Robyn is releasing a new EP today as part of La Bagatelle Magique, her band with multi-instrumentalist Markus Jägerstedt and the late producer Christian Falk. Love Is Free an ideal late summer release, one with low stakes and high heat; it’s loose, funky, and fecund, pulling from Arthur Russell, Zapp, and Deee-Lite in equal measure. And while I’ll take any excuse to spend 20 minutes hanging with someone as inviting and dynamic as Robyn, I have to make a nerdy confession — I don’t think the music is the most interesting thing about Love Is Free.
This is the second straight summer Robyn’s released something hard to define: an EP, a mini-album, a… whatever you want to call it. They’re tight, cohesive statements, but they’re not quite album-length; they’re collaborative, but they’re defined by her presence. In many ways, Do It Again — the mini-album she released last year in tandem with Norwegian electronic duo Röyksopp — is Love Is Free’s opposite: cool where it’s warm, mechanized where it’s organic, preoccupied with scale instead of concision. The music is all enjoyable, but it’s not as intriguing as Robyn’s approach to distribution strategy. She’s playing with form and length unlike any of her contemporaries, even as people across the music industry are experimenting with their own release methods. Everyone’s looking for something, but almost no one is doing it like this.
Robyn’s career began in the most conventional way possible, at least within the pop sphere of the mid-’90s: she worked with Max Martin and other master craftspeople, scoring three international hit singles before she turned 20. (Two of those, "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love," were top 10 hits in the US.) She continued making catchy, smart pop through the turn of the decade, but found herself marginalized by industry politics; albums released in 1999 and 2002 were confined to Europe and Japan. After managing to extricate herself from her label situation, she achieved creative and commercial rebirth with 2005’s Robyn. It was released internationally throughout 2007 and 2008, and it earned her a Grammy nod four years after its initial release.
It's been a decade since Robyn has released a conventional LP
After that album’s unusual lifespan ended, something changed. She started to diverge from the timelines typically associated with recording, release, and promotion. 2010 was the year of Body Talk: she put out three separate collections of music in six months. Two of them sat on the line between album and something less, covering eight tracks each in just about 30 minutes; a third was an EP-length blast topping off a compilation of her best work throughout the year. That burst of activity was followed by four years of relative silence, during which she coasted on tremendous goodwill. Do It Again landed in 2014, and Love Is Free is on your local streaming service’s doorstep right now. If you’ve been following along, that means it’s been a decade since Robyn’s released a conventional LP or opted into a recognizable album cycle.
This kind of strategy wouldn’t have been as viable before the advent of music’s digital age. We associate EPs with a measure of length, but they had a physical connotation once — they were tangibly different than singles and albums, existing as a midpoint between the two. When physical formats began to diversify in the 1970s and ‘80s, release forms proliferated too — and when the digital revolution took hold in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, it relegated EPs and their ilk to the province they currently inhabit. They’re classifications that have to do with time rather than physical products.
Physical releases are anachronisms, artifacts, and luxury items
That same digital revolution — the one that began with Napster and led to iTunes, what.cd, and your streaming service of choice — has made it much easier for artists to experiment with form, though fewer people are taking advantage than you’d think. In an era where physical releases are anachronisms, artifacts, or luxury items, there’s nothing pressuring artists into recording and releasing full-length albums. You don’t necessarily have to carve out time at a pressing plant, or pay for the packaging of your music; plop whatever you’ve got onto an online store and call it a day. Perhaps it’s fondness for the idea of the album that’s leading most artists to play with the element of surprise and varying lead times — that’s the surprise album, undoubtedly familiar whether you’re stanning for David Bowie or Beyoncé.
Some people have played with interstitial single releases, strings culminating or building up to album-length releases. Kanye West stoked the flames of hype for 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with his GOOD Friday series; Justin Bieber did the same thing with his Music Mondays, releasing tracks that made up 2013’s Journals. Others have embraced EPs as a means of getting ready for a full-length debut — a good recent example is the British producer James Blake, who won ears with The Bells Sketch, Klavierwerke, and CMYK in 2010 before releasing an eponymous LP in 2011. Even the hip-hop and electronic artists who work predominantly through mixtapes find themselves beholden to the album’s form. Atlantan rapper Future has released a dozen mixtapes and only three studio albums, but you'd be hard-pressed to classify them by listening to them or staring at their tracklists.
There are precious few examples of artists who rely on EPs and / or mini-albums as their primary form of release, and they’re working on the periphery of the North American music industry for one reason or another. The enigmatic, influential British producer Burial hasn’t released a full-length since 2007’s landmark Untrue, opting instead for a series of four celebrated EPs and lengthy singles: Street Halo, Kindred, Truant / Rough Sleeper, and Rival Dealer. And mini-albums are more prevalent in the world of K-pop, where even the genre’s most popular artists release them at the same rate as studio albums (and in a few different languages to boot). But Burial’s music is resolute in its anti-commerciality, and Korean stars have had a hard time breaking into the North American market despite their impeccable songcraft and charisma. That leaves Robyn as a standard-bearer for those eschewing full-lengths, a minor pop star with an international fan base and a hold on American clubs when she deigns to release new material.
When music is limitless, brevity becomes even more appealing
Why does this strategy appeal to her? And why does she have the freedom to eschew years of tradition and the prestige people still associate with long-form statements? The expectations placed on EPs and other "non-album" releases aren’t as high, and releasing smaller packets of music can function like opening a pressure release valve every summer. You’re never fully sating people’s thirst, but you’re giving them enough to get by. You can fully explore one or two key ideas without feeling like you have to spread them thin over an entire album, and you can cherry-pick your best bits of songwriting and turns of phrase. And when your listeners have access to a virtually limitless library of other music which they can access with remarkable speed, brevity starts to become even more appealing. Give Robyn five tracks' worth of time — half an hour, tops — and she'll give you a cohesive, exciting glimpse into her mind.
Finally, this break from tradition — this embrace of freedom — makes complete sense for Robyn gives the values she’s espoused over her two-decade career. She had to fight for independence, and she won it: full creative control, her own record label subsidiary, and a track record of success on her terms. She has the flexibility to put out music however she wants because she’s working with a laundry list of international hits, adoration from both fans and critics, and freedom from an oppressive contract or some clueless exec’s demands (though Konichiwa Records is an imprint of Interscope, a much larger label). Love Is Free isn’t going to light up the charts — Do It Again peaked within the top 15 in the US before tailing off — but its sales are beyond the point. And though she could yet return to the world of full-lengths — in a June interview with Fact, she said, "I’m gonna make another album. I started writing again, but I don’t know when it will be finished" — I’m almost hoping she doesn’t. Her choices over the last half-decade have carved out a tiny new path at a time when almost everyone is flailing for footing.