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For decades, the EP was the odd man out of recorded-music formats. Typically featuring three to six songs in under a half-hour, an EP had little of the album's weight or the A-and-B-sided single's instant focus; usually they were where an album's outtakes went. The format is perfect for punk (one of whose founding documents was the Buzzcocks' four-song Spiral Scratch, released January 1977) and has been a constant in dance music, where a 12 inch is a 12 inch however many tracks it has. (Tellingly, dance adepts have long called even two-song releases "EPs.") They've been rare on major labels, though, with only a handful of artists—among them Alice in Chains, Mariah Carey, and Eazy-E—taking them Top 10.
But digital listening hasn't only sundered recorded music's distribution and availability. It has also made formats more fluid. Chances are a hot new act you're seeing is peddling an EP rather than an album. Sweden's the Royal Concept are getting modern-rock radio airplay with the peppy "Gimme Twice," off their self-titled Universal/Republic EP, and when Azealia Banks's four-song 1991 was delayed by Interscope last April, the 21-year-old Harlem rapper's tweet (her hashtag of choice was #newartistproblems) was picked up as news by multiple outlets—something it's impossible to imagine of an EP even a few years ago.
Veteran acts, too, are starting to use EPs to edge back into the spotlight. Take two bands whose last new albums came out in 1999. In June, Texas trio ZZ Top released Mexicali, an EP with four songs that will be on the band's forthcoming album (iTunes customers will receive a prorated discount when they buy the whole thing), while the other week, indie-rock lifers Sebadoh released the five-song Surprise EP via the DIY digital-distribution website Bandcamp.
"We have recorded 20 new songs and would have liked to have released a whole album this fall, but Lou [Barlow]'s commitment to Dinosaur Jr. made it an impossibility," explains Sebadoh guitarist Jason Loewenstein via e-mail. "We decided we could tide ourselves over by making an EP to coincide with [our] August tour."
Even in the digital world, labels help set the tone: Most of the freely downloadable releases from Scion A/V, an offshoot of the Toyota Motor Company, are EPs, for example. But Loewenstein is "optimistic" for a world without middlemen: "I would love it if between digital distribution, mail order, and our fans' enthusiasm, we could do without a label altogether."
Part of the EP's new draw is how quickly it can enter the dialogue; it's more adaptable to the hype cycle than a full album might be. Los Angeles r&b singer Miguel is signed to RCA, but earlier this year, he did some viral marketing on his own and released a freebie trio of three-song EPs titled Art Dealer Chic Vol. 1–3 online.
"Art Dealer Chic was a great way for me to reconnect with my peers," Miguel said backstage last week after a blazing Joe's Pub performance. "I felt like I'd lost touch with the people that I hang out with—that go to the same shows, listen to the same music, read the same blogs, same magazines."
"We're bombarded all the time by so much information from different directions," he continued. "This way, you got to appreciate the songs at the pace I wanted. It's easier to digest, to think, in smaller quantities. When you go to a restaurant, the chef prepares the courses [individually]; then, in the end, you can reflect on it as an entire meal. That was the approach." (Miguel has also trailed his October-slated album, Kaleidoscope Dream, with a three-song sampler, Kaleidoscope Dream—The Water Preview. If comparing him to ZZ Top seems odd, keep in mind that Miguel covered the Zombies at Joe's Pub.)
"I know a lot of [musicians] that break up the format and do one song a month for a year or six months, which will end up becoming an EP," says Erika Spring, a member of the Brooklyn trio Au Revoir Simone. "A lot of people I've talked to plan to do that. It seems to really appeal to a lot of songwriters, to present music at the same pace you're able to create it."
Spring recently issued a self-titled five-song EP on Cascine. "It was just this thing that came together as five songs," she says, adding that they weren't intended as a fixed unit. "It was just sort of: 'I have these songs. Let's see what they sound like recorded.' It was a matter of actually recording them and realizing that it felt complete. I didn't wait to stretch it into an LP. It's nice to have things like Bandcamp, where you can just post a song. A lot of people actually build their careers from that: One song on YouTube or Bandcamp, then people respond to it. They know there's a demand and start making an EP."
It's almost test marketing.