Every second counts: Why songs are getting shorter and what it means for the music biz

Lil Nas X

The revelation from Facebook’s Vanessa Bakewell in last week’s issue of Music Week that you only have three seconds to grab people’s attention for your artist on social media prompted plenty of gnashing of teeth in the industry about falling attention spans.

But this is not just a social media issue. Everywhere you look, music is getting shorter. This is not the most comprehensive piece of research, but a quick survey of this year’s No.1 singles so far shows that the average length of a chart-topping hit this year is three minutes and four seconds. That’s 38 whole seconds shorter than the average for a No.1 in full-year 2009.

Back then, seven No.1s topped four minutes (one, Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name, was over five, and needed to be to allow for all 16 times Zach De La Rocha says "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me"). This year, the longest is just 3:39. In 2009, only one of the year’s biggest hits was under three minutes (Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers, just sliding under that mark at 2:59). This year, Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road clocked in at less than two minutes.

Does this matter? Possibly not, but it’s a clear indication of how streaming and the tyranny of the skip rate is changing the actual structure of songwriting, as choruses arrive earlier and earlier and anything that might have audiences reaching for that button is brutally excised. Artists may be expected to come up with a higher volume of tracks – hence the spiraling album tracklists and the trend for artists to drop multiple song collections in a much shorter time span, even though people don’t buy albums anymore. But the actual songs are getting less and less space to breathe.

Everywhere you look, music is getting shorter

That scene in Bohemian Rhapsody where Queen are told the title song is way too long to succeed may have been largely fictional, but you’d love to be a fly on the wall should anyone have the nerve to present something similar by a new act to a streaming service nowadays. Even though, somewhat ironically, BoRhap has now become a huge streaming hit in defiance of all conventional digital music wisdom.

It’s not something that’s about to change either, with TikTok clips, memes and gifs eternally promoting instant gratification over the more satisfying delayed variety. That’s fine, and ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ is a great maxim for any hitmaker to live by. But other artforms have the nerve to demand more attention, with epic movies and in-depth TV series that demand to be binge-watched. Where is music’s equivalent of Quentin Tarantino, an auteur bold enough to put Once Upon A Time In Hollywood's three hours of Brad Pitt driving moodily around a stunning retro LA up against today’s slam-bang blockbusters (and win)?

If they’re out there, I suspect it’s going to take a whole lot more than three seconds to find them...

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