-size LP. This conundrum continues to arise, which we'll talk about next.
5 Ways Artists Use EP Albums Today
The real question is why do artists and labels release an EP album at all? Let's discuss a handful of legitimate reasons, ones that you can take advantage of yourself.
1) Maintaining a Release Schedule
Growing a fan base is important, but so is maintaining and engaging the fans you've already accumulated. One way to do that is to have a predictable and reliable release schedule for new music. Sometimes you may not have enough material ready or want to appease fans by using "B-side" songs.
You can market these releases to your enthusiastic fans without risking exposing new fans to material that doesn't represent your best efforts. They're cheaper to record, produce, and promote to your target audience. This keeps your fan base engaged until your next big album comes out and you begin your next tour.
2) Fulfilling an Undesirable Contract
There have been cases where artists sign a, for example, three album deal with a record label. For whatever reason, things aren't working out and you want to escape the contract. You can release EP's as a means of fulfilling your side of the deal.
That usually means new music, but in some cases it can be a single and a set of remixes that other artists create. It can mean a "Best of" compilation, acoustic versions of your most popular songs, or any other creative means to escape the contract without sullying your discography.
3) Using the Format as a Pre-Studio Release
Rappers do this, but they call them mixtapes instead. The idea is that you can go ahead and create music and products to sell to fans and use for promotion, and in the future they'll be considered independent releases and considered as separate from your debut studio album.
A big part of marketing is having a string of successful studio albums. So being able to be creative and provide existing fans with new music in the EP format allows you to maintain your spectacular record for only producing hits all while still enjoying a massive output.
Rappers will create tons of mixtapes and take the best songs of those and recreate them in order to use them on their studio albums. It's a great way to test out what the fan base is enjoying before spending the marketing money and expensive studio time on trying to gain new fans.
4) Allowing it to Act as a Stop Gap Between Big Albums
You'll laugh, but the masters of doing this are the Insane Clown Posse. Between every major album, which has a theme and could almost be called a concept album (their entire discography is a concept!), they'll release an EP that introduces the topic of the next big release.
It allows them to evolve musically, slowly introducing fans to the new sound and adjusting their expectations. It also keeps the raving fan base happy and excited. This can be new music, cutting room floor tracks that didn't make it on the previous big album, or anything else.
5) Releasing Music That is Great But Didn't Fit the Theme
Albums have sonic characteristics and emotional themes usually. Sometimes you write and record amazing songs that deserve to be heard but don't fit on your next big project thematically. A great way to release them is through the EP format.
Another example of Tech N9ne, who is famous for "never wasting a song." He says that he releases every song he ever records, and if you look at his discography you'll believe it based on his monumental output. Much of this consists of EP's that exist for the reason that they didn't fit on the previous albums.
What Qualifies as an EP in Music Distribution?
Now that you know why you might release a "mini-LP" or EP, you need to understand what qualifies these days when it comes to online music distribution. I'm specifically talking about platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and the countless others.
Let's focus on the big two: Spotify and Apple Music. The reason this matters is because Apple Music will actually add the "EP" label to your release if you meet their conditions, even if you didn't want it. Spotify will place your release down at the bottom under "EP's & Singles" rather than under "Albums." So you want to be very careful here, depending on your goals.
In Apple Music:
If your album meets either of the following requirements, it will be considered an EP:
- The release includes 1 to 3 tracks total, one or more tracks are equal to or exceed 10 minutes in length, and the entire release is under 30 minutes in duration.
- The release includes 4 to 6 tracks and the entire release is under 30 minutes in duration.
Again, your album will automatically have "-EP" added to the title if you meet these conditions.
Your release will be classified under the EP category if both of the following conditions are met:
- The release is less than 30 minutes in duration.
- The release has 4 to 6 tracks in total.
Your album title will not be changed, but it will be placed in the separate "EP's & Singles" category below the "Albums" category.
So What is an LP Album & What is an EP Album?
Who cares! At this point (except for the requirements laid out by the digital music platforms) the time limits and track number counts don't really matter. Kanye West just released several albums that could be called EP's but aren't. Artists are thrusting off the constraints and letting creativity reign supreme.
I suggest using the nomenclature of an EP as a tactical marketing strategy. Use it to keep your "studio album" discography pristine and perfect. Release anything not meant to be a main album as an EP or compilation so you can keep feeding your fans what they want, so when your next big LP comes out they still care about you and come to see you on tour.
The truth is these definitions are constantly in flux and have been changing nearly every decade since the vinyl record was invented. I'd worry less about the technical aspects and concern myself more with how I can use it in my music marketing plan. And that's the current difference between an EP & LP. It's becoming more blurry every day.