Pop Songs Are Getting Shorter. Here’s Why That Matters
On July 29, 2019, Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” cemented its place in history by securing its 17th straight week atop the Billboard hot 100 chart, which made it the longest-running #1 in the chart’s history.
Clocking in at just under two minutes in its original form and just under 3 on the version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road” is the perfect encapsulation of the modern-day pop song. It is short, punchy, and features an ear-grabbing hook that is ready-made for the brief runtime of the average TikTok video.
Yet the brevity of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” represents just one salient example of what has become a much larger trend over the last few decades.
A Shifting Landscape
According to The Verge, the average length of hit pop songs has been on the decline for the last 18 years. A 2019 study conducted by Ostereo–a digital record label based in Manchester–furthered these claims. Ostereo found that while the average UK number one in 1998 was four minutes and 16 seconds long, 2019’s average dropped that number to just 3 minutes and 3 seconds.
Billboard also cataloged a major shift in 2019. They reported in April of that year that tracks in the top ten of the site’s hot 100 list were on average an incredible 30 seconds shorter than the year prior.
This trend has not escaped the notice of artists, either. Well-known producer Mark Ronson was one of the first to voice his distaste for shortening song length back in 2019. In an interview done for The Guardian, he noted that Spotify algorythms tend to favor shorter tracks over longer ones. This means that songs closer to 3 minutes will be more likely to show up on Spotify’s curated playlists.
Other artists have been able to capitalize on the popularity of shorter songs by embracing the trend with open arms. Young rappers in particular like Lil Tecca and Iann Dior have enjoyed enormous success with tracks that stay well below 3 minutes.
To understand why shorter songs are becoming the new norm for mainstream music, one must first understand how the music industry as a whole has changed since the early 2000s.
Streaming Changes the Game
Before the rise of streaming services like Spotify or short video applications like TikTok, consumers typically enjoyed music through the physical purchase of a CD or by listening to a top 40 hits station on the radio.
This all changed with the arrival of Napster, a file sharing software released in 1999. Napster’s release would provide the foundation for the large music streaming services that we are familiar with today.
If all that the advent of streaming changed was the way that people consumed music, then perhaps the shifts in the industry would have halted there. However, applications like Spotify and Apple Music also radically changed how artists make money.
Instead of gaining a percentage of the profit on a one-time purchase of a CD, artists now primarily make money based on how many times one of their songs is streamed. On Spotify, one stream pays out only a few fractions of a cent–between $0.00331 and $0.00437 per stream.
Yet as marginal as it may seem, revenue from streaming services now accounts for 79 percent of market revenue. This means that streams are now by far the most prominent way that musicians make money in 2020.
This industry shift from physical album purchases and radio plays to streams is widely considered to be a core reason behind the recent influx of noticeably shorter pop songs. Since artists now receive pay through individual streams, it makes logical sense that the shorter the song, the more times listeners have to push the replay button. And more plays equals more pay.
Moreover, most streaming platforms also require a track to reach 30 seconds of playtime to count as a legitimate stream, which further incentivizes artists to write short and instantly catchy songs.
The TikTok Effect
Though TikTok’s impact on song length has yet to be fully explored, it’s not hard to look at the app’s biggest hits of the year–like SAINt JHN’s “Roses” or Meghan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”–to see that many of them are coming up short of the 3 minute mark.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering the app revolves around 10-30 second videos. Tracks have to stand out if they want to survive on the platform, which means that catchy choruses and impactful transitions are a must.
Long epics like “Stairway to Heaven” that once graced the airwaves now seem more and more like a thing of the past.
Timely Questions and Contemporary Answers
As streaming continues to establish its dominance as the medium of choice for consumers and TikTok continues to manufacture top 40 hits, it is important that we pause to consider how these factors impact the music we listen to.
Questions we should ask ourselves include: how does the decrease in pop song length impact pop music as an art form? And where will all of these social and financial incentives for shorter songs eventually lead?
Released on Oct. 23 of this year, Ty Dolla $ign’s album “Featuring Ty Dolla $ign” may begin to provide an answer to such questions.
Despite containing an impressive 25 tracks, the album has a runtime of just under one hour. This means that the average song length on the record is only 2 minutes and 24 seconds.
“Featuring Ty Dolla $ign” is consequently a perfect example of what an ultra commercially viable project looks like in 2020. Its many tracks and extensive feature list ensures that it will attract a wide audience, and its short average song length means that the project is ideally situated to wrack up streams.
Though it remains an open question whether more artists will follow in Ty Dolla $ign’s footsteps, the questions that his album raise are timely and deserving of consideration.
For one, it’s important to assess whether the current landscape of the music industry forces musicians to sacrifice artistic expression for profitability. Can an album of 4 and 5 minute songs still achieve the same level of commercial success as it would have in the past? Or more fundamentally, should the revenue structure of an industry ever hold such sway over the art it sells?
On the flip side, if we admit that pop music has always been and always will be as much a product as it is an art form, perhaps decreasing song length simply represents music becoming more streamlined, able to deliver what the consumer wants in a more efficient and entertaining way.
Besides, short pop songs are certainly not by nature inferior to their lengthier counterparts. In fact, some have argued that this trend toward 2 and 3 minute songs will actually increase the quality of pop music by forcing artists to cut out weaker tracks and unnecessary filler.
Whatever the case, thoughtful consideration of questions like these will remain key to keeping both artists and streaming services like Spotify accountable as the music industry continues to grow and evolve.