They don’t make albums like they used to. These days, acts like Lady Gaga, Michael Bublé and the cast of Glee are keeping it short and cheap with the EP— an “extended play” release that generally features under ten songs for under $10. Sure the full-length, full-price set is alive, if not altogether well, but lately the EP is giving it a run for its online retail money.
Leading the parade of EP-embracing pop stars is Sweden’s Robyn. Rather than following up her 2005 self-titled international breakthrough with a proper album, Robyn released three Body Talk EPs over the course of five months this year. Five tracks from each EP appear on her fifth full-length album, also called Body Talk, which hit stores on November 22nd. Twelve days earlier, another buzzed-about Swedish act, the Radio Dept. released their eleventh EP, Never Follow Suit.
Last year, fellow Canucks Justin Bieber and Drake both preceded their platinum 2010 full-length debuts with successful EPs, and Lady Gaga released The Fame Monster as an addendum to The Fame — a stand-alone set. Not only did it go platinum and launch three Top 10 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it just received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (possibly an EP first). More recently, Usher’s Raymond v. Raymond EP spin-off, Versus, went Top 10, as did Michael Bublé’s Crazy Love offshot, Hollywood: The Deluxe EP. Ke$ha‘s Animal sequel and/or companion piece, Cannibal, came out on November 22nd, followed by Adam Lambert‘s Acoustic Live! EP which arrived this week. Ke$ha’s Cannibal was the first of the recent flood of EPs to spawn a No. 1 single: the one-week wonder “We R Who We R.”
Of course, where there’s a music trend, Glee soon follows. There’ve been three Glee EPs so far, including Glee: The Music, The Power of Madonna, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart last spring.
This holiday season, Michael Bublé, Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift all have Top 40 Christmas EPs, as does America’s Got Talent‘s 10-year-old opera-singing sensation Jackie Evancho. O Holy Night, her four-song EP (with a bonus DVD) entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 2, with first-week sales of 239,000, beating out new albums by multi-platinum superstars Rihanna, Josh Groban, Kid Rock, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. The lower retail list price ($8) helped, but EPs are cheaper to produce and usually aren’t marketed as heavily —or expensively — as regular albums, which in recent years have been producing significantly diminished returns on a still-costly investment. When the contents of EPs are mostly live tracks or leftovers from the studio sessions for the preceding album, artists and record labels can reap financial benefits from them with minimized overhead cost.
One already noticeable effect of the EP explosion is that full-length albums (in their original state, minus iTunes, deluxe-edition and Japanese-version extras) are getting shorter. Gone, for the most part, are those marathon seventeen-song sets, padded with filler just so fans can feel like they are getting a lof for their money. More pop stars are wrapping it up after ten to thirteen tracks. The official version of Susan Boyle’s The Gift features ten, while Rihanna’s Loud has eleven, which is the same length as Live It Up, the debut album from American Idol season-nine champ Lee DeWyze. Christina Aguilera and Cher’s Burlesque soundtrack is a concise ten songs (compared to Aguilera’s eighteen-track Bionic from June), as is Duffy’s just-released sophomore set, Endlessly.
Expect the lines between EPs and regular albums to become more blurred in the future, to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart. Fans may end up getting fewer songs per release, but for artists looking to make an easier buck while keeping new music on the radio (or elsewhere) less is going to be so much more.
By Jeremy Helligar
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.