By Ricardo Baca
The Denver Post
The full-length album used to be king of the mountain. But now major labels are learning that shorter may be better.
EPs - originally extended-play "single" releases that are shorter than traditional albums - have long been popular with punk and indie bands. But some industry insiders predict that major-label acts will follow the lead of artists like Lady Gaga, who released "The Fame Monster" EP in November, and watched it soar.
Why? Consumers' buying habits are evolving faster than the arrival of the latest iTunes software upgrade, and the industry's big players are being forced to adapt.
Imagine a wonky world where Susan Boyle releases her music via digital-only singles while My Chemical Romance puts out three EPs in place of a full-length record. While U2, Green Day and others of their stature will likely stay strong on the full-length CD train, others - maybe T.I., Kelly Clarkson or the All American Rejects - might resort to releasing shorter records.
Those are just hypotheticals, but music-business leaders noticed when "The Fame Monster" peaked on the Billboard charts at No. 5.
Surely, the full-length record isn't dead. But it's clearly ailing.
"If people want their music in a box, you don't give it to them in a suitcase," said Ryan Tedder, the Denver-based frontman for OneRepublic and a prominent pop songwriter and producer. "Some big artists will be putting out singles or EPs this coming year, and it's all about them trying to meet their fans where they're at."
Today's pop-music fans are more technologically savvy than ever. They know how to download singles - and whether they're paying or not is another issue. More important, many fans only want the single. They've sampled the record in its entirety on music sites like lala.com, and they're OK with owning only two songs off the album, even from their favorite artists.
The trend is as alarming for major labels as it is for the artists who call those labels home.
"As an artist, I'll do whatever it takes to respond to where this country and industry are at," said Tedder, who penned and produced his group's hits "Apologize" and "All the Right Moves."
"For OneRepublic, this new album could be the last full-length we ever release. If this record only sells singles, then that says something, and our next album might be split into two EPs. If this album grows and grows and becomes a monster, then it might mean that we have the kind of fans who buy albums."
Tedder knows of multiple major-label acts that will release EPs and singles in 2010, though he's not at liberty to name names just yet. It's a new world for the big dogs who aren't known for their ability to adjust and adapt.
And that's just one of the reasons Billy Corgan took his group, the Smashing Pumpkins, away from the big-label system in the past decade.
The Pumpkins announced a few weeks ago that they would release all 44 songs of the upcoming record, "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope," as they are finished. The first of these songs, the low-fi piano ballad "A Song for a Son," is available at smashingpumpkins.com as a free download. And if Corgan is to be believed, 43 others will follow in the months to come.
"I think every artist should choose the model that they feel best expresses their vision and not get too caught up in what is popular at that moment," Corgan said last week. "I would add to that, however, that the album as a way of compiling your music seems to have lost its weight in the world, which is why I've gone off it for Smashing Pumpkins."
The Pumpkins are all too familiar with the art of crafting a thorough CD. They recorded five-plus records for Virgin in the '90s, one of which was the epic, 28-song, two-disc majesty of 1995's "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" - a set that moved more than 9 million copies in North America alone.
That success put the Pumpkins in a position to be able to release their material in an unusual fashion. But there is an idea floating around that says these nontraditional releases could help break new acts, as well. It's all a part of a greater plan.
"There is a general feeling in the music industry that now is the time to try new things," said Nick Heliotis, one of the folks behind Seattle-based label Hardly Art. "One of the great things about being in an industry where the walls are crumbling and everything is crashing down, so to speak, is that it allows for a huge amount of creativity and rewriting of the norms. When the old ways aren't working, people are much more apt to try out new things."
One such possibility: the digital EP. It costs less to create - fewer songs means less time in the studio, and digital distribution is done with the press of a button.
"It has been talked about a lot, and I think it is, to some extent at least, true that the advent and subsequent domination of digital sales - and specifically the iTunes sales platform and the way they promote releases there - has put the focus back on singles in a way that was never the case during the CD era," said Heliotis.
"I think driving sales around the release of a single or an EP is possible again because of these new realities - if iTunes gets behind an EP, it can take off in a way that would be extremely hard to replicate in the physical-sale market. And matching that sort of promo in an indie or chain retail is very expensive - definitely not cost-feasible for an EP with an $8 price tag."
It comes down to the numbers. At what point is a band an album band? And at what point does it become an EP/single band?
"Let's be honest," said Tedder. "I won't name the acts' names, but I could name 10 acts right now who, when you look at their single sales versus album sales, you want to ask them: 'Why even make an album?'
"I'm not saying every act is like this, but a lot of iTunes artists sell 200,000 albums and 4 million singles. And when you have that kind of - not a disconnect but an unweighted balance - singles to albums, do the math, and you'll see what we're talking about."
So some pop bands and hip-hop groups will be releasing EPs or singles instead of full albums?
"Is it going toward that direction? Yes," Tedder said. "I know a lot of artists right now who have gotten record deals recently that are single deals - and I haven't heard of single deals since the '70s, and I wasn't even alive then."
It's a throwback, and it's one that doesn't place a lot of confidence on the musicians. Imagine a band getting a $20,000 advance to fund the recording of four or five songs. It's released digitally, and if there's a hit in there, the label will then release the EP physically. If there's another hit, then the band might be signed to make a full record.
"Typical albums cost a half-million bucks before marketing," Tedder said, "and you can get this for $50 grand. It's the new paradigm."