Trends: Artists Tactfully Shorten Songs to Increase Chance at Virality
While streaming has removed the physical constraints on music, artists often favor shorter tracks when aiming for that viral moment.
Popular music has long embraced brevity, and many artists are now focusing on short, attention-grabbing snippets that captivate listeners in hopes of virality. The top charts have recently favored shorter, radio-friendly songs, typically lasting around three to four minutes. This bias initially became prevalent because in the past, shorter songs catered to ad requirements of radio DJs, which in turn led to greater chart success. However, even as the relevance of radio has faded and radio DJ limitations have disappeared, songs have still become increasingly shorter.
A 2018 study by Michael Tauberg found that the average length of songs in the Billboard Hot 100 decreased from four minutes and 10 seconds in the early 2000s to three minutes and 30 seconds in 2018. Furthermore, Billboard reports that the average length of a song in 2021 was a mere three minutes and seven seconds. This trend transcends genres — from this year, Gunna’s rap hit “fukumean” is only two minutes and five seconds, and similarly, cässo’s uptempo EDM hit “Prada” is only two minutes and 12 seconds.
It is important to note that song length has not always been decreasing. In the ’60s, the average length of a song was only two minutes and 30 seconds, according to reporting from Vox, but this length steadily climbed in the ’70s and ’80s to an average of over four minutes by the mid-’90s. To better follow this trend, it is important to understand how the medium of music itself has impacted consumption trends.
Before the advent of digital streaming, music used to be constrained by physical limitations, first with the vinyl record. The first widespread vinyl record format was the 12 inch 78 rpm vinyl, which could hold on average up to three and a half minutes, thus dictating the average length of a song in the ’50s. In the ’60s, improvements in vinyl production and technology led to the popularization of the EP (Extended Play) and LP (Long Play), which could hold significantly longer songs: up to seven minutes on an EP and 22 minutes on a LP. This allowed musicians greater flexibility in record length; however, radio stations still preferred shorter songs to balance playtime with ad revenue. While the rise of certain genres, such as progressive rock and disco, lent themselves to longer, slower-building songs, pop charts still favored brevity.
Starting in the late ’80s, analog audio fell out of favor. Cassettes and then CDs were more portable and more profitable to mass produce. A standard CD could hold 74 minutes of music, nearly as much as a double LP. CDs also did not have any of the physical constraints of vinyl, meaning producers could crank up the saturation and distortion on digital records. Nevertheless, pop music culture still favored three to five minutes — about three choruses, two verses and a bridge.
Napster was released in 1999 and iTunes was released in 2001, ushering in a new era of digital media consumption. At the same time, music piracy became a larger issue, since file-sharing websites (like Napster) could be used easily to illegally distribute music on an unprecedented scale. Music piracy precipitated the need for a reasonable alternative to buying individual songs and albums.
Enter music streaming: Although Spotify was not technically the first streaming service, its ease of use and massive catalog completely changed how the average consumer could access music. No longer was music a finite commodity. For the first time, the top 50 of today was now just as accessible as the top 50 from 80 years ago. Anything on the platform was instantly available to all listeners, broadly democratizing access to music.
This revolution came at a cost to the producer, namely record labels and musicians themselves. Streams only generate fractions of pennies to the publisher, forcing musicians to look to alternative income sources, like concert tours and memorabilia. COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, revenue from live performance has eclipsed revenue from recorded music in recent years. According to a 2018 study published in The International Journal of Industrial Organization, the top 50 revenue artists earned an average of 80% of revenue from touring, with the rest from publishing, sales and streaming.
Perhaps the most important feature of digital audio that revolutionized media consumption is the lowly skip button. With the skip button, you no longer had to physically walk up, go to the record player and move the needle or switch the record to change the song. The skip button thus removes the permanence and commitment of putting on a vinyl record. Consequently, a song that overstays its welcome or draws out an intro too long is much more likely to be skipped. On Spotify and most platforms, less than 30 seconds of playtime does not count as a play, further incentivizing an attention-grabbing intro, short songs and frontloading the hook and chorus.
Another consequence of digital music streaming is the devaluation of the radio station, once the premiere trendsetter for new music. With the omnipotent skip button and thousands of auto-generated and user curated playlists, it is easier than ever to find new music, regardless of personal taste or attention deficiency. Streaming platforms have also increasingly adopted social media features, including collaborative playlists like Spotify’s Blend feature, and friends list.
Outside of streaming platforms, social media has drastically affected music consumption. TikTok in particular has most recently become a notable platform for old songs to resurface and new songs to flourish through short viral moments. Lil Nas X’s record-breaking run with Old Town Road started in large part due to going viral on TikTok. Just this week, TikTok announced its own Billboard Top 50 chart. The list contains a mix of radio mainstays, viral hits and even the resurgence of some old classics. Topping the chart is Sexyy Red’s viral hit “SkeeYee,” clocking it at only two minutes and 37 seconds, from a rapper famous for her viral provocative lyrics and bombastic ad-libs.
TikTok introduces an element of uncertainty into this apparent trend. Many viral songs on TikTok have a brief, less-than-15-second moment that captivates viewers, which is shorter than most songs and Spotify’s royalty payout limit of 30 seconds. This means going viral on TikTok does not translate to success on streaming platforms. However, the importance of the attention gained from these viral fragments cannot be understated. So while TikTok fame may not directly equate monetary success, expect the trend of shorter songs with catchy hooks to continue.