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Concision in the Age of Streaming
I remember a time when music was defined by…
IN THIS PHOTO: A promotional shot for The Beatles' album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
a certain tightness and constriction. I have been revisiting The Beatles – not that I have ever stopped! – by looking, in forensic detail, at the running times of their material. In the first half of their career – up until Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, really – the songs usually came in at around three minutes or so. A lot of the song would be shorter: the need to get to the point and convey their message quick was what was required. The boys were a new sensation and people, even then, wanted a Pop song that delivered a punch of joy in under three minutes. There was no 'golden rule' - but that seemed to be the measure. They remain the band, I feel, define economy and potency. The Beatles could get their songs out and, in that short time, change the world! Other industries, like Motown, were expert at crafting and engineering stunning songs that did not overrun. There is a slight irony, I guess, in this piece: it is going to be quite a long feature. I am compelled because, now, musical competition and pressure are at an all-time high. (The industry is packed and impossible to conquer). There remains a difference of opinions regarding the best way get into the mindset and make an impact. I feel there are two camps in music right now: there are artists who, in any genre, can create a wonderful and memorable song - and ensure it does not top the three-minute marker.
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It is hard to do but, I guess, is more common in certain genres. There are artists who feel they can only make a song gold and addictive if they allow a bit more time and space. We know, and have done for years, people are either drawn on a song or not within the first few seconds. With streaming services on the grow; one can skip to another track and hear any song they want. The attention-span is not limited, necessarily: people are spoilt for choice and, as such, musicians need to grab the imagination within the first thirty seconds. As such; one would think creating a short and lean song would be top of the priority list. If the average person demands a song win them within seconds: is it wise penning something that lasts maybe five or six minutes?! There are radio stations who allow a certain indulgence but, largely, they are limited in terms of the running-time. What I have found is the relative lack of ‘three-minute wonders’. We all know the sort: that epic song that starts with a bang; keeps you invested and then, before you know it, the thing has ended. The Beatles are the perfect example: there are plenty of other acts who were masterful regarding that type of thing. You’d imagine Punk and Pop artists would be the best examples of the taut and fabulous – those acts who can produce a banger without exceeding that three-minute barrier.
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I am finding a lot of fantastic, nuanced songs that do not overrun but, conversely, the dominance of streaming has seen more and more artists stretch their ambitions. I review a lot of songs and albums and find the same thing coming up: artists are writing longer, more adventurous, numbers. It is easier and cheaper to record music now – no need to go into expensive studios and slave – so, as such, they are creating D.I.Y./cheaply-made songs that allow them a little more leniency. The age-old debate regarding quality and evolution – whether music is better now or back then – does hinge on how an ever-growing musical population deals with the competition. Some go for a longer song: the more music you give people; the better chance you have of rooting in the brain. Others, who prefer something concise, will stick with something shorter and succinct. I feel there are fewer three-minute (or less) tracks because radio stations are willing to provide more airtime. There was the rule, years ago, a song could not exceed a certain length – if it wanted to make it onto the popular stations of the day. Unless a modern artist pens something ridiculously long – you might be okay up to about six or seven minutes – then you can get played. I feel there are too many needlessly dragging tracks out; feeling the way to rack up the streaming figures and views is producing something long.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lorde (a modern Pop artist who, among her impressive catalogue, has produced a few sub-three-minute works of brilliance)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Pop has even gone away from the short-sharp-shock approach and become more indulgent. A fascinating article published in Wired takes a more anatomical and analytical aspect to trends:
“How about massive amounts of data? Yes? Yes. Here is a giant database of music. From that, I can get songs from different years and look at the duration. Let's just plot this stuff. Since most years had many different songs, I have calculated the average song length (in seconds) and included error bars that represent the standard deviation of the distribution.
This seems to suggest that songs got longer even without new technology. Yes, there was still new technology. There was the extended play 45 record (EP). It still seems like that still would reduce the quality of the recording.
What about now? Since 1990, it seems that the average song length has sort of stabilized around 250 seconds (over 4 minutes). Maybe that's because humans prefer 4 minute songs. Clearly there is no technological limit to song length anymore, right?
So, did new technologies influence song length? I am going to say that it's plausible but not for certain. I still like the graphs though”.
Some of my favourite songs are three minutes or under. I have been listening to a lot of early White Stripes stuff – Blues jams that, for the first few albums, contained fairly short songs. In an age where vinyl was the only recourse; artists recorded songs that were around three minutes so they could squeeze their music onto a record. Those wanting a traditional two-side record had to consider the number of tracks they recorded and how long they were.
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Radio stations were stricter, too. It is strange that, at a time when (it is said) attention spans are getting shorter; songs seem to be getting longer. The top one-hundred tracks on the iTunes chart are longer than a few years ago: chart-based music features a greater number of lengthy songs. That contrast between keeping the listener interested and making a huge impact is interesting. One can claim the average song has got longer because of the theme/genre. There are great Punk/Rock acts around now who deliver a fantastically physical track in two-three minutes. The Punk movement is not as influential as it was in the 1970s, and so, this type of artists are largely confined to peripheral vision. Pop songs have changed in terms of timbre and tonality. There are gleeful and unabashed sunshine-smashes but, as we become a more anxious people; songs are more reflective and personal – this demands a slower, sadder and lyrically-dense songwriting style. More songs are recorded in minor keys: the days of the major keys ruling the airwaves has passed. I love the fact musicians are honest in their music; genres and being spliced and radio stations are more open-minded and less rigorous. Whether it is a bygone Blur banger or a sizzling Sex Pistols song; a rowdy Ramones number or a Beatles belter – a certain degree of excitement and fun has been transplanted.
IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes (who, in their day, were no strangers to tight and to-the-point songs)/PHOTO CREDIT: Jamie Beeden/The Hell Gate/Corbis via Getty Images
I wrote about this a few days ago: wondering whether fun has escaped from the Pop charts. It seems, with a diminishing smile, modern music comes with a bit more brood and indulgence. This shift has seen some revelatory records and a lot of fantastic music. There are some sharp three-minute wonders...if you know where to look. A lot of modern Pop is uplifting and positive – even if the artists are adding in an extra chorus and a more verbose introduction. It seems we defy the rule regarding concentration: listeners are backing and streaming songs that exceed three minutes; the vocal does not come in until quite late in the proceedings – giving modern artists, established and new, greater confidence to push their music. I appreciate we get to hear musicians uninhibited and free: I would like to see more of the incredible songs I grew up with; those bands/artists that created gold without exceeding the three-minute point. Many argue a shorter song is less likely to connect with a modern listener who requires something more expansive. Perhaps, given the personal nature of songs; artists are unable to convey everything within strict barriers. It is an interesting debate, regardless of whether you prefer songs more concentrated or not – the days of the radio-friendly, three-minute gem is (pretty much) a thing of the past. It is an interesting point to consider and, with that in mind, I shall…
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END it there.