The Incredible Shrinking Record

The popularity of shorter EP releases continues to grow among artists, labels and fans

Nov 26, 2013 at 9:49 am
click to enlarge Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is just one act embracing the EP format, releasing three since 2012 with another set for early 2014 (Photo: Provided)
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is just one act embracing the EP format, releasing three since 2012 with another set for early 2014 (Photo: Provided)

At independent record stores across North America, this week’s “Black Friday” shopping event is when labels and musicians offer all sorts of unusual, collector-minded gimmicks to draw customers: picture discs, special singles, remixed tracks, unique reissues and more.

Also popular are EP (“extended play”) releases that are longer than singles but shorter (and cheaper) than LP (“long play”) albums. On vinyl, EPs can be 7-inch, 12-inch or, occasionally, 10-inch records. They are also sold as downloads or CDs and feature attractive artwork.

The EP was big in the ’50s, but largely fell out of favor once America’s Baby Boomers became teens and started buying pricier and more fashionable Rock albums. In the U.K., EPs were common through at least the ’60s British Invasion.

Among this Black Friday’s EP releases are Stripped Down at Grimey’s by Dawes, a live six-cut set on vinyl and CD; Duran Duran’s No Ordinary EP, a 10-inch vinyl release of three songs recorded in 1993 at Hollywood’s Tower Records; The Civil Wars’ 10-inch vinyl Between the Bars, featuring four cover songs; and the 7-inch, six-song Got Live If You Want It EP, originally released by The Rolling Stones in England in 1965 and featuring songs not included on the full Got Live If You Want It album issued in the U.S.  

But EPs are no longer just an eye-catching holiday sales gimmick. Recently, enough new EPs have been released or announced (outside of Black Friday) to fill a couple record store bins. Some of the acts with new or recent EPs include Blacktop Daisy, Shy Girls, Shilpa Ray, Andy Shernoff, Francis & the Lights, Bipolar Sunshine, Dean Wareham, Kurt Vile & Sore Eros and Baby Alpaca. (The band !!! will offer a special vinyl EP, R!M!X!S!

, at its local Dec. 10 show at the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre).

The Recording Industry Association of America only tracks vinyl EP sales and even then combines them with vinyl album sales numbers. Vinyl, however, was a bright spot for sales of the industry’s physical products in 2012. Revenue grew 36.2 percent from 2011, as CD sales, though still larger overall, have fallen dramatically.

The reemergence of EPs shows how recording artists and labels are adapting amid the Great Recession and ongoing decline in sales of physical releases. 

“For people who come to see our band, I want them to take something to play in the car on the way home,” Kevn Kinney, Drivin’ N Cryin’s frontman, says. “A $15 album is expensive. But $5 (an EP’s approximate cost) — that’s a beer. So they’re more inclined to take a souvenir home. It’s got a cover on it, it’s cool and I can autograph it.”

Kinney’s nearly 30-year-old Indie Rock band had a hit album in 1995 with Fly Me Courageous and has soldiered on with a loyal, though not huge, fan base. Since 2012, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ has been releasing a series of EPs — there have been three to date, with a fourth, Songs for the Turntable, due Jan. 14. 

Besides having affordable product to sell at concerts, Kinney says he has also been favoring EPs for creative reasons. 

“One of those things you do as a young band … is you think more is more,” he says. “‘Wow, we can put 15 songs on an LP.’ As you mature, you learn more isn’t really better and longer really wasn’t better.” 

Modern Roots music label Bloodshot Records has just released an EP called Boy Crazy by Lydia Loveless, an energetic Ohio AltCountry singer whose first Bloodshot album, Indestructible Machine, established her nationally. Some 2,000 copies of the EP were pressed on CD and priced at $6.95 each (it also can be purchased as a download). 

Bloodshot co-founder Nan Warshaw says Loveless is on a songwriting roll and had more material than would fit on her upcoming album. The label also thought the EP would help keep Loveless’ name out there in 2013 by showcasing new material.

But there’s another, newer reason to release EPs, Warshaw says. It might be a way to combat the ongoing decline in physical product sales. 

“People consume music today in smaller bits than they used to,” she says. “I think an EP gives people a more manageable chunk of music to get into without having to invest financially or time-wise in a full album.” 

When the Indie Rock and Punk movements first emerged decades ago, there was a modest EP revival as cost-conscious DIY bands released their own product. As a result, EPs always have had a presence in those scenes. One of the first bands to go that route, way back in the late 1960s, was San Francisco’s iconoclastic Flamin’ Groovies. 

“We put out the first independent EP, Sneakers, on our own label, Snazz Records,” Groovies co-founder Cyril Jordan says. “It was a 10-inch record with seven songs — that’s how much money we had. We were lucky — Tower Records had just started (in San Francisco) and we knew the cashier who put Sneakers right next to cashbox.”  

It started selling, going through three pressings of 1,500 copies and helping the young band get signed to Epic Records for its first full album, 1969’s Supersnazz. 

Since then, The Flamin’ Groovies have had their ups and downs, with personnel changes and periods of inactivity, but are on the upswing now. Recently, Jordan reunited with singer/guitarist Chris Wilson, reviving the core of the group from the ’70s when the Groovies were at their peak, creating Power Pop classics like “Shake Some Action” and “You Tore Me Down.” 

Jordan and Wilson just wrote and recorded their first new song in 32 years, the superlative chiming rocker “End of the World,” and announced it will be on an EP scheduled for early next year.

Going back to the EP format would seem to bring the Groovies full circle. But Jordan says a creative outburst has produced more material than planned, so that EP will now likely be expanded into a longer release. 

“That idea has been changed,” Jordan says of the EP plans. “Ideas are just pouring out of us. We’ll keep recording every time we get together to tour and we’re going to be touring quite a lot. So who knows? It may be a double-record set.”

RECORDSTOREDAY.COM has more info on the special EPs (and other releases) being made available Friday at independent records stores across North America.