Short but Sweet — The Growth of the EP Format in the Age of Streaming
It’s not difficult to see how quickly the way we communicate with the rest of the world has changed drastically because of the internet. Easy access to online content and streaming platforms has changed the way record companies and independent artists release music. It is challenging to build a stable fan base and it could take an artist years to perfect an album. Trends and popular artists change so quickly in the digital age because of constant stimulation, and even more so for those deeply connected to social media. Therefore, by releasing an EP in a shorter amount of time, artists are able to offer a steady stream of releases to keep the interest of fans.
This is exponentially important for new artists trying to build up a reliable fan base. Money also has a substantial influence on why EPs have become more popular, and the consistent release of EPs in-between album projects generates a more reliable income for artists. Instead of being active every few years for the period before and after the release of an album (where, along with touring, artists have traditionally made the majority of their money), with EPs, artists can fill the gaps in between albums with marketable content. It is also significantly cheaper for newer artists to drop an EP instead of putting in double the resources and time to produce a debut album. In recent years, EPs have risen in popularity and have the potential to rival the importance of the album. This provides the framework for why the following contemporary EPs have gained so much traction.
Don’t Forget About Me — Dominic Fike
For an artist with no prior releases (not even singles), the massive popularity of Don’t Forget About Me is uncanny. Dominic Fike was a relatively unknown indie hip hop, rock, and pop artist from Naples, Florida who dropped songs now and again on SoundCloud, then one fateful day he uploaded a demo/EP, Don’t Forget About Me. What resulted was an intense bidding war between labels to sign him, while he was in prison nonetheless. Since its official studio release with the winning label, Columbia Records, all six songs on the EP have over twelve million streams on Spotify. The most popular song, «3 Nights,» has a whopping 618 million streams. Don’t Forget About Me is so impactful as a body of work that it was selected as an album pick for this site at the height of the EP’s popularity in 2018. Fike released the album What Could Possibly Go Wrong in 2020 and it still doesn’t have half of the popularity of Don’t Forget About Me. Now, this doesn’t mean his career is over or that his debut album wasn’t still popular, but the abrupt fame of Fike’s EP was that intense. Since the EP only has six songs, it is recommended for unfamiliar listeners to give all of them a try. Dominic Fike’s music is best described as an audible blend of every variation of indie music you could imagine, all cohesively combined by smooth vocals. Following the tad of folk influence in his music, each song has an independent storyline and mood. Fike also released a music video along with the biggest hit off of his EP, «3 Nights,» though it doesn’t have as much significance in release strategy nor story as the series of videos created for the following EP.
Love Language — UMI
UMI did not have a dramatic introduction to the music industry like Dominic Fike, but that doesn’t mean her debut EP Love Language didn’t have an impact. She had released two songs prior to this EP, and since its release, it has gained a steady increase in appreciation and recognition. Now two years later, every song on the EP has over 5 million streams on Spotify. This is quite the achievement for an up-and-coming artist with only two singles under her belt prior and no dramatic piece of personal information for news headlines. With such limited exposure, UMI still strategically released this EP as her recognition was gradually increasing. Before the awaited release of Love Language, she went on tour in the summer of 2019 with Cuco (a popular indie-pop artist) which built her a budding fanbase. Then when her EP was officially released in October, UMI went on another tour as the opener for Conan Gray’s Comfort Crowd Tour. Through this tour, she was able to perform her debut EP around the country. The strategic placement of her EP’s release between two tours with popular artists has no doubt helped increase her listeners. I attended a Conan Gray concert having never before heard of UMI’s existence; I walked out of the venue that night with her whole EP saved on my Spotify.
In addition to being an EP, Love Language is also a collection of music videos. UMI did not release the EP all at once, instead, she released each «episode» (music video) of the EP on YouTube in tandem with the drop of their respective songs on streaming platforms. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this scheduled release of songs with their music videos was strategic; we live in a digital age where fans are hungry for as much content as they can get their hands on at one time. However, the release of these videos wasn’t just for marketing. The plot of the Love Language episodes is equally as important as the music in bringing UMI to life for potential fans. While the EP alone offers comfort to listeners with her velvety R&B voice and sincere lyrics, the videos share her sense of humor and whimsical creativity. UMI was able to create a cohesive narrative from the four songs on her EP, and it is recommended that new listeners give these videos a try. With the layers of planning that went into the timing and method of release, UMI maximized the benefits of a debut EP.
Sail Out — Jhene Aiko
Compared to the other two artists, Jhené Aiko had an unnatural amount of recognition in the music industry before the release of an EP. She released the single «No L.O.V.E» back in 2003, but beyond that had no solo releases until the EP Sail Out in 2013. Regardless of this minuscule amount of content, Sail Out had success almost immediately because of how well-known Aiko’s voice is in collaborations with some of the music industry’s most famous artists. Aiko has featured on the track «From Time» on Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, «Growing Apart (To Get Closer)» on Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated, and «Beware» on Big Sean’s Hall of Fame; the total number of streams on these songs respectively are 299 million, 12 million, and 210 million. Because of the big song features Aiko had before her EP’s release, she gained a cult following within the R&B community for her unique voice.
This explains why every song on her subsequent EP had streams ranging from 20 million to 189 million. After being on so many highly coveted features, this collection of seven songs held Aiko’s fans over before the release of her debut album Souled Out in 2014, notice how the titles of the debut EP and album reference each other. Aiko’s Sail Out is another exceptional example of an artist using an EP to maximize their popularity. This EP gave the world a small sample of Aiko’s unique, smooth voice and anguished R&B music that now makes her one of the top artists in the world today. Sailed Out is not recommended for those wishing to be cheered up, but excellent for creating a feeling of solidarity in sadness. Aiko also released a handful of music videos for some of the songs on the EP. The video for «Bed Peace» with Childish Gambino best encompasses the meaning behind both the track and the title of the EP so it is recommended to give it a watch, though the videos for «The Worst,» «Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle),» and «3:16AM» could benefit listeners as well.
Sunset Season — Conan Gray
The story of Sunset Season is similar to UMI’s Love Language. Both EPs are debuts, however, Conan Gray did not go on tours with other popular artists at the beginning of his professional career. Instead, Gray got his start from having a fanbase for his YouTube channel that was a blend of well-done covers and personal videos about his daily life. Months before the release of Sunset Season in 2018, Gray’s covers and other videos consistently pulled in hundreds of thousands of views. This shows that he had already built a sizable following before the release of his EP, and thus was able to capitalize faster than artists who start from scratch and then need to open tours for other artists or be featured on other songs. Gray also immediately went on tour with the release of Sunset Season, and this further solidified the steady growth of his popularity as the new face of indie, bedroom pop.
Though his preemptive fanbase on YouTube does not mean Gray did not also have humble beginnings. According to a tweet, he «started this EP in the bedroom of [his] tiny town, recording on a mic [he’d] taped to a broken lamp» which speaks to the modest start of this now-famous artist. Currently, he is the 197th most popular artist in the world according to Spotify streams. Conan Gray’s music is best described as indie-pop/rock, though Sunset Season specifically sounds dreamy and more like bedroom pop than his later music, fitting for the imagined sound of a sunset. His voice is also higher pitched than most men, and the smoothness of it heightens the dreamlike quality of the rest of the instrumentals. The videos for «Crush Culture» and «Generation Why» emphasize the tracks’ dreamy sound with their faded, often slow motion, visuals. In his later work, more specifically Kid Krow, Gray delves into a more emotionally gritty and less dreamy sound, though still keeping the core of his unique vocals.
THE FALLING MAN — Duckwrth
Uniquely, the release of THE FALLING MAN was not a significant turning point in Duckwrth’s career. He has been an active punk, hip hop artist since 2014, and at the time of this 2019 release, he had three albums and twelve singles released. THE FALLING MAN was also placed two years after the release of the album An Xtra Ugly Mixtape and one year before SuperGood. The drop of this EP prevented a three year long (almost four year) hiatus for Duckwrth which likely helped him keep the interest of fans. But just because Duckwrth was an established artist at the time of this EP’s release does not mean it was merely a placeholder. There is a lot of storytelling and effort visible in this EP; he created a short film in addition to other emotional music videos for its songs. Within THE FALLING MAN EP and short film, Duckwrth tackles a range of deep themes. In the words of the caption on YouTube, this EP is «what happens when your fears manifest and become real[.] In this four-act short film, you will watch as The Falling Man battles with his fear of vulnerability & betrayal, love & commitment, social status and even death itself.» The film itself is separated into acts as if it’s a play, and the costume designs are intentionally crafted to look as if they are typical props you would see in a live play. This is meant to relate the concepts of THE FALLING MAN with the famous works of Shakespeare. There’s also intentional classical music influence in the tracks to play up the play drama vibe it is meant to convey; this is most apparent in the song «A WILDFIRE.» Regardless of the audible quality in the EP by itself, the short film is a necessity for fully appreciating Duckwrth’s artistry.
The many reasons for the recent increase of EPs—whether it be used to maintain an established artist’s following in between albums, to give a new artist a starting point before their debut album, or simply to gain money—help explain why they have become as important as albums for developing artists. Many newer artists choose to begin their career with a debut EP before their first album and then proceed to tour on just that EP. Therefore, critics and websites dedicated to new music have begun to treat EPs with the same respect as albums. Fans also have begun to consume EPs in the same way as albums; this is exemplified by the massive amount of listeners for Conan Gray and UMI after just the release of their EPs. In some cases, the songs on an artist’s EP can have more streams than their albums, as in the case of Dominic Fike. Though EPs are growing in status, the artistic benefits from long, story arcs that are deeply explored and expanded upon in full-length albums will likely continue to hold true in addition to other unique qualities of albums. But as we carry on through the digital age and see a continued trend of growing EP popularity and critical acceptance, there is a possibility that EPs will be held to, at most, the same regard as full-length albums; it will be key for new listeners to pay attention to them.