The Sound of Streaming Music

Howie Singer and Bill Rosenblatt, in an excerpt from their new book “Key Changes”, as published in the Wall Street Journal:

In 1972, the Temptations hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, winning three Grammys, with a seven-minute version of the song “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Before the Temptations sing a word, an instrumental introduction featuring organ, guitar, bass, and a hi-hat cymbal ebbs and flows for more than four minutes. If the group were in the studio today, the title chorus would most likely have been featured much earlier in the song. That’s because music streaming services pay artists based on the number of plays each month, and to count as a play, a user must listen to the song past the 30-second mark. […]

This is quite a good article about how streaming incentivizes big-name artists to release large quantities of shorter songs more frequently. This particular example — which sets up the article’s premise — bugged me, though perhaps it plays better in the book. In its context here, however, it suggests songs like the Temptations track in question were routine chart-toppers. This is not the case.

During the week it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the next nine songs below it were almost all about three-and-a-half minutes long, with the exceptions of the 2:44 “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, and “I’d Love You to Want Me” by Lobo which is just over four minutes long. Oddly enough, there was one other seven-minute song on the list that week, but it was in fortieth place, down from a peak of 27, and earlier that year, Don McLean’s nine-minute “American Pie” topped the charts.1 But the vast majority of songs in the top 50 did not even cross the four-minute mark.

Stories about how hit songs are getting shorter are a popular genre with similar diagnoses — streaming incentivizes brevity. Unfortunately, most of these articles rely on a single study which only stretches back to 2000. A more fulsome analysis by Mark Bannister shows peaks of much longer songs in the early 1980s through early 1990s, plateauing at a higher average in the mid-to-late 1990s, before falling. Today’s average song lengths would be fairly typical on the charts of fifty years ago.

This is fascinating to me. Without reading the book — though it is on my list and I am looking forward to it — it suggests the things which motivated single and album releases in the 1960s are somewhat replicated in today’s streaming environment. You can kind of see that if you start looking: pop songs were short and catchy, typically written by someone other than the performer, and singles were bundled with a bunch of filler songs to make an LP. Buying an entire record is no longer the point, but getting people to listen to a entire record’s worth of songs is. iTunes created a market for singles in the digital era; streaming services have created a market for relentless single-length songs.

Still, sometimes trend breakers appear. A couple of years ago, a Taylor Swift song hit number one on the Billboard charts, which is not extraordinary in itself. What was notable is its length: a shade over ten minutes.

  1. The incentives of radio at the time may have something to do with why the occasional seven-minute song bubbled up the charts. ↥︎