Sound & Vision: Musicologist Nate Sloan on the History & Impact of Long Songs

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

June 21, 2019 is the longest day of the year so here at KEXP, we played long songs all day. Songs that were more than 6 minutes and 13 seconds. That’s the length of Bob Dylan’s hit "Like a Rolling Stone." It ended up reaching No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1965 when the average song length at the time was around 3 minutes. Here to talk about the history of long lengths and how streaming is impacting song lengths today is Nate Sloan. He’s co-host of Vox’s podcast “Switched on Pop” and is a musicology professor at Southern California University. 

KEXP: So, what's the average length of a song now and how has that changed over time?

Nate Sloan: Today the average length of a song — I should be more specific and say a song on the Billboard Hot 100 — is about three minutes and 30 seconds long. 

Was that always the length of a song? Has it stayed about the same throughout time?

No. Good question. It has modulated up and down to a great degree. This actually represents in recent history a drop, like songs in say the '90s were on average much longer, four minutes plus. So this seems to be a decline from, say, the last couple decades of average pop songs. But if you look over like the last century, it's very much in line with this window that pop songs seem to fall into which is somewhere from 2 minutes to 4 minutes. 

What determines the length of a song when it came to popular music in the first place? 

The length of popular music songs is very much connected to technology and the first technology — the first recording technology I should say — is the phonograph. And if you think of a disc — back then, we're talking around the turn of the 20th century — you would have had a disc made out of shellac and that would spin at 78 rpm revolutions per minute and those could fit about three and a half minutes of music per side. 

Was this before the age of vinyl?

Yes. The age of vinyl starts much later in the 1950s and that represents an another technological shift. The introduction in 1948 of the long playing or the LP record and that, unlike the earlier 78 RPM, can fit about 20 minutes of music per side. So in total, on a two sided record, you can now have about 40 minutes of music. That drastically increases the length possibilities for popular music. 

And then once we saw the LP, did we see songs get longer at that point in history?

It's interesting. Not as you might think. Certainly we start to see this whole new genre emerge like the genre of the album think of 1967 Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, like that's an album something that never really could have existed before because technology didn't allow it and we certainly do start to see these long, epic -- think of like the prog rock of the 1970s, like you can have these 10, 20 minute epic odysseys for the first time. But at the same time if you look at what's dominating the charts, if you look at the Hot 100, songs actually tend to be very short. If you take the Beatles first hit "Please Please Me", that's only 2 minutes and 1 seconds long and that's pretty representative of average song lengths of the Hot 100 in the '60s. So it's not necessarily a direct correlation. The invention of the long playing album makes it possible for you to have longer and longer songs but what it seems like most people are gravitating towards are actually shorter and shorter songs. 

And now we've entered the digital age, which brings in a whole new level. How have streaming services such as Spotify impacted song lengths today? Are we seeing shorter song lengths because of streaming services?

It does seem like the average length of pop songs are starting to go down and it's very likely that Spotify and other streaming services are the culprit. A big part of this is because these services only pay out artists after someone has listened to at least 30 seconds of a track and they will put your song on playlists and give it further promotion based on if someone listens to the entirety of it. So basically, artists are incentivized to some degree to have more shorter songs and thus get more revenue on a per song basis. 

Wwe saw this with Drake where he has many many tracks and an album say like 25 tracks and they're all very very short. So each time someone's listening to that album they're listening to many tracks so he's getting more on streaming revenue, correct?

Yeah, exactly. Albums are becoming more bloated with more and more tracks but each of those individual tracks seems to be getting shorter and shorter at the same time. 

I guess it's 3 minutes versus 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Do you think that streaming services are really having that much of an impact on the music industry?

That's a good question. You're right. That's absolutely not a huge decline. But I think what is interesting is that we're seeing more short song outliers than we would before. This is according to research by journalists Dan Kopf and Aisha Hassan for the website Quartz. They show that 6 percent of hit songs now are less than two minutes and 30 seconds. So that's kind of interesting because that's a very brief song to have something less than two minutes and 30 seconds but it seems like there's going to be more and more of those as Spotify incentivizes it. As of this recording is the number one song on the Billboard charts. "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X, that song I believe is in its original version one minute and 53 seconds long. So that's remarkably short. 

That is really short. Something else that I've been hearing is that some artists have also had to think about the format of their songs. We heard recently a local artist that's on a record label here in Seattle was told by Spotify that they didn't want to include the song, I believe, on a playlist because the hook of their song didn't come early enough within that particular track. 

 Yeah. That is definitely something we're hearing as we listen across the Billboard charts. More and more songs are starting with the chorus or they're going right into the first verse without any kind of introduction. The recent hit by the Jonas Brothers called "Suckers" is a nice example of that. It really just starts right with the vocal. There's no kind of introductory material. You're also hearing a lot more of what on our show Switched on Pop we've decided to call the "pop overture" where the artists kind of gives you the central hook of the song at the very beginning before proceeding to the first verse. So that's something you hear on like Taylor Swift's recent song "ME!". She starts with the hook of that song "I promise you'll never find another like me." That's the very first thing you hear and then she goes into the first verse. So it's like it definitely feels in a way like artists are competing more urgently for our attention, saying listen to me listen to me stick with this at least for 30 seconds otherwise I won't get paid. 

Do you think there's a value to having long songs right now. Or is it has that been totally you know disincentivesized. I mean are people putting out longer tracks these days that are still successful?

 Absolutely. I don't know if they're successful in the realm of the Billboard Hot 100 but that represents you know a very small fraction of the music that's being made. And you know just as technology is perhaps changing, shortening, rearranging the form of popular songs, it's also allowing for experiments that may have not been possible before. I mean you could theoretically have a song now that is like 24 hours long and as long as you can have a way to to host that much data, we don't have the technological limits of 78 rpm record or a vinyl LP. The only limit is essentially now is how much room you have on your hard drive. 

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

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