The Rise of the EP (and Why It’s Bad for Bands)

I think we can all agree that Bandcamp is a fairly wonderful thing. In our digital age, record labels no longer carry the power that they once did, so being able to put your music up at a price you control (or not, as you may prefer) is actually pretty fantastic. Streaming services like Spotify or Pandora, and even competing websites like SoundSupply and NoiseTrade, just don’t come close to the honest, flexible and simple format that Bandcamp provides. Indeed, where record labels have fallen down, Bandcamp’s put power back into the hands of the artist.

But what do 90% of them do with this power? Release EP after bloody EP after bloody EP.

We do a lot of reviews on here – in fact, we do more reviews than anything else because we get sent a lot of stuff by a lot of cool people. But the vast majority of our reviews are EPs, and the vast majority of promos we get sent are for EPs. Of course, we get sent a number of full albums too, but they don’t always get picked up first off the review queue because the time involved in reviewing them is longer. The reason for this is because the ideas presented in these records is often more complex, and there are often ties that bring songs together in ways that usually can’t be achieved in a shorter piece of work. In brief, it’s more effort to review an album because more effort’s gone into it. It’s not always the case, of course – there are plenty of albums rife with filler tracks and wasted opportunities – but on the whole, you’re going to find yourself with a record with growth potential. My concern with consecutive EP releases is that there’s no room to grow. Inevitably, those bands will fade out into nothing.

I’ve been going deep into nostalgia city lately, digging into the Long Island scene of the early 2000s. Plenty of bands who were part of that have been lost to the passage of time, but there’s two bands that instantly stand apart – Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. Rivalry notwithstanding, I genuinely believe that they’ve managed to keep going for over ten years with the same level of popularity because they had the opportunity to make great albums. It’s a different climate these days, admittedly – most bands these days are still working day jobs, touring opportunities are becoming less and less and nobody actually buys your CD any more (to be honest, don’t bother with CDs – vinyl or tapes are way more punk). EPs can be a great way to get noticed at first, but who still listens to the self-titled Taking Back Sunday EP or Brand New’s first demo? No, the records that we remember are Tell All Your Friends and Your Favourite Weapon, because they had room to grow. They provided the springboard for each band to develop new ideas, and by the time it came to record number two, their sound was more mature, more daring in places, and ultimately far more interesting than their humble beginnings. Putting out an EP that sounds exactly the same to your last one might keep your existing fans happy, but it’s not a surefire way of getting you new ones.

I’ve already forgotten the names of most of the pop-punk bands flooding into my inbox. Unless the record in question was really dire, I often can’t recall if we’ve covered it before without a gentle nod and a quick search through my Gmail. And the reason is because I’m presented with four tracks that don’t have much variation, either musically or in lyrical themes. These four tracks don’t sound wildly different to the other band I wrote about the week before, who also supplied four tracks with little difference in musical style and lyrical prowess. Usually, it’s not unlistenable – a quick three out of five, you’ll probably like it but you just won’t remember it after two weeks, enough said. However, with a little time, focus and ambition, most of these bands could easily become so much more.

I understand the appeal of EPs from a financial point of view. Less tracks to record and mix means that there’s less money to pay upfront. As a crowdfunding endeavour, you’ve got to raise less money, and when it gets to the end of it all, offering something at a lower price point means that people are more likely to pay for it. It’s a sad truth that people are less than willing to give a few quid up for a record they’ll play over and over again, and instead, they’ll sink that money into a few drinks on a night out. With an EP, you’ve got a greater chance of getting your investment back. I also understand that an EP takes a lot less time to put together and practise – with busy work schedules and the threat of every day life, I suppose it gets a little dull and a little impractical to try and create something bigger. But maybe, just maybe, it’s worth taking the risk and instead of doing that follow-up EP to your last two EPs, dare to do something a little differently.

There’s a few bands taking the EP approach and turning it on its head. Red Seas Fire, for example, are releasing a series of EPs over the course of a year which are all linked by a unifying theme. You can see a progression through the first two, and in fact, by releasing it in chunks (which will then later be combined into one record), they’re creating a lot of anticipation for their next release. Clever. Chronographs, on the other hand, are taking it to the extreme with single releases each month. Seeing as the band are split so far apart these days, they’re recording one song at a time and then releasing it, and they’re doing this for an entire year. It’s a bold move, and while I don’t necessarily agree with their musical transition – personally, I think that giving up the tech-metal was a real shame – I do think that their single-per-month idea has a lot of merit. In this case, they can evaluate whether a track worked or not and try a different approach next month if it didn’t. Like Red Seas Fire, it gives them the opportunity to remind their fans that they’re still around, and it allows them to generate continuous press interest. I also can’t think of anyone else who’s done it, which instantly gives them originality points. In the absence of time and a record label (and it’s not like they really give bands much funding these days – the average advance from an established label doesn’t cover living costs at all, and smaller, independent labels merely remove distribution and potential publicity costs… some of the time), there has to be a better way than the EP overload, and these guys have found a way around it.

Maybe the next generation prefers this non-permanence, always searching for something new, but me? I remember albums. Nothing beats the joy of listening to a record over a car journey (and having it last for a car journey, for a start) and being able to pick apart the best bits. Nothing beats that moment at a gig when a band picks your favourite track from album number three and the whole room goes batshit insane. Nothing beats hearing that story, or that emotion, evolve over 10–15 tracks, and feeling it all come together at once as the final song hits. That’s when music excites me. I’m not against EPs as a whole – they’re a great starting point, a handy stopgap between other records or a good opportunity to try out the unknown – but they shouldn’t be a band’s sole output.

If I could say just one thing to the bands who approach me asking for a write-up, it’d be to slow down. It can be tempting to try and get your name out there as soon as possible, but it’s worth taking the time to explore your sound and really discover what makes you unique. Don’t panic about being forgotten too quickly – if you’ve made something memorable, and you’re smart about your single releases and PR campaign, chances are that you’re going to be recognised a lot more readily than you think. And above all else? Don’t do a fucking mini-album.

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