by Native Instruments

EP vs. LP: What’s the difference? Does it matter in 2024?

An image of records

Music formats are a tricky business in the 2020s. Musicians used to be limited by the media they used. Vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs all had their constraints, which shaped the way that music was released. In the digital era, few limits exist. A music release could be five seconds long or last an entire day. How can we decide which format to release in?

The terminology has also gotten confused. Words like “EP” and “LP” come from old media, and their modern definitions are vague. So what is an EP exactly, and what is an LP? In this article, we’ll define these terms, explain the pros and cons of EPs vs LPs, and give examples of artists using both formats to their advantage. While it may not settle the EP vs. LP vs. album debate once and for all, this article should give you the confidence to release your music in the format that’s right for you.

Jump to these sections:

  1. What is an EP?
  2. What is an LP?
  3. What is an album?
  4. The pros and cons of EPs vs. LPs
  5. Start releasing your music

What is an EP?

An EP is a music release that contains more tracks than a single (which typically has 1–2 tracks) and fewer than an album. Most EPs tend to feature around 3–6 tracks, with a runtime of 10–30 minutes. Besides these loose constraints, EPs can take many forms. Where a single might present an artist’s most crowd-pleasing track, and an album offers a deep musical statement, an EP can be almost anything you want it to be.

EP stands for “extended play,” a name that comes from the vinyl era. For much of the 20th Century, the length of music releases was dictated by the medium they were released on. When vinyl records were king, the EP plugged the gap between the 7” single (which could only contain two fairly short tracks) and the longer LP or album. EPs tended to be overshadowed by LPs, but legendary work was released in the EP format, like The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, a double EP featuring the soundtrack to their TV movie with the same name.

Over time, cassettes, CDs, and digital downloads joined the party. The practical constraints of EPs and LPs became less important — though many music fans still enjoy vinyl — but the EP remains popular. More weighty than a single but easier to put together than an album, EPs are a handy stepping stone in a musician’s catalog.

Modern artists release EPs to build an audience at the start of their career, keep listeners interested between albums, and gather up loose tracks that don’t fit onto their longer releases. EPs are particularly popular in certain genres, such as dance music. Dance acts like Disclosure release some of their best work as EPs.

Why is an EP not an album?

An EP is shorter and contains fewer tracks than most albums. In the EP vs LP debate, an EP is defined by what it isn’t: it has too many tracks to be a single, and too few to be an album/LP. Any release that sits in this intermediate zone might be considered an EP.

What is an LP?

An LP, short for “long play,” is a 12” vinyl record that can contain an album’s-worth of music: around 20 minutes per side. When vinyl was the dominant music format, albums were released as LPs. In fact, the constraints of the LP format defined the album as we know it. It’s no coincidence that the typical album length (around 40 minutes) corresponds to the length of an LP. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors — considered by many as one of the best LPs of all time — is almost exactly 39 minutes long.

As formats progressed, musicians were no longer limited by what an LP could hold. A CD, for example, can contain about 74 minutes of music, and digital albums can be virtually any length. Although, 40 minutes has remained a loose standard length for albums. That’s why some people still use the terms interchangeably, referring to albums as LPs even if they are released on formats other than vinyl.

What is an album?

An album is a longer music release that typically contains multiple tracks. Albums are closely associated with the vinyl LP format, and many people use the terms “album” and “LP” interchangeably. However, albums can also be released on CD and digitally — via streaming or download.

Albums are likely to be longer than 30 minutes and contain a minimum of six average-length tracks, but these are not fixed rules. The stoner metal album Dopesmoker by Sleep contains just one 72 minute-long track, while the Beach Boys’ 1967 album Wild Honey contains 11 tracks but is only 24 minutes long. Though they bend the “rules,” both are clearly albums.

What makes an album an album? The album was the dominant music format from the 1960s until the early 21st Century, a period referred to as the “album era.” Releasing an album is a milestone in an artist’s career. Most musicians try to put out an album every year or so, with singles and EPs in between.

You could say that an album is an album when it feels important. A shorter multi-track release might be called an EP or mini-album, while a long but less significant release might be called a mixtape. For many musicians and fans, albums are still the main event.

The pros and cons of EPs vs. LPs

So should you release an EP or an LP? Both formats have their pros and cons, and their status has shifted in the streaming era. The album (or LP) remains an important format, but EPs are more important than ever. To understand why, let’s look at some stats.

Streaming has changed the way we listen to music. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 32% of listeners now use streaming platforms like Spotify, and 31% listen to music on video platforms like TikTok and YouTube. Only 9% purchase music in traditional formats. Streaming encourages listeners to ignore the format of a release and cherry pick songs from across releases, or let algorithmic playlists steer their listening.

This makes the EP a useful format. EPs can have more impact than singles: by gathering multiple tracks together, an EP offers more songs for a fan to potentially fall in love with. But listeners don’t expect the “cohesiveness” from an EP that they do from an album, meaning it’s okay if your EP is a motley assortment of tracks, each with a different quality that might catch the ears of listeners and playlisters.

Many modern artists use the EP format to their advantage. For example, Get Up by NewJeans helped catapult the K-pop group into global stardom – though the EP is only 12 minutes long.

Albums, in contrast to EPs, are expected to be deep, cohesive musical statements. This means they take more time and care to create. According to the IFPI study, most streaming listeners search for specific songs, artists, or playlists, while only a minority listen to specific albums. Given this, is it worth laboring over an album that many listeners won’t hear in its original form?

Time is also an important factor. In the crowded media landscape of the 2020s, it’s harder than ever to hold listeners’ attention. If you spend a year quietly working on an LP, your fans might forget you exist. Releasing two or three EPs in the same period could keep them more engaged.

In many cases, it makes more sense to release an EP versus an LP. This is especially true if you’re early in your career and trying to build an audience. EPs are an easier and more effective way of doing this.

These factors might help explain the decline of the album format. According to Statista, album sales in the United States dropped from 501 million units in 2007 – the dawn of streaming – to 102 million units in 2020, while overall music consumption rose over that time. We’re listening to more music than ever, just not in the album format.

Is the album dead? Not quite. There are still strong benefits to this iconic format. The qualities that make albums challenging to create are exactly what make them so special. The best albums are profound listening experiences that can stay with us for a lifetime.

Your most dedicated fans will care deeply about your albums. Even in the streaming era, making a great album can be the ticket to wider recognition and cultural impact. Don’t give up on the idea of making an album – when the time is right.

Start releasing your music

In this article we waded into the EP vs. LP vs. album debate. We defined these often confusing terms, explained their origins, and explored the relevance of these music formats in the modern music landscape. Now that you have a grasp on the most common music formats, it’s time to start using this knowledge to release your own music.

Komplete Start is a great tool for creating your own EPs and LPs. This free music production software package gives you everything you need to make music, from powerful synths to samples and audio effects.

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