Switched on Pop hosts Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan join Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel to unpack how technology is changing the distribution, production, and sound of popular music.
Here is an excerpt of songwriter Charlie Harding and musicologist Nate Sloan explaining why songs are getting shorter in the streaming era.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nilay Patel: Obviously streaming services are everywhere. Algorithmic playlists are everywhere, the album as we know it is falling apart and the forces of the universe are taking hold. Songs are getting dramatically shorter over time. When you ask, “What did technology do to music?” this is such a concrete thing to point to. Songs have decreased in length by over 30 seconds over the past 18 years.
Charlie Harding: Yes. One of the main trends that we’re seeing in music and the streaming economy is that songs have been getting shorter from the ‘90s to now. The average song has decreased in time, and we’re seeing way more songs that are extremely short. Spotify came out in 2006, but only recently has music streaming become the dominant force of distributing music and now we have seen changes in how people are writing songs.
One of the main things that has changed is how people are getting paid, and it’s is affecting how songs are being written. In the past, you used to get paid if you sold an album or a single. In 1995, we had songs that were coming in at four minutes and 30 seconds. Today, songs are down to three minutes and 42 seconds, because of the difference in how artists are getting paid now. Instead of getting paid by physical sales, you’re getting paid in a stream, which only counts if someone listens to 30 seconds of a song. It actually makes sense if you can have more songs streamed at a time, which means that you want to pack your album full of much shorter songs. So if you have an album like Drake’s Scorpion, which is a really long double album coming in at almost 90 minutes, he’s got a ton of really short songs on there, because he gets paid for every song you listen to, whether or not you listen to the whole album.
Not only are songs getting shorter, but the way artists are introducing their songs is changing. Gone is the era of long intros that sort of slowly get you into the song. Today, we are not only seeing songs getting shorter, but there is a sort of a new song structure that we’ve observed that we’ve called the pop overture, where basically a song, at the very beginning, will play a hint of the chorus in the first five to 10 seconds so that the hook is in your ear, hoping that you’ll stick around till about 30 seconds in when the full chorus eventually comes in.
Nilay Patel: It’s similar to how movie trailers now have mini trailers before the actual trailer.
Nate Sloan: Yeah, exactly. This is the audio analog of that.
Nilay Patel: You’re saying songs are getting shorter because of streaming services and how the artist gets paid once a listener hits 30 seconds and then everything after 30 seconds is kind of not worth it. And they just want to get you into the next song?
Nate Sloan: No, there’s still an incentive to listen to the whole track and that’s maybe part of the shortening, too. You don’t want to risk losing someone’s attention. The payoff may not be monetary, but at least on Spotify if the listener listens to the whole track, that increases the chances that the track will appear on a larger playlist. On Spotify, they do factor in that if someone listens to the entire track you will get paid more, but having a song placed onto a playlist can lead to even more clicks. So you do want someone to listen through the entirety.
Charlie Harding: What’s really changing is the rapid increase of songs under three minutes. There’s a growth especially in hip hop. We’re seeing songs like Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” which comes in at two minutes and four seconds. If you look at his record, 14 of the 19 songs are under three minutes long. Ten of them are under two minutes long.
But Nate’s point is right, you want someone to get all the way through. You don’t want someone skipping your song at all, so there’s kind of like this healthy balance. I don’t think we’re entering into an era of where songs are going to be exactly 35 seconds, because there’re all sorts of forms and conventions to work with. You need to grab someone in and you need to make sure they listen to the entire thing and then get out and into the next song.