By Eman Khazra
Music has gotten shorter over the past 20 years. Seriously. I stumbled upon this concept by accident, but it’s really a thing. In the age of streaming, more music than ever is being created, and songs are getting shorter in an effort to produce more and keep your attention.
I became curious after studying the April 13, 2021, Shazam Weekly Chart.
- Masked Wolf, “Astronaut in The Ocean” – 2:12
- Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” – 2:19
- Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open” – 4:02
- Justin Bieber, “Peaches” – 3:18
- Aurora, “Runaway” – 4:10
At face value, this is just another chart showing the popularity of pop music as it permeates culture. Odds are you know all these songs and you’ve never thought much about their length. But when the number one song is barely over two minutes long, and the number two song isn’t much longer, you can understand why my curiosity was piqued.
A 2019 article in Quartz reported: “From 2013 to 2018, the average song on The Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 min 50 seconds to about 3 min 30 seconds. 6% of hit songs were 2 min 30 seconds or shorter in 2018, up from just 1% five years before.”
Why this is happening?
$ave Dat Money
No matter the length of the song, the artist receives the same revenue. Why spend the time and money to record longer songs when all streaming services from Apple to Tidal pay roughly the same amount whether the song is 2 minutes or 8 minutes? Highlighting this trend, Lil Nas X’s original version of “Old Town Road,” was only 1:53, and we know how that turned out. Even my grandmother knows the song now! The 2:37 remix version of “Old Town Road” spent 19 weeks at number one, breaking the record previously held by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito,” which was 3:50 long, and before that, by the Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men hit, “One Sweet Day,” which clocked in at 4:40 in 1995.
TikTok, Triller, and Instagram Reels’ 15- to 60-second clips increasingly train us to get to the hook faster so that we can soundtrack our short dance videos for the world to see. In a recent study from TikTok, they found over 70 artists in 2020 were signed to major labels as a result of their songs going viral on the platform. So musicians will undoubtedly continue to craft their shortened songs specifically for success on these platforms.
The Hook Brings You Back
The modern, tech-enabled lifestyle has shortened human attention spans. According to a 2020 Samsung study, “Attention spans of music fans has [sic] dropped from 12 seconds to 8 since the year 2000.” This ever-shrinking focus creates a need for artists to draw listeners in early, to ensure they get as much of their song listened to before it’s skipped. More specifically, artists need to keep listeners engaged for at least 30 seconds for it to count as a stream for which they’ll get paid. If you can keep the listener engaged and get them to replay your song, you’re in the money. Just ask Lil Nas X!
Song structure is changing to align with new norms and new platforms. For example, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” hits its chorus at the :16 mark and is repeated constantly throughout its tidy 2:04 length. “Old Town Road” has the following song structure: Intro (chorus), verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and an abrupt outro (which is essentially another chorus). This song structure can be jarring, but actually causes your brain to desire to hear it again immediately! In previous decades both songs probably would have been longer, and more aligned with the traditional song structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro – aka ABABCBD), but in today’s world, the new structure works perfectly.
Creativity is fluid, and we’ll continue to see songs morph. Musicians are the leaders in culture and we never know where they will take us. Artists like Travis Scott pave the way, as he did with “Sicko Mode,” which is basically three separate songs rolled into one (and at over five minutes breaks this shortening trend). There is a world where “Sicko Mode” lives nicely next to “Gucci Gang,” which can be observed clearly on TikTok, where each has over 500 million “tagged” videos. I personally hope songs don’t get much shorter, but I’m the ripe old age of 24, and my future kids may someday say, “You just don’t get it, old man!”
Creators create to feed their artistic sensibilities, but they also want their fans to appreciate their art. As a society our attention spans are getting shorter, and understanding that as marketers can help us reach the people we want to reach. Music is a big signifier of how people consume. Right now, songs are getting shorter and getting to the hook, just like getting to the message, needs to happen fast. That’s what’s happening today, and who knows? Tomorrow songs could get as short as a 30-second commercial.