A few years ago, DJBooth published this screed that quite effectively breaks down any distinction between a mixtape and an album. If you don’t want to put yourself through the rant, the gist is the original ‘mixtape’ was very different to what most people now call a ‘mixtape’, and there is really no definition you can come up with for album or mixtape that applies to all common, modern examples. There are too many variables, in terms of production quality, cost, distribution, marketing, and physical release formats. You may as well try to define what makes some music ‘better’ than other music.
However, people trying to distinguish between a mixtape and an album is an ongoing issue, forums and Twitter commenters will happily go back and forth on this probably forever. Last year, many people thought the checkmate had been played when Chance the Rapper won the ‘Best Rap Album’ grammy for his ‘mixtape’ ‘Coloring Book’; a landmark for the viability of the mixtape as a format, and is probably still the best example that album equals mixtape.
I previously used these definitions of release formats: Album: 20+ minutes of a recording artists ‘main’ work, highest level of production quality expected.
Mixtape: Same as an album but with cheaper/quicker production, available for free with no or only a small ‘official’ physical release. Mostly hip-hop/rap, often used as a way to try and get away with not clearing samples.
EP: Short album, usually intended as an indicator of what an album might be like.
Single: Three or less songs, with one as the focus. Usually promotes and is taken from an album, and the secondary paired songs are usually offcuts from the album that aren’t published elsewhere
Playlist: A fancy ambiguous name for Drake to call his album that is bloated with tracks in order to boost stream counts.
– Until on a forum I was responded to with this:
“I would say yes to all of them except for ‘Mixtape’
Mixtapes are generally the same as albums but that doesn’t always mean it’s ‘cheap’ in production and that it does ‘not have the highest level of production’.
Look at Noname’s ‘Telefone’ mixtape or Chance The Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ or Mick Jenkins’ ‘The Water|s|. They all feel like albums and have great production and are all conceptual projects. Chance The Rapper seems to like releasing ‘free music’ and is happy to have a Grammy nominated non-studio album project.”
From there, things got a bit messy.
Moving on from the album/mixtape debate, 2018 has presented some challenges for my ‘EP’ and ‘Single’ definitions too. Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music run of 5 albums in June brought up plenty of debate which now attempted to categorize between an album and an EP. As they ranged from 21-26 minutes this proved an issue for some to refer to them as ‘albums’ which are typically thought to be about double that length. Perhaps an overlap in this group of people are those who see this as no more than a marketing effort for them to be listed under the ‘Album’ category in their respective Spotify catalogues, rather than the ‘Singles and EPs’ category that would produce less streams. A typical EP can be a fair bit shorter than this without being a single, so I see no issue with calling the G.O.O.D. Music releases albums, or anything else only 20 minutes long; though I agree Kanye would not like it if his releases were presented outside of the Spotify ‘Albums’ category.
One big problem with distinguishing Albums, EPs and Singles is the origin of the terms are linked to their now out of date physical formats. The vinyl industry may now be the biggest it has been since the 80s, but there are still only extremely few people putting out 7 inch singles to promote an upcoming album. Vinyl is far surpassed by streaming as the ‘primary’ industry vehicle for releasing music, its no longer the only option and no longer provides the original limitations that gave us the album, EP and Single in the first place. Which are primarily that you can only fit just over 40 minutes of music on both sides of a 12 inch record; and that if a label wanted to release a single song to promote an album, they had to find something to put on the other side of the disk to make the production cost worth it and to make the single more desirable, hence we have ‘singles’ that are more than one song. For whatever reason, some digital releases still follow this format, publishing one song on Spotify from an album to promote it? Makes sense, publishing one song + offcuts from the album digitally as one ‘single’ release? Useless, if a song has been cut from an album, save it for a deluxe version or keep it, want to release multiple singles? Make them multiple releases. This seems to be the main reason Spotify uses only two categories: “Albums’, and ‘Singles and EPs’, they don’t know the difference either.
Its time to move on from 60 years old definitions that no longer accurately apply. Therefore my current opinion of the distinction between albums, mixtapes and other formats is thus:
An album is a significant work of music, usually a collection of songs, that is the longest, primary way to hear the work of any given recording artist. The artist might refer to the release as a ‘mixtape’ based on arbitrary criteria regarding cost, production and distribution, but from any practical standpoint these are still albums. If the release is more than one typical song’s worth but isn’t bloated out to significant length for whatever reason, it might be called an EP without causing much confusion, however these are effectively short albums. A single is a release of one song, it will usually promote an album and will be published again on that album. To be any more specific than that ignores too many of the infinite variables in releasing music, to consider numbers of tracks to a release doesn’t always work either as some artists release entire albums inside a single ‘track’.
Everything else is marketing.