It’s no secret that music streaming services have completely reshaped the way we consume music. However, looking at the work of art that has been produced and released in the last 10 to 20 years, there have been indisputable changes in how people write their songs, too, particularly in terms of length.
Let’s have a look at how song length has evolved over the years and whether it’s a factor you should consider when writing your songs as an independent artist.
How have songs evolved over the years?
As the musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding discussed in their Switched on Pop podcast, the influence of technology has been relentless in all areas of music, from writing to production and distribution to consumption. Streaming services with their algorithmic playlists rule the whole music industry, the concept of an album is being slowly wiped off the face of the earth, and songs are indeed getting shorter and shorter.
In fact, multiple sources have revealed that the trend towards shortening song lengths slowly started again in the 1990s. Again? Yes, that’s right! Shorter songs are not particularly a new trend. According to data from analyzing a set of 160,000 Spotify songs, in the 1930s, the average song length was 3 minutes and 15 seconds, which is 2 seconds less than the average length of songs in the 2020s.
In the early 1960s, short songs also managed to get into the Billboard Hot 100 with the song ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons (1:52) topping the chart. And let’s not forget that The Beatles rose to fame after releasing their first hit ‘Love Me Do’ (2:22) in 1962 and then their debut album ‘Please, Please Me’ in 1963, where most songs had about 2 and a half minutes.
Nowadays, songs average around 3:15/3:30 which shows a decrease in length by up to 60 seconds. On top of that, we’re constantly seeing way more songs that are extremely short, most notably in the genres of rap and hip-hop. Back in 2016, Piko-Taro’s 44-second-long ‘Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen’ became the shortest song to ever enter the Billboard Hot 100. Then there was also the wildly popular 2017 album by the late XXXTENTACION which showcases 11 songs in just 21 minutes. Some of the more recent examples include Lil Yachty’s Poland (1:23) from 2022 or this year’s D.A.R.E (1:26) by Logic and JRB.
As experts are noticing, it’s not just the brevity that is so obvious about today’s songs, it’s also the changing ways of how music is structured and introduced to listeners. Particularly the so-called ‘pop overture’ structure has been wildly popular in the past few years. While before, songs would typically have long intros that would slowly hook you up, the pop overture trend is built on the catchy hook of the song being introduced in the first 5-10 seconds to lure the listener into listening to at least the first 30 seconds of the song.
And this perfectly sums up the reasoning behind the recent trends in writing and releasing music. It’s about finding ways to draw and maintain attention to secure higher revenue. Or is the issue more complex? Let’s have a look!
So, why exactly are songs getting shorter?
1. Supposedly, the average human attention span is getting shorter
Most researchers have agreed that our attention spans are considerably shrinking and this seems to influence music as well. As we just outlined, artists are constantly looking for ways to not only attract listeners to their songs but also keep them interested enough so that, in the best-case scenario, they listen to the whole song. This would therefore propose that shorter songs have more potential than longer ones.
In a 2022 interview with Billboard, Vincent “Tuff” Morgan, an Urban/Pop music industry insider, explained that everyone in the industry is aware of songs getting shorter and ultimately called it a ‘reaction to the culture of soundbites that we move forward’. ’I have producers in the studio just going through and making songs shorter’, he said.
This suggests that song brevity is not a trend in the sense that overall, people like it better when songs are shorter. However, as we’ve witnessed across social media platforms, short content is avidly celebrated and known for having more potential to go viral. Longer songs, just like videos, require more attention and focus, and with the ‘skip’ option, people can easily move on to another thing before even getting a grasp of the song’s quality and potential. As many believe, shorter songs are less likely to be skipped.
One should also bear in mind that in terms of streaming, it is very important for artists that listeners finish their songs as this increases their chance of getting playlisted in bigger playlists. That’s because lower skip rates are generally prioritized by platforms’ algorithms. This, in return, leads to an increase in streams and thus revenue.
2. Oftentimes, songs become just snippets on TikTok
There might be more to what Morgan said about the culture of soundbites than just that shorter songs are more likely to keep a listener’s attention and succeed. Many have emphasized that given the power of short-form videos, particularly on TikTok, the gap between a song and a memorable fragment on social media is slowly diminishing.
Many producers and engineers think that to people, the snippet they come across on social media is actually the song and that even when they dance to the song or attend a live performance of it, they only seem to pay attention to that one fragment that went viral. Remember the song ‘Poland’ by Lil Yachty we mentioned earlier? An unspecified publishing executive called it ‘an idea, almost a tweet’ rather than a song.
If this is the reality and becomes the new norm, why would artists continue writing longer songs, right?
One of the massive TikTok trends using a snippet of a song by American indie band AJR called 'The Good Part'
3. A higher chance of hitting the replay button
It’s not only about listening to a song until the end but also about playing it as many times as possible. Many music professionals believe that shorter songs are more likely to be put on replay and played over and over again.
This might again be linked to the fact that with a shorter song, people are more likely to capture the essence of it, which means that there’s a higher chance they’ll quickly learn to like it. And if they do like it, they will almost always want to hear it again.
4. Longer doesn’t mean more money
One could easily think that perhaps if the songs you write are longer, you’ll generate more profit, whether that’s in mechanical, performance, or streaming royalties. However, that’s not what reality looks like. In fact, overall, there’s not really a financial benefit to writing long songs.
As for mechanical royalties, the rate in the U.S. is currently set at 9.1¢ per track or, if the track is longer than 5 minutes, 1.75¢ for each additional minute of playing time. While this would mean that longer songs would result in higher mechanical royalties, in practice, artists usually agree to certain limits in their contract, traditionally with their record label and/or the publisher.
The rate of performance royalties generally depends on the respective PRO as each of these institutions may calculate royalties differently. The share of performance royalties received by the artist may also differ based on their location or the deal they have with their publishing company.
When it comes to streaming royalties, the rule is quite simple: a stream is a stream, whether the song is 3 or 10 minutes long. This also applies to radio where every spin counts as one, regardless of the song’s duration. Songs longer than max. 4 minutes have a little chance of being played on the radio, anyway.
If there’s no additional financial reward for writing longer songs and, on top of that, shorter songs are more likely to generate more streams, it’s no wonder that artists release singles under 2 minutes or 30-minute long records with 15 tracks in them.
Does it mean that song length matters?
‘What does it all mean?’, you may ask. Do I have to focus on writing shorter songs now? If you’re looking for a clear answer, you may be a little disappointed. Indeed, all the factors mentioned above suggest that the odds are in favour of those who deliberately compose shorter songs. Ultimately, it depends on what you as an artist are striving for. If you’re looking to gain momentum and become viral, writing shorter songs with a catchy hook that hits the listener right at the beginning might be the perfect solution for you. Also, you do have to take the length into consideration, if you'd like your songs to be played on the radio (or be okay with the radio stations editing the tracks down).
However, you have to bear in mind that composing shorter songs may come at the cost of creative expression and freedom as well. Streaming platforms are continuously bending the rules, but that doesn’t mean that you need to give in to them. Writing songs that you love and feel that perfectly showcase your songwriting, skills, and talent without paying attention to their duration is what may feel rewarding in the long run.
Although this likely means that your journey to success will take more time, once you build and grow your audience of people who love your music for what it is, the length of your songs will not play an important role.
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