Once upon a time, the belief was that pop songs should be short, catchy, inoffensive and lighthearted. That time has returned. But the reason why is dramatically different this time around.
In 1957, the first year of the Billboard Top 100 Chart, the song of the year was Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” which ran two minutes and two seconds.
Flash forward a few years and we had the Beatles with “Hey Jude,” which topped seven minutes. At the time it was released, 1968, it was the longest song ever to top the British charts, a title it would hold for several years.
By the time Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” came out in 1975, record execs thought the band was crazy for trying to release it as a single because, at around six minutes, they figured it would never play on the radio. (They were wrong, of course, as recently discussed here.)
How the tables turned
Initially, the need for short pop songs was a matter of media and technology of the time: in the early days of mass-produced vinyl, both 78s and 45s could only hold about three or four minutes of music per side and it was what radio stations were using for on-air broadcasts.
Some artists didn’t care about this, especially as bigger records, and later CDs, became available – look at some of the hits from Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Rush, all of have songs that run well over four or five minutes. Don McLean’s “American Pie” topped the Billboard chart for four weeks in 1972 and took up eight and a half minutes of airtime. In 1972, it lost the title of the longest song to make the chart, when Harry Chapin’s “Better Place to Be” was released (it runs for nine and a half minutes).
There were two songs to make the Billboard chart in 2016 that well overshot five minutes: Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled 07 L Levitate” reached number 90 and ran eight minutes and 16 seconds and David Bowie’s final single, “Blackstar,” ran just under 10 minutes.
Novelty songs, by the way, always tend to be short, but some also wind up being popular enough to chart, including 1961’s “Let’s Get Together” by Hayley Mills (and herself) from the Disney move The Parent Trap which, at less than 90 seconds, is the shortest pop song to make the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2016, we had another fluke, “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen,” which lasted 45 seconds and made the chart at number 77, the shortest song ever to register on the list. It’s just a tad longer than “Little Boxes,” a song known to fans of the show Weeds, which was 62 seconds long and charted in 1964, reaching number 83 on the Hot 11.
In 2017, we had Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” which hit the top 10 and, at just two minutes and four seconds, became the shortest song to hit the top 10 since 1975, when Dickie Goodman’s “Mr. Jaws” – which, yes, was inspired by the movie – reached number four and ran two minutes and three seconds.
Technology leads the way
But pop songs, and most songs that wind up on any kind of chart at all, in any genre, are getting shorter. Why? Streaming.
“More streams means more money, and even then it’s not a lot, which is why an artist’s overall volume is so crucial,” Quartz notes.
A team there found that the median length of a Billboard Hot 100 song in 2000 was more than four minutes; by 2018, that had dropped to under three and a half minutes. Streaming wasn’t a thing in 2000, but in 2015, streaming made up 34.3% of the music industry’s revenue. In 2018, that number went up to 75%.
Between 2000 and 2018, the number of pop songs that run two and a half minutes or less has jump, from none in 2000 to about 6% in 2018, with the biggest spike coming between 2015 and 2018 – the same time that streaming took over.
Pop goes the trend
Again, it’s not just songs on the pop charts that are following this trend. One of country’s top artists, Eric Church, is producing shorter songs. His album The Outsiders ran 45 minutes long; Desperate Man was just over 30.
Streaming is the dominant force in music these days, we all know it. Shorter songs equals the ability to stream more songs in the same amount of time. It’s simple economics.