Sure, these five music formats seem straightforward enough, but if somebody asked, could you actually give them a concrete definition? You might have a firm grasp on what a single is, but what about an EP? How about a mixtape?
This list will hopefully clear everything up and give you the knowledge you need to make a smart decision when it comes to what you should release next.
It might seem silly to even be discussing what an album is, since we all (think we) know it. We've all purchased and listened to tons of them... but do we actually know what constitutes an album versus other music formats? I actually asked several people to define an album while writing this article, and none of them were able to give me anything that wasn’t essentially “a collection of songs.”
In some respects, that answer is correct; at its core, an album is simply a collection of songs. It can come on a CD, vinyl, a cassette, or be accessed digitally with no physical release at all. The broadest definition is a bit too simple, and it can get more scientific.
The Recording Academy, the group behind the Grammy Awards, stipulates that:
- an album must comprise a minimum total playing time of 15 minutes with at least five distinct tracks
- or, alternatively, it has a minimum total playing time of 30 minutes with no minimum track requirement
Meanwhile, in the UK, one of the largest music markets in the world, a collection is deemed to be an album if it runs for at least 25 minutes and contains four different tracks.
So, perhaps the best definition to go by when deciding if something is an album or not is if it runs for at least 25 to 30 minutes. But, what if the collection of tunes you’ve put together doesn’t meet that description? Well, then you might not have an album on your hands — at least not technically — and you should start using a different word.
Again, just like when it comes to the word “album,” it might seem fairly simple to define a single, right? Most of the time, you’d be right. These days, in the all-digital, streaming-forward world we inhabit at the moment, a single is, almost always, just a song.
Calling it a single typically means it's going to receive some sort of promotion, whether that be a music video, a push at radio, media attention, or perhaps all three. I have personally spoken with artists and their teams at times to determine if a new piece of music just released is a song or a single.
Technically, a single doesn’t have to be comprised of only one song. I know that's a bit confusing, and it’s not something often seen these days, but, for many years, a single could contain a handful of tracks. (Traditionally, vinyl singles had both an A-side, which was the radio single, and a B-side track.)
While the practice has almost all but disappeared, streaming platforms and digital download sites do technically allow artists to send collections deemed singles with up to three separate items that run up to 10 minutes.
Something that has become suddenly popular again is releasing two tracks at once, sometimes together, and calling it a single. Drake did so with his Scary Hours project, which contained his songs “Diplomatic Immunity” and the number-one hit “God’s Plan,” and plenty have followed in his footsteps.
EPs exist right in between singles and albums, and they are just one or two tracks away from being considered one or the other. An EP is longer than a single (even one that comes packaged with several different tunes) but shorter than an album... though it can be close!
An EP is typically defined as any collection of music with between four and six separate songs. They typically don’t run quite half an hour long, and that’s what makes them so appealing.
EPs can be created by musicians in a shorter span of time and with fewer resources, and they can be consumed quicker. Bottom line: they're less of a commitment on both ends.
Of the five different types of music formats on this list, mixtapes are perhaps the most confusing, and it’s for good reason. Over the decades, the meaning of the word mixtape has changed, and when we use that term now, it doesn’t mean what it did when it first entered our lexicon.
Back in the ‘80s, a mixtape was literally a cassette tape that people would record songs from their own collection or off of the radio, creating something of a playlist (more on that next). The word comes from the fact that these items were actually a mix of songs on a tape.
Throughout the years, artists primarily working in the hip-hop space changed all that and completely revolutionized the mixtape. It soon became an art form similar to an album, though it wasn't typically sold. Mixtapes were created by up-and-coming acts for the most part, and they were given away for free in order for a new talent to get their name out there and create some publicity.
They didn't sell these items, since they wanted people to hear the music above everything else, and sometimes, the beats or samples weren’t properly cleared, so not making money off the project helped those acts avoid lawsuits.
Now, some in the hip-hop space continue to create mixtapes, though the term has once again changed. Now, many chart-toppers release mixtapes, though they offer them for sale and upload them to streaming platforms, where they are paid per play.
Mixtapes from superstars regularly chart well, and some have even reached the top of the Billboard 200 (a feat Drake has accomplished twice). In almost every sense of the word, these are albums, though they go by the name mixtape to sound cooler.
Even though it may have seemed like album or single were going to be the easiest words on this list to define, playlist might actually claim that prize. A playlist can pretty much be whatever its maker wants. It can take many forms, be housed on many different platforms, and it doesn’t need to adhere to any specific length or track limit.
Two decades ago, you might put together a collection of beloved songs for your friends on either a cassette or CD, and while those were called mixtapes, a mix, or something else entirely, they were essentially playlists nonetheless.
Now, physical isn’t the way to go, and playlists are often compiled on streaming platforms or even sites like SoundCloud or YouTube. They’ve become massively popular on platforms like Apple Music and Spotify, and creating and sharing them with friends has never been easier, perhaps ushering in a new golden era for the format.
Hugh McIntyre is a freelance pop music journalist in NYC by way of Boston. He has written for Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and MTV, as well as various magazines and blogs around the world. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the blog Pop! Bang! Boom! which is dedicated to the genre of pop in all of its glory.