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Singles, Albums, EPs, LPs – What’s The Difference?

You’ve probably heard all these words before and never really questioned them. However, these terms are very important for artists releasing music and are commonly misunderstood. In this article we are going to tell you exactly what singles, albums, LPs, and EPs are, and what the differences are between them.

Single, EP, LP, Album – What's The Difference?

So what's the difference between a single, EP, LP & album? Let us explain:

  • Single: A single is usually a single song that has been released – often to promote an upcoming release – however, they can also contain more than one song. Singles can be no longer 25 minutes overall and no more than four songs.
  • EP: EP stands for extended play record and refers to a release that contains more tracks than a single and less than an album/LP. These are also sometimes called EP albums or a mini album. EPs are usually four or five tracks and are considered less expensive and time consuming to produce than an album.
  • LP: LP stands for long play and refers to a full-length album. The difference between LPs and albums arises from the physical type of release. Historically LPs have been released on vinyl and CD and have become less popular since the invention of digital streaming.
  • Album: An album is a release of 5 or more songs, or a release that is longer than 25 minutes in total.

It is essential for artists to know the difference between these formats as they each play a specific role in the strategy and promotion of a release and for an artist’s development in their music career.

For example, EPs can be used as filler between albums and don't always have the best work on them or flow as well. Albums take a lot more time and are more designed as an artistic journey as opposed to EPs. However, the EP category has its own benefits, especially at the beginning of an artist's career as they can create music to generate a buzz and find their target audience.

Singles, EPs & LPs Time Limits Were Because of Past Technological Limits

Singles became the major form of record sales from the 1960s onwards in the form of the 7-inch vinyl record. Singles were released on double sided 45 rpm vinyl records where the ‘main’ release would be on the ‘A-Side’ and a more obscure song would be on the ‘B-Side’.

These single releases made it easier for the artist’s most popular songs to be sold and played and also to increase demand for their next full-length release by giving fans a taste of what was to come.

The EP was also initially a 7-inch vinyl record but contained more songs than singles. It was often used in the fifties and sixties by labels to sell all of the artist’s hits in one greatest hits release.

The first double EP released in Britain was The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ in 1967. This was spread over two 7-inch discs and was the music from their film. This shows that EPs were not just a different physical format but that they were clearly defined artistically as something different from an album.

The Beatles used the EP format – despite producing a full LP worth of new music – to separate their music from their film output.

LPs are 12-inch records with a speed of 33 1⁄3 rpm – first introduced by Columbia Records in 1948. LPs could initially only contain 23 minutes of music per side and they hugely increased the ability for musical releases to tell stories and experiment with different forms – particularly in concept albums.

From this point, the continual development of technology has led to these forms being available in smaller and more compact mediums – cassette, CD, MP3 – and each of these has increased the amount of time available to artists per release.

For example, the introduction of CDs in the 1980s changed music by allowing up to 79 minutes of music on a disc. This enabled more creative experimentation and artistic space in albums.

In the age of streaming the length of an album is almost unlimited and artists have much more control over the length of each release.

So Just How Long is An Album?

On iTunes and Apple Music any release with seven or more songs will be considered an album. Any release with less than seven tracks that is longer than 30 minutes in total will also be considered an album.

There is no official classification available from Spotify and it appears that the format of a release is determined by distributors (distributors use similar parameters to Apple to decide how many songs are in a single, an album, or an EP).

The 2018 studio album ‘Ye’ by Kanye West is roughly 23 minutes long. Yet it is still considered an album because it has 7 tracks. This is a very short album especially compared to Drake’s release of the same year, ‘Scorpion’ – which has 25 tracks and is nearly 90 minutes long. Despite this huge difference in length and the number of tracks, both albums debuted at number 1 in the US.

This shows us that the flexibility given to artists in album length, and the number of tracks, allows them to fully express their artistic vision. Both Kanye West and Drake’s albums were successful – potentially because they were allowed to express their vision fully within the album format – regardless of whether this vision is long or short.

Indeed, artists still favour full-length albums as they leave more room and offer more layers to tell a story and therefore require more time, energy, and money than other projects. So, regardless of how long an album is, it is still representative of a more complete version of an artist’s vision.

How Long Is An EP Then?

Apple Music identifies an EP (extended play) as four to six songs with a total duration of 30 minutes or less. An EP can also be a release of one to three songs where one song is over 10 minutes but the overall running time for the release is 30 minutes or less.

A release with one to three songs where none are over 10 minutes long is a single.

EPs are therefore a category between singles and full-length albums and have long been popular with punk and indie bands. This is mainly due to the shorter timeframes and comparative cheapness of making an EP rather than an album. They are also better at presenting an artist’s vision than singles.

In the past EPs have been used to promote new bands and artists by record label. For example, the first entire release by Kings of Leon after they were signed was their EP ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’. This allowed their label to attract fans with a preview of the band at a lower price point which required less investment of money and time from customers. They also allowed the success of the EP to inform what would work well on a full length album release.  

Since the creation and domination of music streaming platforms, singles and EPs have become an integral part of artist’s promotional strategies. Regularly putting out shorter releases before and after albums allows for artists to stay relevant and retain fan engagement between albums and tours.

The role of EPs has changed, and is continuing to change, because of technical advancement and the result that has had on the cultural consumption of music.

Artistic Discretion or Industry Jargon?

Singles and EPs are still being used – in most cases – to promote albums and longer releases. These terms are still useful, however their definitions have changed massively since they were first used and are still changing today.

The music industry today has come to reflect the rapidly moving times we live in. ‘Trending’ sounds and playlists change weekly and artists and record labels have changed their strategy to keep up with this.

Where albums used to be the dominant form of release, many musicians and labels now use a singles-based approach, which aims at producing work little and often in order to keep momentum and engagement high.

Camilla Cabello has released a total of 26 singles, one EP and two studio albums. This emphasis on singles reflects her viral success as an artist who captures quick trends. Traditionally artists would go a long time between full album projects, disappear and then come back as a big event – yet Cabello has been aiming to stay relevant and trending by constantly releasing content.

This is the total opposite to Ed Sheeran, who remains almost completely silent between album releases. Yet both he and Cabello had albums in the top 5 most streamed albums of 2021 on Spotify.

The album format is also undergoing large changes. Many artists are releasing their albums in multiple different versions. This helps to have a more frequent output to keep positive algorithm trajectory.

For example, Dua Lipa’s second full album ‘Future Nostalgia’ was released in three separate forms – ‘Future Nostalgia’, ‘Club Future Nostalgia’ (a remixed version of the album, released 5 months after), and ‘Future Nostalgia (The Moonlight Edition)’ (a deluxe version of the album released 6 months later with 4 new songs and collaborations she had been releasing in the meantime).

All these albums belong to the same album campaign/release cycle and they all serve to increase streams of the album by bundling in her collaborations and new material. Dua Lipa is able to release the same songs multiple times over a certain period of time in order to maintain engagement and increase streams for that release.

Where one album used to be enough, artists are now increasing album lengths and boundaries in order to increase and prolong engagement.

Are Albums Getting Longer?

Album lengths vary year by year and artist to artist. They are not getting any longer or shorter. Based on data of the top 5 albums on Spotify in 2018, the average album length rose by 10 minutes to a total of 60. In 2021 the top 5 albums were an average of 42 minutes long. There is no data to support albums getting short or longer, over a wider range.

A reason for the increase in album length is, with a large number of tracks, the artist will get more streams – as people will have to listen to more to hear the whole album – and therefore will be more profitable and successful for the artist's streaming numbers.

This does not necessarily mean a more successful album however and many artists are choosing to prioritise quality over quantity in order to make a good album. In 2021 the five most streamed albums on Spotify were an average of roughly 42 minutes long and this shows us that album lengths are still changing.

Where do mixtapes fit in?

Mixtapes are primarily used by new artists trying to break into the scene and gain popularity – this is usually hip-hop and rap artists.

These mixtapes are often distributed, either physically or online, for free as a form of promotion for new artists. There is no limit to what songs, or how many of them, are put onto a mixtape.

Chance the Rapper’s first release was the ‘10 Day’ Mixtape, and it was available for free digital download.

‘10 Day’ was shared by thousands of fans and generated a lot of buzz in the media which led to Chance the Rapper generating a large fanbase ahead of his next release.

Mixtapes are the most free form of release as there are no traditional rules surrounding them. The artist is able to be completely experimental in length and content and – as they are often independently released for free – they do not have to hit targets set by record labels.  

Summary

In this article we have covered the origins of, definitions of, and differences between singles, EPs, LPs, and albums. These forms of release were invented a long time ago and, while the terms are still in use, they now mean something different to what they did originally.

Releases have changed a lot since all music was released on vinyl record and now, in the age of streaming, they are still changing fast.

None of these forms are better or worse than each other. When you are releasing music it is important to chose the right one for you, depending on where you are in the music industry.