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Artists Break Free of the Album

Top acts, from Miley to Radiohead, test out EPs, online releases

Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs in Reading, England.
Tabatha Fireman/Redferns
October 29, 2009

When Radiohead released two new tracks – "I Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" and "These Are My Twisted Words" – through their website recently, they were just the latest in a growing number of musicians, managers and labels that are eagerly exploring ways of releasing music beyond the traditional 12-to-15-track album.

"I was never comfortable with the album format," says Billy Corgan, who is putting out Smashing Pumpkins' latest release, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, one track at a time as free down loads, starting in late October. "It always felt so forced and was obviously an economic decision made by others and not an artistic decision made by creators. It can be draining to record 15 songs over a six-month period."

This year, Modest Mouse, Spoon and Blitzen Trapper are among the many bands that have released EPs with just a handful of tracks. But it's not just established artists who have the luxury of experimenting: Universal is particularly invested in what it calls the "mini-album," and next month, the label will release the first of three EPs by Dallas emo band Forever the Sickest Kids. One of hte label's top rock acts, Hinder, is considering a similar nonalbum plan. "We are making a conscious A&R decisions to shorten the album life cycle by putting out mini-albums," says Universal Motown VP of sales and marketing Pat Monaco. "This is a business based on an old model that has to change, and the digital model has helped us realize that. If you come with a new piece of product every six to seven months, you keep fans and consumers on the hook."

Younger fans, whose music-buying habits developed int he age of iTunes, are pushing the shift away from teh album format. (According to the NPD Group, the largest demographic that buys CDs are fans 50 and over.) Tellingly, Miley Cyrus' The Time of Our Lives and Drake's So Far Gone, both EPs, cracked the Billboard Top 10 recently. "In the past, people would think, 'An EP – what is this?'" says Epic marketing vice president Scott Carter, who worked with Modest Mouse on their new No One's First, You're Next EP. "Now, it's like, 'Who Cares, I'm only going to put a few songs on my iPod anyway."

Although the album has long been seen as rock's leading form of artistic expression, it has begun to strike many in the business as limited and unwieldy. "The album was a very arbitrary concept in the first place," says Damian Kulash of OK Go, whose band has released two EPs since 2008 (containing new tracks and cover versions) and will also put out a new album in January. "The marketing plan was, if we can get people to pay for 10 songs when they only want one, then 10 times the profit, right?"

At least some artists and their managers see the decline of the album as an enticing opportunity. "What Radiohead and others are doing is ripping apart the basic tenets in terms of how you put records out and then market them," says manager David Whitehead, who works with David Byrne, David Bowie and others. "Maybe you can put out a track a month, and at the end of the year, the fan gets something else, like a T-shirt or a concert ticket. The list is endless, and that's what's exciting."

Adds Jim Guerinot, who manages Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt, "The advantage for the artist is you're able to reappear on the marketplace much more quickly instead of waiting a year and a half between albums. You can re-enter the marketplace and re-energize your base."

And now, "360 record deals," which allows labels to dip into nonalbum revenue such as a band's merchandise and ticket sales, are encouraging even more experiments in new ways of releasing music. Still, most major-label deals are structured around the album format, and their marketing departments are generally used to pushing albums and singles, as opposed to the rarer EP. And there may be major financial repercussions for bands that count on being paid for a full album's worth of music instead of just a handful of songs."

Yet Kulash, like an increasing number of musicians, is realistic about his group's ability to make a living off recorded music in a post-album age. "I don't make a ton of money off record sales as it is," he says. "People who make cool shit will still be able to find a way to get it out there, and the new model will reflect that."

This story is from the October 29th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.


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Song Stories

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Otis Redding | 1966

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