Why are songs shorter now?

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(NEXSTAR) — It’s not just you — the songs you hear on the radio or stream on your favorite music app are shorter than they used to be. Historically, popular songs aimed to be at least 3 minutes long, a guiding principle known as the “3-Minute Rule.”

This goal length dates back to vinyl records, when artists hoped to have at least 3 minutes of material to fill out a 45 rpm disc, also known as a “single.” As explained by Vox, singles were cheaper to create and cheaper to buy, so artists were incentivized to adhere to the rule. The Beastie Boys even made a song about it.

But these days, many popular songs don’t even come close to 3 minute length.

Some recent Billboard Hot 100 chart toppers, Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” and SZA’s “Kill Bill clock in at 2:43 and 2:33, respectively.

Compare that to this same week in 2003, when Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” had just begun its eight-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100. The pop classic featuring Jay-Z has a length of just seconds under 4 minutes. Just 10 years ago, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” spent 12 weeks at the top spot. That song comes in at 4 minutes and 25 seconds.

So what gives?

Well, it all has to do with how music is “counted” and consumed these days.

Music streaming giants like Spotify and Apple Music (among others) have particular rules for how they count song streams toward payment for labels/artists. Streaming services have massive amounts of data about the songs users play, so they can tell not only how many times a song is played but for how long. And whether the service pays out money for a stream of a song largely depends on whether or not it’s considered a “stream” or a “play.”

Spotify counts a song as “streamed” when you listen for 30 seconds or more. Apple Music considers a song “played” when you listen for that same amount of time.

While streamers don’t necessarily pay per-stream across the board, the way revenues are paid out incentivize having shorter songs that can be played more often. On average, it’s estimated Spotify pays between $0.01-$0.03 per stream (the company doesn’t have a strict per-stream scale, but divides payments based on what’s called “streamshare,” which pays more to artists with large portions of total streams). Apple Music’s average per-play rate is $0.01, according to Apple.

Shorter song length means a song can be played more times in a short amount of time. Even though the payout may only be a couple of cents, for record labels and artists, the extra revenue adds up (Russell Falcon/NEXSTAR)

One of the best artist examples of this trend is “Old Town Road” rapper-singer Lil Nas X. The 24 year-old followed up his debut single, which came in at only 1:53, with his debut album, 2021’s “Montero” — a 15-track album filled with mostly under-three-minute songs. Whereas a 12-16 track album of traditional-length pop songs (3-5 minutes) would come in just over an hour in length (use Beyoncé’s 2022 album “Renaissance,” for example), “Montero” contains the near same amount of tracks and clocks in at only 41:17.

While “Renaissance” can only be played once an hour, “Montero” could, potentially, be played nearly one and a half times — and that’s more money.

So you may be wondering, given the new length parameters, does it even matter if anyone listens to a song past 30 seconds? It might seem like the answer would be no but according to at least one expert, that’s not the case.

“There’s still an incentive to listen to the whole track and that’s maybe part of the shortening, too. You don’t want to risk losing someone’s attention. The payoff may not be monetary, but at least on Spotify if the listener listens to the whole track, that increases the chances that the track will appear on a larger playlist,” musicologist and host of the popular Switched on Pop podcast Nate Sloan previously told The Verge.

Sloan also says that Spotify factors in whether or not a song was finished, which increases the payout amount.

And while streaming services have changed the music game, so has the rise of short-form video giant TikTok. There, it benefits songs to have the “catchy parts” (hooks, samples) closer to the beginning to keep a user’s attention and make them more likely to engage with a song.

Ice Spice, left, and PinkPantheress perform at the Wireless Music Festival in Finsbury Park, in London, Friday, July 7, 2023. (Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)

The rise of TikTok-popular artists has helped legitimize the idea of a TikTok hit becoming a “real world” hit. A recent viral smash by Ice Spice and PinkPantheress, the 2:11 “Boy’s a liar, Pt. 2,” was wildly popular on TikTok before ultimately reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February.

But shorter songs aren’t a hard-and-fast rule.

Many of 2023’s Billboard number ones this year buck the trend, including Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” (3:21), Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers” (3:21), and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire” (3:39). And while it appears that most traditional popular music artists — like those just mentioned — still adhere to the 3-minute rule, one legacy pop star recently surprised fans by releasing the shortest single of her career.

Back in May, Australian pop icon Kylie Minogue globally released her 2:46 dance “Padam Padam,” which ended before many listeners where ready. Few songs in Minogue’s oeuvre are as brief as “Padam,” however, the 1989 non-single “Tell Tale Signs” from her sophomore album remains the Pop Princess’ shortest track overall, at 2:26.

But if you’re worried about getting used to songs ending too abruptly, there’s a glimmer of hope. By demand, Minogue later released an extended version of “Padam Padam” shortly after. It runs 4:03.

And just in case you’re wondering just how short songs can get and still be considered “songs” on the charts, going to the extreme, artist Kid Cudi set a record in 2020 for the shortest Billboard song ever with his 37-second “Beautiful Trip.” The song, from Cudi’s third studio album, wrestled away the record for shortest entry, previously held by Pikotaro’s 45-second “PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen).”

Finally, if you’re a fan of that last one, more good news: there’s an extended “PPAP” version with a “long” runtime of 2 minutes and 33 seconds.

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