The reason why your favorite pop songs are getting shorter

Lil Pump pumps out a lot of short songs.
Lil Pump pumps out a lot of short songs.
Image: REUTERS/Steve Marcus
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In just under two months, “I Love It” by Kanye West and Lil Pump has garnered over 193 million streams on Spotify, 274 million views on YouTube, and stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks. The song is just two minutes and seven seconds long. Compared to West’s 20 top performing Billboard hits, which are all at least over three minutes and with some exceeding five, “I Love It” is exceptionally brief. (You can barely process the absurdist video game-inspired music before it’s over.)

The brevity of “I Love It” is unusual in West’s oeuvre, but it’s not for Lil Pump. The 18-year-old rapper’s breakout song “Gucci Gang,” which reached number three on Billboard Hot 100 in 2017, was just two minutes and four seconds long, making it the shortest top 10 song since 1975. (The phrase “Gucci Gang” is repeated in the song 53 times). Lil Pump is not alone in creating hugely popular but short tracks. It’s becoming the new norm.

On the whole, songs are getting a lot shorter. And this isn’t just because of SoundCloud rappers like Lil Pump, XXXTentacion (who was murdered earlier this year), and 6ix9ine, whose hits have been consistently short since many of their debuts. According to an analysis by the data scientist Michael Tauberg, this trend is thanks to music makers across the board and can be observed for almost two decades.

The median length of Billboard Hot 100 songs dropped from over four minutes in 2000 to around three and a half minutes in 2018. Over the last few years, the number of songs in the Hot 100 under two and a half minutes skyrocketed from just around 1% of songs in 2015 to over 6% in 2018.

So what happened? Streaming appears to be a big part of the story. In 2015, streaming overtook digital downloads as the music industry’s biggest source of revenue in the US. And streaming has dominated ever since: In 2015, it accounted for 34.3% of revenue, and that’s increased to 75% in 2018. In the process, many artists have adapted to the way their music is consumed. More streams make more money, but even then it’s not a lot, which is why volume is so crucial.

One million streams on Spotify generates about $7,000, CNBC reports, although Jeff Ponchick, founder of Repost Network, a digital distributor that connects artists to platforms like Spotify and SoundCloud, told Quartz this number is closer to $4,000. Digital Music News reports that Spotify pays about $0.00397 per stream, which is about equivalent to Ponchick’s estimate.

What’s more, the top 10% of artists dominate 99% of streams, such as Drake and Ed Sheeran, who have tracks exceeding one billion streams. After royalties have been split amongst everyone, including the writers, producers, and performers, that doesn’t leave the remaining 90% with much revenue, so volume matters. (Spotify declined to comment on this story.) 

Ponchick explained that since one stream typically earns the same no matter the track length, there’s an incentive to create shorter songs to garner as many streams as possible. “This is a total strategy to game the system,” Ponchick said. Across Repost’s more than 5,000 artists and the numerous platforms they partner with, Ponchick said “the artists who do well with us are artists who put out content frequently and content that’s shorter in length.” 

Besides the impact of streaming, short songs might just be part of the instant gratification culture of the digital age. Popular reports that humans’ attention spans are shortening have been widely disputed, but that doesn’t mean that users don’t get bored more quickly than they used to. Variation is one solution: Listeners will more likely listen through an entire album because short songs mean that the next new track is never too long away, which works even if the album as a whole is long in length. (Cycling through a whole record ups streaming revenue too.) 

Not all artists want to play this game. Naomi Wild is a Los Angeles-based artist who got her start on SoundCloud before partnering with Repost, and her accolades include writing and singing on the hit track “Higher Ground” from Odesza’s Grammy-nominated album, A Moment Apart. While Wild acknowledges that shorter tracks help streaming volume, it’s an unwelcome pressure for artists who, like her, who came into the industry with art, and not the business of streaming, in mind.

“It’s a constant mental game to make music that I want to listen in my car vs. making music that will sell out and is nothing I actually like, just so I can pop off,” Wild told Quartz. “I just want my music to be better than yesterday…I don’t care if a song is one minute and 30 seconds—streaming is a form of currency, I get that, but it’s not where my head’s at.”

The tension between artistic integrity and streaming optimization is a dilemma that Wild and other artists face. But producing shorter songs, whether deliberate and at at the expense of artistry or not, will likely continue to happen. This is already the case most prominently in rap. From 2013, track lengths decreased most significantly for rap artists compared to other genres. (That year, streaming services’ growth spiked even as global music revenues fell.)

The top rap songs on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 (the week of Oct. 27, 2018) reflect this, with several of Lil Baby’s short songs making the top 25, including “Drip Too Hard” (2:26) and “Yes Indeed” (2:22). Compare this to the same charts from the same week in 2013 and songs such as Jay-Z’s “Holy Grail” (5:38) and the number one single at the time, Eminem’s “Rap God” (6:04), are significantly longer on the whole. Eminem still features on the current charts with “Venom” (4:30), which is considerably shorter than his hit from five years ago, but is still the third longest song on the rap charts.

Ponchick provides one explanation for why rap songs from newer artists are getting shorter and doing so more quickly. “Part of it is there’s an entire sort of beat-making culture,” he said. After someone writes a beat and licenses it out for someone to rap over, it’s more efficient to keep things short, impactful, and move on. “There’s a real production component to it,” Ponchick said, when it comes to “churning out beats and selling licenses.” Rap is also currently the most popular music genre, so it’s fertile ground to plant new content in—and as always, the more streams, the better.

And maybe brevity is becoming an art form in itself. Rap artist Tierra Whack’s debut album, Whack World, shows that the concept of the super short song can be an artistic challenge in and of itself. The album consists of 15 tracks, all exactly one minute in length, and each is paired with a one-minute long video (the maximum duration allowed on Instagram). “It stretches the limits of one-minute songs,” the New Yorker wrote.

When it comes to track lengths, the streaming model has disrupted artists’ processes in many ways: making them reconsider their song lengths, or feel frustrated that song lengths can be so influential, or make art that revolves around song lengths entirely. In the short term, the charts look like they will continue to exhibit this influence. But will this last if different music distribution models start to take off?