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“Is it just me, or are songs getting shorter these days?” This is a question I have often pondered, especially in the last few years.
It appears that in the era of social media, attention spans are growing thin, resulting in shorter songs and quick “viral fragments” blowing up on the internet. This is leaving many artists wondering what the ideal length for their singles should be — especially if they are looking for them to become popular.
There is no rule governing song length, and outside of music that is considered “popular”, you may not even find that songs are getting shorter.
Popular music is though, and research conducted by Michael Tauberg found that the average length of a song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 4:10 in the early 2000s to around 3:30 in 2018, falling even further to 3:07 in 2021. At the time of writing this post in early 2023, four of the top 10 most streamed songs on the Hot 100 are under 3 minutes — the shortest is only 2:04! Only one is above 4 minutes (although, this song is from 2016).
So Yes, Songs are Getting Shorter. But Why?
One of the reasons songs are getting shorter is changing listening habits. Streaming now makes up most of the music industry’s revenue, and platforms pay out royalties in a super complex process.
According to Billboard, streaming platforms prioritize lower skip rates, and the belief right now is that shorter songs will result in fewer skips and more full play-throughs.
The logic does make sense: if a listener wants to hear more of the song, they’ll replay it, meaning more royalties for the artist. Conversely if it is too long, a listener will skip, resulting in less prioritization on the streaming service.
Another factor often cited for music getting shorter is TikTok. Fragments of a song can be picked by a trend, blowing up an artist's work or even launching their career. While a long song can still have a “viral fragment”, producers are starting to feel that these viral snippets are being interpreted as the entire song. This has led to artists packing a track full of viral fragments and hoping for it to blow up, affecting the structure of music today — and making it shorter too.
There is a flip side to that strategy though, and it is perfectly evidenced by this Reddit thread’s reaction to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s “Unholy”. After its release, fans expressed disappointment with how the viral sound bite felt like the whole song, and there was not much beyond it to keep them interested. While not focused on one song, this thread also highlights that bridges have become less prevalent in pop songs.
The takeaway: avid listeners can tell when work is being cut short, and they don’t like it.
So What Should Artists Do?
The 3-4 minute range is often cited as an “average” length for a song, and being within that range has been considered a safe area for quite some time. However, song length is entirely up to the artist. If you aim to tell a complex story with your music, it will likely be longer than what is trending right now on the Hot 100 — and that’s okay! Listeners enjoy artists who are authentic.
To be successful, a song needs to connect with its audience and have elements that make it enjoyable to listen to. Consider the genre, lyrics, structure and other factors about the song. Is it being released as a single or in an album? Think about the type of person who will be listening to your song, and what your own goals are.
If the length doesn’t match well with other elements of a song, it can throw off the “enjoyability factor”. Another thing to note too: streaming platforms are not the only form of monetization, and social media is not the only way to be discovered. Focusing too much on chasing commercial success could dilute your art, and your audience will notice.