Songs today are shorter than ever with some coming in at even under 2 minutes. That doesn’t mean that they’re any better or worse than what came before, but it’s worth noting the reasons why shorter sub-3 minute songs seem to be the norm these days.
Most pop songs destined for singles were traditionally 3:30 and under. This was because of the physical limitation of the vinyl medium back in the 7 inch single days. If the song went too long, then it couldn’t play as loud and would be noisier as a result. This set the original time limit, although radio (the major discovery medium at the time) had a lot to say about it as well.
Radio has always been aware of its listener’s attention span, so it was felt that anything approaching 4 minutes long was already losing the audience. One of the ways that radio was somewhat placated was by adding long intros and fades to the songs so the DJ’s had plenty of time to talk over them.
There’s also some speculation that songs back in the 40s and 50s were almost as short as today because of pressure from the mafia. The organization owned all the juke boxes in restaurants and pressured the labels to make shorter records so they would be paid more.
Attention Span Again
Today artists and labels still fight attention span and many feel it’s lower than ever, hence the shorter songs. But songs have automatically dropped 20 to 30 seconds just by eliminating intros and fades, which are no longer needed since radio is down the list of distribution priorities these days.
It’s said that a goldfish has an attention span of only 12 seconds but that’s glacial in comparison to today’s listener. You have about 5 seconds before a listener decides to skip to something else. That’s why so many songs start right on the hook or chorus. Grab someone early and hopefully keep them for at least the 30 seconds it requires to get paid.
Let’s Get Paid More
Short songs serve another purpose. If a song is 2 minutes or 20 minutes long, it pays out the same royalty rate, so why bother with a long song when you can get someone who really likes it play it again. That means a bigger pay day for the artist payment chain.
As we’ve seen with the juke boxes in the 40s and 50s, short songs are attractive to those who benefit from lots of plays.
It’s The Latest Trend
Artists, producers and labels will always follow the latest trend, even to their detriment. It’s not uncommon for a trend to last for only a short period, but the chasing lasts long after, meaning there’s a never-ending game of catch-up. Short songs were a significant trend over the last few years, but we’re already seeing big hits that are back over 3 minutes again.
From an anthropological standpoint, short songs are bad for music, say some scientists. The reason being that even going back to the ancients, music was used for rituals and trance-like mindsets. This required a song or beat to be at least 10 minutes in length. Pop music has never approached that and likely never will.
We don’t need to go into a trance to enjoy music though, and however long it is, we’re going to still enjoy it if it strikes our fancy.