Streaming is shrinking the pop song

Ever wonder why we seem to be content with songs that run between three and four minutes? One theory is that we were conditioned by the capacity of the old 78 RPM record.

Those records had thick grooves which ran in a spiral about from the outside lip to near the centre label. With that spacing, a 10-inch record rotating at 78 RPM meant that the maximum length of that spiral was about 270 feet. To put it another way, about four minutes at most.

Creators of contemporary songs had little choice but to compose tunes that fit within those parameters. That was the maximum size of the container, so to speak.

That meant from the invention of the rotating disc in the late 1800s to the introduction of the 33 1/3 LP in 1948–the first 50 years of recorded music–humanity became used to contemporary songs with lengths between three and four minutes.

The long-playing album changed all that. Because a side of a 33 1/3 record could hold between 22 and 24 minutes of music, artists began to write and record in ways that would take advantage of the new capacity. And when the CD came along–74 minutes on a single disc!–albums started getting even longer.

Now that we’re in the age of streaming, something weird is happening. Pop songs are getting shorter.

An analysis of songs on the Billboard Hot 100–the most-consulted singles chart in North America–the average song in 2013 was three minutes and 50 seconds long. In 2018, that fell to 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

Even more interesting is the number of songs that were shorter than two minutes and 30 seconds. In 2013, only 1% of songs clocked in at that time. In 2018, it was 6%.

What’s happening? Streaming.

  1. An artist does not get paid until a song is streamed at least 31 seconds. That’s when a full payout kicks in. Technically, there’s no additional monetary benefit in having a song longer than 31 seconds.
  2. Shorter songs may lead to more streams. If you like a particular artist, you may be more likely to keep streaming their stuff if their songs are short.

Bands like The Pocket Gods recognize this. They’ve become famous for releasing albums of nothing but 30-second songs. Why bother writing anything longer if there’s no money in it?

They have a point, really–an extreme one, but still, right?

I can’t help thinking that this doesn’t bode well for music, especially people who like epic stuff like Pink Floyd. (Via Quartz)

Meanwhile, Hit Songs Deconstructed offers this analysis of pop songs between 2015 and 2018.

  • 72% were in a minor key (up from 51%)
  • 83% ended with an outro (up from 53%)
  • 93% made use of a synth bass (up from 55%)
  • 40% made use of a pre-chorus (down from 80%)
  • 40% featured a love/relationship lyrical theme (down from 82%)
  • 66% had 3 or more choruses (down from 91%)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “Streaming is shrinking the pop song

  • February 14, 2019 at 10:28 am

    thank you Alan for the mention, worringly we’ve been told by our distributor that Spotify are clamping down on such albums as we do – I think they’ve got the hump as our latest one we submitted was 100breXit30 which was 125 tracks of ambient brown noise with humouress brexit realated titles with the artistic aim of giving the listener a 1 hour break by pressing play from the brexit madness. But The Orchard and Spotify have different ideas! Long Live the 30 second song! best Mark

  • February 14, 2019 at 11:16 am

    I have been noticing that the “Radio Edits” of a lot of pop songs seem to have about 60 seconds of basically looped audio at the end of songs and figured that it was a result of streaming. I was speculating that most people “skip” to the next song after about 2:30 so bands were shortening the “song” and adding some filler to keep the 3:30 length


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