Albums, singles, LPs, EPs, mixtapes, compilations — the music industry uses a whole host of classifications for commercial releases. As technology evolves away from the original mediums that gave them their names, the definitions have grown convoluted. There are no universal, definitive rules or guidelines for classifying releases. However, by gaining a basic understanding of the history of audio formats and commercial releases, individuals can get a fundamental understanding of the purpose behind these terms and categories.
Who This Guide Is For
Artists and their teams wondering how to categorize their releases.
Individuals interested in learning the history of music releases
(Long-Play or LP)
Before the creation of 12-inch, 33-½ revolutions per minute (rpm) records capable of holding up to 46 minutes of playing time, low playing time on records confined users (and artists) to only a few minutes of listening. In order to sell collections of songs or longer recordings, manufacturers put several records inside of a book spine, much like a photograph album. The resemblance led collections of songs to become known as “albums.” As the LP format took over the music market and singular LP records replaced the books of small records, the name “album” stuck around.
According to Wired, the LP was first introduced by Columbia Records on June 21, 1948. At the time of the announcement of Columbia’s new product, 78 rpm, 10 or 12-inch records were the most popular format, with 45 rpm “single” records being the second most popular. 45s were 10-inch records introduced a year after the LP.
By 1958, LP records accounted for nearly a quarter of American unit sales and almost 60% of domestic dollar sales. LPs were the most popular format of home audio consumption until the audio quality of cassette tapes was increased drastically by technological advances in the 1970s. By 1983, cassette tapes surpassed LP records in overall sales.
Innovations in digital technology have created new consumption media since then. However, most collections of publicly released music are still referred to simply as “albums,” regardless of what format they are captured in. Despite the massive amount of potential playing time that modern platforms like MP3 files and the compact disc (CD) offer, the constraints of the original LP record remain as an unwritten rule in the definition of modern day albums. There are no universal guidelines as to what constitutes an album, and the length requirement of an album is often debated. What is considered to be a standard album has not expanded far from the original length of LP records: around 45 minutes. In a Medium article discussing the topic, Paul Cantor argues that 45 to 60 minutes is the ideal playing length.
“Partly, that’s because of backroom music industry stuff—contracts that stipulate record companies will only pay mechanical royalties on say, 10 or 12 songs. It’s different for each artist because all contracts are different, but for the most part an album is still the same length as it was in the CD days,” Cantor explains.
Cantor perfectly summarizes the historical influences behind the current (unspoken) guidelines as to what constitutes an album. Previous technologies and controlled composition clauses have prevailed to make a standard album typically about 10 to 12 songs. However, any collection of master recordings released by an artist under one title as a singular work can be considered an album.
Four years after Columbia released the LP, RCA Victor released the Extended Play (EP). These 45 rpm, 7-inch records had more narrow grooves that optimized audio for a playing time of 7.5 minutes per side. Typically, EP vinyl records had five to nine songs, which is more than a single and less than an LP.
Over the following decades, the format underwent small changes, such as the introduction of the 12-inch EP. However, the majority of the original qualities remain the same despite the evolution of music technology. Today, EPs are generally considered the middle ground between a standard album and a single, both in cost and length.
A compilation is typically a collection of recordings that have previously been released to the public. Often, compilations are based upon a theme or category. For example, collections of an artist’s best-selling songs are often released in a “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” compilation and lesser-known ones in “B-Side Collections.” Compilations can also be comprised of songs by various artists – holiday compilations are good examples of these.
A single is the shortest release in playing time. Typically, they range from one to three tracks. In 1910, not long after audio recording first began, the 10-inch, 78 rpm disc established itself as the most common audio format. These discs were only capable of holding three minutes of audio. This unavoidable restriction caused the music industry to create within certain parameters. The 10-inch format remained an industry standard until the 1960s.
Today, there is a general assumption that a song (especially a commercially released song) will range from about two to five minutes, with some ranging towards eight. These informal criteria emerged from the technological restrictions early recording machinery placed on artists and songwriters. Current technology allows countless hours of audio to be commercially released with the push of a button. However, songs and singles remain nearly the same length. iTunes accepts a maximum of three tracks, 10-minutes each. While there are no exact restrictions as to what makes a single, songs under 10-minutes are typically considered to be singles.
The mixtape was created as a result of the introduction of compact cassettes. These small devices revolutionized audio consumption by allowing for quick, portable recording and playback. It became popular for users to record songs and records they owned onto tapes to create a personally curated track listing, similar to the way playlists work today.
In the early days of hip-hop, much of the music was created live, with DJs mixing tracks together and adding new elements as they performed. By recording these live performances to mixtapes and distributing them, they could spread their name and music in a new way. Today, mixtapes are still made by some artists. Chance the Rapper, for example, has referred to some of his releases as mixtapes.
A DJ mix is typically a set of various songs mixed together in a unique way by a DJ or producer. This format has origins in the EDM genre. When a DJ releases a remix, it is usually under a master use license from the record label owners. A DJ should not attempt to release a mix without master use permission. These releases are also subject to publishing mechanical licenses.
Bootlegs are recordings released without proper permission. They gained popularity during the 70s when cassette recorders also became popular. Fans would record the concerts and then sell the “bootleg” tapes. These recordings are illegal. More recently, some albums are released as “bootleg” by rap artists who do not want to turn the specific record in to their label. And further some labels will even call a release bootleg depending on the artist’s genre and fan base.
Live albums are composed of live performances of an artist.
A soundtrack is a collection of recordings used in an audiovisual production like a movie or television series. It can be compromised of songs from a movie or it could be the score of a production.
Promotional copies of records are sent out to press and other selected individuals/organizations for promotional purposes prior to the public release date. Sometimes, these copies will differ from the commercially released version.
Cast Recordings are audio recordings of live stage works created to capture the performance of a specific cast and rendition of the show. These releases have British origins dating back to the late 1920s.
A charity album is a collection of recordings released with the purpose of benefiting a charitable cause. Many refer to George Harrison’s 1971 “Bangla Desh,” released to assist in relief efforts from the 1970 Bhola cyclone and Bangladesh Liberation War, as the first charity record.
A concept album is a collection wherein “tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually.” Typically, these records are themed. Concept albums date back to the 1940s with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. A more famous example is The Beatles’ Seargent Pepper’s Lonelyt Hearts Club Band.
A cover album is an album comprised of recordings of previously commercially released songs by another artist. Sometimes, this will be one artist covering the work of one or multiple others and other times it will be multiple artists.
Demo albums are typically created for the use of the musician. Often, they are created so that the work is in a fixed, tangible form for the means of copyright ownership. Bands and artists also use demos as a reference to their work. Demos are not intended to be publicly released but can be released if the artist or label chooses to do so.
An exploito is a record of cover songs designed to purposefully replicate the appearance and sound of the original artist(s). Those who create these records are hoping to exploit those who think that their album is the original record and buy it mistakenly. These are typically very low-budget productions.
A remix is a derivative work of another recording, almost always one that has been previously released. The right to create a derivative work is one of the six exclusive rights granted to copyright owners. Thus, all remixes must be licensed before releasing in order to avoid infringement. The audio is remixed (mixed differently than before) through adding, removing, and altering aspects of the sound recording. Harry Nilsson was one of the first artists to release a remix album. He took the masters of two of his own early records, Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet, then remixed, adjusted and recorded new vocal tracks. The result was Nilsson’s 1971 remix album, Aerial Pandemonium Ballet.
A split track is an album that includes songs from multiple artists. The term originates from vinyl records, which would have a 50/50 split, with one artist on the A-side and another on the B-side. These records are still referred to under the same name, despite the fact that the “split” is rarely tangible anymore due to digital music platforms. Split albums have never gained much commercial success, nor are they typically intended to. Today, they are most prominent within the independent music scene, primarily in hard, indie or experimental rock.
A sampler is a compilation of songs from various artists under one record label. The format was introduced in the 1960s when most artists gained popularity through radio stations airing their singles. The goal of a sampler was to gain exposure for artists who primarily released full LP records by selling a cheaper album with many other artists.
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