Is Song Length a Significant Factor?

The transformative impact of music streaming services on our music consumption habits is no clandestine matter. The evolution of artistic creation and release over the last two decades, specifically within the realm of songwriting, has seen undeniable shifts, particularly in terms of song length.

Let's delve into the metamorphosis of song length over the years and explore whether it holds significance for independent artists in the creative process.

Evolution of Songs Over the Years:

In the enlightening discourse presented by musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding on their Switched on Pop podcast, the pervasive influence of technology across all facets of music is evident. Streaming services, wielding their algorithmic playlists, have become the reigning monarchs of the music industry. Concurrently, the traditional concept of albums is gradually fading into obscurity, and songs are undergoing a noticeable trend towards brevity.

Contrary to the perception that shorter songs are a recent phenomenon, data analysis of 160,000 Spotify songs reveals that the inclination towards shorter durations began in the 1990s. Surprisingly, this is not a new trend. In the 1930s, the average song length was 3 minutes and 15 seconds, a mere 2 seconds less than the average length of songs in the 2020s.

Even in the early 1960s, short songs managed to ascend the Billboard Hot 100 charts, exemplified by The Chiffons' 'He's So Fine' (1:52). The Beatles, in their rise to fame, released 'Love Me Do' (2:22) in 1962 and their debut album 'Please, Please Me' in 1963, featuring songs with approximately 2 and a half minutes duration.

Presently, songs average around 3:15/3:30, indicating a reduction in length by up to 60 seconds. Moreover, there is a surge in extremely short songs, especially in the genres of rap and hip-hop. Noteworthy instances include Piko-Taro’s 44-second 'Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen' entering the Billboard Hot 100 in 2016, and XXXTENTACION's 2017 album comprising 11 songs in just 21 minutes. Recent examples like Lil Yachty’s 'Poland' (1:23) from 2022 and 'D.A.R.E' (1:26) by Logic and JRB in the current year further emphasize this trend.

Beyond mere brevity, contemporary songs exhibit changing structures in how music is presented to listeners. The 'pop overture' structure, popular in recent years, deviates from the traditional long intros, opting to introduce the catchy hook within the first 5-10 seconds to entice the listener into the first 30 seconds of the song.

This encapsulates the rationale behind recent trends in music creation and release—an endeavor to capture and maintain attention to secure higher revenue. However, one must ponder whether this issue is more intricate than initially perceived.

Why Are Songs Getting Shorter?

  1. Shortened Attention Span:

    Researchers widely concur that the average human attention span is diminishing, influencing the landscape of music. Artists are compelled to find ways not only to attract listeners but also to keep them engaged throughout the entire song. This suggests that shorter songs possess more potential than their lengthier counterparts.

    In a 2022 Billboard interview, Vincent “Tuff” Morgan, an Urban/Pop music industry insider, acknowledged the industry-wide awareness of the trend towards shorter songs, attributing it to a 'reaction to the culture of soundbites.' Producers in studios are actively involved in trimming song lengths.

    While brevity isn't necessarily a trend dictated by public preference, short content, as observed across social media platforms, is fervently celebrated for its increased potential to go viral. Longer songs demand more attention and focus, and with the 'skip' option, listeners may easily move on before grasping the song's quality and potential.

    In terms of streaming, artists benefit when listeners complete their songs, increasing the likelihood of playlist inclusion in larger playlists. Lower skip rates are prioritized by platforms’ algorithms, resulting in more streams and, consequently, higher revenue.

  2. TikTok Influence:

    Expanding on the concept of soundbites, the influence of short-form videos, particularly on TikTok, is contributing to the diminishing distinction between a full song and a memorable fragment on social media. Some argue that the snippet encountered on social media represents the entire song for many, even during live performances.

    For instance, Lil Yachty's 'Poland,' mentioned earlier, was characterized by an unspecified publishing executive as 'an idea, almost a tweet' rather than a fully developed song.

    If this trend becomes the new norm, artists may find less incentive to create longer songs.

  3. Higher Replay Potential:

    It's not merely about listening to a song until its conclusion; it's also about encouraging repeated plays. Many music professionals argue that shorter songs are more likely to be put on replay, driven by the idea that listeners quickly grasp the essence of a shorter song, leading to a higher chance of developing a liking for it.

  4. Financial Considerations:

    The assumption that longer songs generate more profit is challenged when examining mechanical, performance, and streaming royalties. In the U.S., the current mechanical royalty rate is 9.1¢ per track or 1.75¢ for each additional minute if the track surpasses 5 minutes. However, artists often agree to limits in their contracts, especially with record labels and publishers.

    Performance royalties vary based on the respective PRO, and the artist's share may differ depending on location or contractual agreements with their publishing company.

    Streaming royalties adhere to a straightforward rule: a stream is a stream, regardless of song length. This principle extends to radio as well, where every spin is counted equally, and songs longer than four minutes have a reduced chance of airplay.

    Given the lack of additional financial reward for longer songs and the enhanced potential for shorter songs to generate more streams, it's unsurprising that artists release singles under 2 minutes or compile 30-minute records with 15 tracks.

Does Song Length Matter?

The pressing question arises: Does song length matter? The multitude of factors discussed above may not provide a straightforward answer. The prevailing indicators suggest that intentionally composing shorter songs might be advantageous, especially for artists aiming for virality. Crafting shorter songs with a catchy hook at the beginning could be a strategic approach.

However, artists must consider the potential trade-off—composing shorter songs may come at the expense of creative expression and freedom. While streaming platforms continually shape industry norms, artists need not feel compelled to conform. Crafting songs that resonate with personal passion and perfectly showcase songwriting skills and talent, irrespective of duration, can yield long-term satisfaction.

Although this approach may necessitate more time to achieve success, building an audience appreciative of the music for what it is can render song length a less pivotal factor in the journey to artistic recognition and accomplishment. The intricate interplay between artistic integrity, industry trends, and audience engagement remains a nuanced consideration for independent artists navigating the evolving landscape of contemporary music.

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