A few weeks ago, electro-pop superstars Robyn and Röyksopp released their highly-anticipated collaboration Do it Again. Written and recorded shortly after Robyn’s Body Talk and Röyksopp’s Junior, Do It Again packs heartbreak, joy, longing and sex into just 35 minutes. Opening with the 10-minute anthem “Monument” and closing with the moody instrumental “Inside the Idle Hour Club,” it sounds less like a loose one-off and more like the concerted effort of a proper band.
Tellingly, the group describes the release as a “mini album” rather than an EP. They’re not the first to make use of this designation. Last October, Los Angeles rock duo Best Coast released the seven-track self-described mini album Fade Away, and UK DJ/producer Leon Vynehall and Chicago noise duo Acteurs have also released “mini albums” of original music within the past year.
Which begs the question: What exactly is a mini album? Isn’t it basically just an EP with a superiority complex? Kind of; Billboard considers an EP anything with “four to six songs,” while the RIAA defines an EP as having “three to five songs.” But the criteria that elevate an EP to “mini-album” status seem mostly to come down to intent. Mini albums are meant to be listened to as a single, short-form musical statement. Fade Away, for example, was characterized by fuzzy, lo-fi recording aesthetic, worlds apart from the glossy sheen of the band’s previous full-length. And Robyn and Royksopp have mentioned repeatedly that Do It Again exists independent of their respective bodies of work.
The contemporary mini album is slightly different from the mini-LP format record labels created in the late ’70s, which was designed to entice consumers hesitant to purchase full-length albums from less-established acts. (British record label 4AD used the mini-LP to introduce the Pixies with Come on Pilgrim in 1987.) They were also used to keep established acts in the public eye between full-length releases: In 1983, a then-ascending U2 released the live album Under a Blood Red Sky between commercial breakthrough War and artistic breakthrough The Unforgettable Fire. Mini-LPs were usually released on 10″ or 12″ vinyl and consisted of seven to eight tracks — so-called “album-length” songs (usually over four minutes) — plus remixes or live recordings. In many cases, they were just EPs with a few extra tracks.
The current rash of mini albums is not without precedent: In the contemporary K-pop scene, mini albums are major releases. The full-length album has little cultural weight there: Vinyl never really took hold, and television appearances traditionally play the role of establishing new acts. Tighter release schedules of shorter albums allow groups stay in the public eye with fresh material in the way that Western album release schedules — every two years or so — don’t. K-Pop superstars 4Minute have only released one full-length album in their language of origin since their 2009 debut. Popular group 2NE1 had a four-year gap in between their LPs, but released two mini albums of new tracks in between — one in 2009 and another in 2011, when their popularity was at its peak.
In a way, the quiet shift to this model in the U.S. shouldn’t come as a surprise. A 12-song, hour-long album has to compete in an oversaturated market characterized by shrinking attention spans. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a Nielsen Soundscan study reported that last year, U.S. album sales hit a record low of 4.49 million units.) Three to seven exceptional tracks have more cultural staying power than a full-length album bloated with filler. In an age where music release schedules aren’t dependent on manufacturing physical product, the short-format album concept could potentially flourish, elevating from its traditional function as stop-gap or “also-ran” to the main event. It’s too early to declare a trend, but Robyn and Röyksopp might be onto something.