What’s an Album?

Metal Megan Lollapaloozing. (Photo by Josh Brasted/FilmMagic)

Just noticed Megan Thee Stallion is suing her label over the definition of an album, which I find fascinating since I’ve had arguments with people for decades over the definition of an album. I always stubbornly went with the old Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll rule (album = 3 or more songs adding up to more than 25 minutes total, or even between 20 and 25 if you’re an EP-hating poot.) Megan’s going by her contract, which, according to the Pitchfork story, stipulates only that an album “must be at least 45 minutes in length; Something for Thee Hotties is 45 minutes and 2 seconds long.” But her label claims the release, “a collection of loose singles and B-sides,” is a “mixtape” even though the record was all original material, not merely borrowed beats with Megan doing her Megan thing on top.

The whole idea of “mixtapes” has seemed bogus to me ever since they stopped being, like, various-artist compilations, though I kind of get the odds and sods aspect — I guess now Black Market Clash and Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties would be called mixtapes, too? What I’m curious about here, though, is the legal definition of an album, which amazingly I’ve never given a moment of thought to before, nor noticed anybody else doing so. Is 45 minutes standard business practice; and if not, what is?

What about super-long releases that (bizarrely, I always thought) get marketed as “EPs,” like those old Underworld and Jean Grae ones that lasted something like 90 minutes? Would those have been contractually considered albums, or no? And conversely, what about those hip-hop ones in recent years (including a bunch on Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label) so short that they would have been called EPs in some earlier and saner era? And what about this thing lately where some country singer (or whoever) puts out an EP and then, several months later, expands it into a full-length (or, for that matter, albums that that ultimately get expanded themselves)? How do all those phenomena fit into this equation?

Also, how the heck can you have a “B-side” if you don’t put out vinyl singles with actual, like, sides? Second song on a CD single, I suppose, but in the streaming era? Would that just be when you put out two songs together in the same streaming “package” –though lately isn’t the practice more often to digitally release a single, then put out another single with the first single attached, then put out a third single with both previous ones attached? If you’re going to attach them at all?

The whole idea of singles in the streaming epoch is a potential conversation on its own…Seems like they’re basically back to what they were in the pre-Sgt. Pepper’s ’60s, in the sense that they come out before the album as much or more than after. I haven’t kept up with Billboard lately beyond the charts; they must have dealt with some of these questions at some point, I’m sure. But you can too, if you want.

3 comments

  1. I think the 45-minute rule developed with the CD, or that’s when I first started noticing that the “albums” were getting too long, and often felt larded with too much filler, anyway. And “B-sides” in the label’s suit. Hilarious.

    Like

  2. via facebook:

    Sang Freud
    i guess i know one when i hear one? “meet the beatles” (too short?) and “thick as a brick” (too few songs?) are albums. i have this on no higher authority than paul mccartney who, on the “live at hollywood bowl” record, says, paraphrasing, “we’re going to play a song from our new album, um, LP, uh, album.”

    Chuck Eddy
    Good points — I guess Meet The Beatles gets grandfathered in by the “Albums Before The Mid ’60s Were Allowed to Be Shorter” Rule, and Thick As A Brick by the “Artsy-fartsy Compositions Stretched Over Multiple Sides Of Vinyl Are Albums Not Singles” Rule. Would also apply to all sorts of jazz, classical and minimalist pieces probably — Steve Reich’s Tehillim and Pharoah Sanders’ Black Unity and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music come to mind. (There are probably also some with one discreet long composition title on each side, adding up to two, but let’s just pretend those don’t exist.)

    Paul McBride
    Didn’t artists used to throw out those b-side compilations (and live albums) in part to fulfill contractual obligations before signing with a new label?

    Chuck Eddy
    That sounds right, actually. Maybe it was outlawed at some point?

    Dan Weiss
    In most cases I don’t think it’s bullshit when an artist says a mixtape is a mixtape. They tend to feel more off-the-cuff and have their own special kind of charm; kind of the rap version of EPs and live albums even though those also exist in rap. The exception is chance the rapper, who got what he deserved for calling the big day his debut album. An album is whatever length the artist or contract stipulates; it should feel like an album. Weezer’s green album is 28 min long or so, it’s ten songs, had the weight of five years’ expectations and has a beginning, middle and end even though it’s breezy. Burial’s Antidawn is a tricky one though: it’s over 40 min long but it does not feel like a final resting place for ideas the way an album does. It feels transitional and in-between and part of a larger idea cycle.

    Patrick Hould
    Waitwait… what exactly did Chance the Rapper get that he deserved?

    Dan Weiss
    Patrick chance is now shorthand on rap Twitter for cautionary tale

    Patrick Hould
    Okay, but what exactly happened to him? Does he live in hiding? Is he being prevented from doing any further recording? And how did calling The Big Day his debut make that happen?

    Dan Weiss
    it flopped big time critically and commercially and may not have been treated so ridiculously if he called acid rap and coloring book, hugely expensive and lushly produced studio albums in every way but his own labeling, capital-A albums. He hedged those and waited too long to release his “debut album” after his moment was over and the quality of the record in most people’s eyes didn’t help.

    Patrick Hould
    His moment is over? Well, shit! What if his next album is awesome? (not that there was anything wrong with The Big Day, whatever the enforcers of consensus on rap Twitter may feel about it)

    Dan Weiss
    I’m just the messenger, and there was plenty wrong with the big day lol

    Patrick Hould
    I think he should make his next release a triple CD and then refer to it as his new 45 just to fk with rap Twitter.

    Dan Weiss
    he should do a collab album with rahm emanuel

    Chuck Eddy
    Dan, you clearly give way more weight to artists’ intentions than I do. There were plenty of hardcore “albums” (Circle Jerks, Meat Puppets, Angry Samoans, etc.) way shorter than that Weezer thing, and it’s quite possible some people might hear it (or the Burial one) differently than you do. Calling an album a mixtape seems an escape hatch, a get out of jail free card — Like, it’s not a “real work of art” so don’t take it seriously (as if I care about real works of art or taking them seriously in the first place), or like it’s okay if it’s shitty. I mean, *lots* of albums are shitty! You put it out there, dude…

    Dan Weiss
    there are artists who treat mixtapes like a get out of jail free card – drake is infamous for this – but i think there are plenty of cases where a mixtape is incongruent with the other releases and makes sense with the designation. Honestly the Megan release is artistically a mixtape to me, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t take advantage of this muddy distinction to get free from her horrible contract. The irony of the get out of jail free thing though is I think mixtapes are usually more agreed on as good easy fun by rap fans than official studio albums by mixtape circuit favorites, which tend to have a reputation for being too self-serious, overthought, or departing from what the heads want to hear. I’m pretty sure young thug intentionally called all his releases through 2017 mixtapes for the reason of not wanting the debut album jinx that killed chance, big KRIT and others. I don’t think this is that different from EPs: some artists view their EPs as standalone works that are part of the canon, and some treat them as castoffs and stopgaps.

    Chuck Eddy
    Again, you’re talking about how artists view their own work, the least of my concerns. Also reminds me of this thing record labels used to do where they’d put out a single that flops and then say it wasn’t a real single. I do get your points though. And it’s probably no accident that my favorite City Girls album is supposedly a mixtape (which I didn’t even know when I first heard it. Just knew it was really good.) But mainly I have no responsibility to accept what an artist is telling me is their career narrative. I can treat side dishes as the main entrée if I want. Wonder if Neil Young was a rapper he’d call Trans a mixtape now. Actually I’m pretty sure his mid ’80s rockabilly album with the Shocking Pinks or whatever was technically an EP, by P&J standards.

    Dan Weiss
    are we talking about girl code because great mixtape haha

    Chuck Eddy
    Nope, Period — which came out half a year earlier. I P&Jed it.

    Edd Hurt
    Many country albums in the ’60s and ’70s were under 30 minutes and not conceived as albums. Some were, of course. I remember noting that albums got longer in the ’70s as the technology got better, but most ran around 35 minutes. In the ’90s they got way longer! It seems a stretch to apply a legal definition of an album. A novel made up of many short segments is still a novel, seems to me.

    Edd Hurt
    I define album as anything you release as a work that you consider a finished work that isn’t a single. It can be one long piece or 27 fragments. Anything over 20 minutes seems acceptable.

    Clifford Ocheltree
    Re: the *legal* definition of an album. Doubt there is anything in ‘law’ but a matter of what the artists contract calls for. Did a little research and can’t find any cases which attempt to define ‘album’. Possibly a settlement or two but that too would be a matter of the contracts provisions.

    Sara Quell
    Over 45m = ‘opus’? ‘journey’? ‘odyssey’?

    Clifford Ocheltree
    slog, tramp, trudge…?

    Sara Quell
    Normally I totally agree but just now I spun the entirety of Incredible String Band ‘U’

    Clifford Ocheltree
    U was the point at which I lost interest. Then again, Wee Tam and Big Huge were issued as a double in the UK.

    Chris Gray
    As a fan, I’m fine with whatever designation the artist wants to give to the work—25 minute album, 50 minute EP, mixtape that cost $1M—it’s up to them. Obviously, She Loves You is a single and Thick As a Brick is an album and to quibble, I think, is silly. Now if I was a lawyer, a music journalist or a record industry fucko, I probably wouldn’t be so happy go lucky on the subject but, alas, I am not

    David Lundeen
    I’d rather listen to a perfect album like “Wild Gift” at 33 minutes than a longer meandering dud full of filler to meet the corporate suit’s guidelines.

    Brian O’Neill
    Reign In Blood is an album.

    Chuck Eddy
    Author
    I called it an album in Stairway To Hell, so I guess you’re right.

    David Everall
    Having a 45 minute rule would rule out the majority of albums released in the first vinyl era. I remember when Costello released Get Happy with 20 tracks (about 48 minutes) they had to convince people that it wouldn’t sound dreadful due to its long duration. There used to be a series of records here in the UK called Golden Hour which consisted of compilation lasting an hour by artists such as the Kinks, on the surface a tempting proposition but often they sounded fairly ropey.

    Chuck Eddy
    Yeah, I still remember when most albums fit on one side of a C-90.

    Joey Daniewicz
    Is wild honey an album? Under 24 minutes

    Chuck Eddy
    Somebody else mentioned that one, and said of course it’s an album. By old P&J rules, as I mention in my post, between 20 and 25 was a judgement call. A couple over-25s placed in the EP rankings anyway (Fishbone’s debut comes to mind), just because so many people voted for them there.

    Joey Daniewicz
    for the record I think it’s an album! But it’s certainly an illustrative edge case

    Joey Daniewicz
    ultimately for me album vs EP is mostly about how an artist chooses to present it

    Chuck Eddy
    I get it. But not for me — See my answers to Dan up above.

    Kevin Bozelka
    Lesson: reality is a social construction.

    Chuck Eddy
    So here’s a question: What was the first 12-inch (as opposed to 7-inch and maybe 10-inch) record to get called an EP? (*Were* 10-inches in the ’40s/early ’50s called EPs if they were just 4 or so songs? I honestly have no idea. I assume longer ones were called albums.) The Flamin’ Groovies put out a 10-inch called Sneakers in 1968, and even that strikes me as an extreme rock anomaly. Until new wave happened, I’m not sure I can think of any other examples, off hand.

    Brian MacDonald
    I don’t think Elvis Presley was the first, but I do remember RCA heavily promoting Presley EPs starting in 1957 or 1958(?) as a way to offer another collectible budget priced way to buy his records. So I’m sure Presley was the first to really make EPs a thing, but the very first? Probably goes back a decade or so.

    Chuck Eddy
    Were those 7-inch, 10-inch or 12-inch EPs though?

    Brian MacDonald
    they were 12” EPs / EDIT: I see many 7” EPs looking, so I might be thinking of 12” EP reissues. So apologies.

    Brian MacDonald
    Having a look, the first 12” EP was likely in Europe in the 50s or 60s. They were very popular there vs. the U.S. That changed with disco, dub/reggae and the 12” single, and the first well known 12” EP in English (that’s *not* a 12” single aimed for dance clubs) may be a punk EP. That feels too recent, though.

    Brian MacDonald
    Come to think of it, wasn’t Magical Mystery Tour initially an EP in the UK? That may be the first really popular one. EDIT: nope, a double 7” EP

    Clifford Ocheltree
    I have several Chess releases that were promos for radio stations. 12 inch, 3 songs on each side. One example. “Moanin’ In The Moonlight” the standard release is LP 1434. My promo copy is labeled EP 1434. I presume it is contemporary with the LP so a 1958 release.

    Clifford Ocheltree
    did some checking. Seems RCA released EPs of the soundtracks from a few Disney films in the early 50s. The pictures SEEM to be of 12 inch vinyl but I can’t confirm.

    Chuck Eddy
    Interesting! And unlike the Chess ones, those weren’t just promos?

    Clifford Ocheltree
    Nope. Seems they were proper releases. I have a friend who collects all things Disney. I’ll check in the AM.

    Eric Davidson
    CDs kinda screwed with the template too. George Michael’s “Faith” was 10 songs. Most albums through the ‘80s were 10-12. I hated the way CDs made everyone make albums that were always at least 3 songs too long.

    Chris Molanphy
    If you ever wanted to have a conversation about all this I’m game (we should tape it for somebody’s podcast or something), cuz I have capital-t Thoughts about all of it but it’s too much to type. Including how Billboard has wrestled with some of these definitions. Bottom line, I agree with the premises and challenges of pretty much all of your questions.

    Jake Alrich
    ^^^RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS^^^

    Chuck Eddy
    Sure, Chris, if somebody wants to set that up, I’d be up for it, too. (I’d do it myself but I’m technologically impaired and haven’t the first clue how!)

    Jake Alrich
    You raise many cogent arguments. But I think we can all agree on what is the most satisfying musical format in the history of the world: the Interview Picture Disc.

    Like

  3. via facebook:

    Ken Wissoker
    This is great, Chuck. Thank you!

    Chris Estey
    Thank you! This is an amazing post, Chuck. Modern “Mixtapes” have always confused me, and that’s an excellent comparison to The Clash’s and EC’s between-LP and leftover collections. I started to think a lot about these things when my PR clients would want me to promote what they called EPs — made up of just two songs. I thought for sure the definition of an EP is three or more individual songs; nope, streaming changed that (a “single” is a single song now). I was still thinking in “A-side” and “B-side” terms. Anyways, beautiful questioning here about these formats.

    Chuck Eddy
    An “EP” with fewer than two songs is still, to me, a contradiction of terms. The only two-songers that come close to convincing me are those named with an entirely different overall title (see Death Of Samantha’s Porn In The USA, 1986), but I’m pretty sure even those don’t quite make the EP grade.
    https://www.discogs.com/release/1465550-Death-Of-Samantha-Porn-In-The-USA?fbclid=IwAR1sW48_WASohRPnHLDcYY2o0lysm1vonP3xrK2IXC9uEpBcEZ32kB1kQIk

    Simon Reynolds
    Klaus schulze and similar germans have albums where each side of the LP is a long, 25 minute piece = 2 track album. I bet there is some hairy noodler who did an album that was Instrumental pt 1 on firstbside and pt 2 was on the second side. So old Pazz rule = songcentric and Euro-marginalizing / Euro-unaware – which is as you’d expect given who likely came up with said rule

    Chuck Eddy
    Sang Freud just mentioned Thick as a Brick (and Meet the Beatles too) on Expert Witness. See me reply up above (though yeah, Fela also counts — Hope I didn’t just inadvertently delete Michaelangelo’s mention of him):

    Reply1dEdited
    Steacy Easton
    Polaris uses the 25 minute rule, but not the tracks rules bc jazz

    Dylan Hicks
    Cool post. I agree that the term ‘”mixtape” has become increasingly ambiguous, and is sometimes used only to distinguish more casual releases from Major Artistic Statements/Major Promotional Endeavors, though I tend to think contemporary usage still derives in some sense from the self-released tapes and CDs hip-hop artists once consigned with or sold to independent record stores, or sold independently, typically before they had contracts, and, as you and the article say, releases that sometimes contain other people’s copyrighted music, as backing track or whatever. I don’t think of the term as retroactively applicable to odds-and-ends compilations, or mix tapes used for courtship, parties, private enjoyment, but I don’t say that with authority. Your Pazz & Jop definition seems in line with how I think of albums. I only signed one recording contract, and I don’t remember it having a clause with a specific time requirement, though there might have been a range or a minimum. It wasn’t controversial, so I guess I didn’t pay attention. In terms of B-sides released on formats that don’t have sides, I think a B-side can be most meaningfully so-called if it follows (in a digital sequence) a two-song streaming release and doesn’t subsequently appear on a non-compilation album. In other words, the outtake as B-side model used by Prince, Springsteen, etc. more than the album-track as B-side approach used by many, or single-as-separate-entity-altogether approach used in the ’50s and ’60s and in some indie worlds. Then again, I pay more attention these days to jazz stuff, and I’ll sometimes see two-song streaming releases come out in advance of the album, pretty much always made up of album tracks, more like previews than singles (if only because the genre hasn’t dealt much in singles for quite a while). For artists, those are useful for increasing stream numbers ’cause followers get notified about each release, and you can pitch the tunes to playlists, whereas, at least with Spotify, you can’t pitch a song to a playlist after it has been released, or pitch multiple tunes from the same upcoming release. Well, maybe you can if you’re big time.

    Brian MacDonald
    This lawsuit reminds me when Geffen threatened Neil Young for releasing music that was “unrepresentative” of him in the early 80s. In this specific case, the term “album” can be whatever the contract defined it as (and based on the linked article, it seems MTS is satisfying that requirement, so Go Megan.) The root term “album” refers to a collection of at least one shellac 78 to collect a series of songs, referring to the container that held the 78s. Now? There shouldn’t be a universal rule for what qualifies as an “album”, and I hope there never is.

    Brian MacDonald
    I’m just thinking of grindcore album lengths, and how some are less than 25 minutes. The Beach Boys’ Wild Honey album is under 24 minutes. No one would argue any of these are EPs.

    Chuck Eddy
    Hardcore, too: Meat Puppets, Circle Jerks, Angry Samoans. I have no problem with calling those EPs at all, but I get why most people might not.

    Brian MacDonald
    A younger me in college radio used to have arguments over what were EPs and what were albums, so maybe my anarchistic attitude to the term definitions come from how ridiculous my college-radio era posturing was regarding that topic, ha!

    Chris Irregardless
    Paranoid Time, in particular, feels very much like an album to me, and it’s 6 and a half minutes long.

    David Williams
    You just reminded me of a quote from some minor britpop character: “Not being in the habit of writing bad songs, we don’t have any b-sides.”

    Chuck Eddy

    Mike Freedberg
    The law issues involved here aren’t much about music as such, though they do underscore that the music we write about is a BUSINESS.

    Mike McGonigal
    What you nail here is how these words don’t necessarily fit what were originally formats. Album at first applied to a set of 78s housed in a folio “album,” and it seamlessly fit the 12″ 33 longplaying record when that was first introduced 75 years ago. Extra playing records (EPs) I believe were shortly thereafter introduced as a way to get more music onto both the existing 10″ format, and the 7″ format which is one or two years after the LP — by pressing them at 33 1/3 instead of their original speeds.

    Mike McGonigal
    Most LPs I have from the 50s and 60s aren’t that long — 15 minutes a side? All my Beatles and Who and Kinks and Staple Singers records up to 1966 are like half an hour. I wonder what changed with mastering and pressing to allow for longer sides? It might have had something to do with styluses too, and seems to coincide with the introduction of stereo but maybe isn’t related at all.

    Mike McGonigal
    And then of course with CDs you could push right up to 79 minutes and some seconds, at least after a few years — initially the longest was 72 or 74 minutes, right?

    Mike McGonigal
    And here with streaming etc it’s all ghost uses of these terms — album first applying to the 78 folio and then the 12″ LP and now… well apparently three quarters of an hour. Sorry if I just said the most obvious things and am talking to myself!? Shit I see Brian already made the point about the folio, hah.

    Howard Wuelfing
    Mike McGonigal, I’m with you on the genesis of the term album. First, I believe, you’d release content that’d fit on one side of a 10″ disc, then they figured out how to put music on both sides. All this worked out for popular songs but not for classical pieces or theatrical cast albums – those took multiple discs. So some clever boots decided to adapt the “photo album” concept to this format. Etc. (I’m just expanding on your point which is totally correct)

    Howard Wuelfing
    There were also royalty issues, at least in the U.S. as you know, Beatles albums in their original English release had more songs than the U.S. versions because the U.S. label didn’t want to pay the extra royalties (I’ve never researched whether they just had a royalty budget that topped out at 10 songs or whether there was an added penalty incurred with more music). and they wound up with all these orphans songs. You know how the Beatles responded to Capitol’s repackaging of a buncha songs that they’d “butchered” off the original track listings.

    Brian MacDonald
    Howard Wuelfing I just assumed Capitol wanted to sell more Beatles records, so they trimmed albums stateside so they could ultimately have more unique albums to sell. I know 12 songs was pretty standard in the early 60s, but maybe I’m missing a specific nuance with licenses originating overseas re: royalties.

    Matt Weston
    I don’t have it handy, but Dave Marsh’s book on The Beatles’ Second Album has a pretty good explanation of how the Beatles somehow made *more* in royalties from having fewer songs on the Capitol LPs.

    Jake Alrich
    the longest CD i ever owned was this MoB comp from 1988 — 79 mins and change. I acquired it ca. 1996 and at that time it literally wouldn’t load on some older CD players.
    https://www.allmusic.com/album/mission-of-burma-mw0000198859?fbclid=IwAR1DaP8Byx5kshofyDFyjOXa0ewSKhUALyl2LTrQ5qNMOHsgqD_M8ztuezQ

    Andrew Hamlin
    This one always makes me grin. Always marketed as an EP, but with a total playing time of 43:28, it’s longer than a lot of albums we could all name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Lard

    Liked by 1 person

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