Algorithms and reduced attention spans mean pop songs are getting shorter

The team at Ostereo

The length of the average number one song has shrunk by almost one fifth over the past two decades and continues to get shorter, according to a new study from Ostereo, a UK record label.

Ostereo researchers analysed the UK charts and Spotify’s most streamed tracks since the platform’s launch and have identified a consistent shortening of popular song lengths between 1998 and 2018.

Producer and writer of six UK top ten singles and UK number one ‘Uptown Funk’, Mark Ronson, recently claimed that songs longer than 3 minutes and 15 seconds have a lower chance of success due to Spotify’s algorithm.

The influence of algorithms

2018 was the first year since Spotify launched that no UK number one was longer than 4 minutes 30 seconds. Of the 100 most-streamed songs on Spotify, eight – including Sam Smith’s Stay With Me and Imagine Dragons’ Demons – were shorter than three minutes. One track, the song Jocelyn Flores by late rapper XXXTentacion – which has been streamed 767m times – is under two minutes, clocking in at an efficient 1m 59s.

Only one of Spotify’s top 20 most streamed songs, Mike Posner’s I Took A Pill In Ibiza, lasts more than 4m 30s, while six are under 3m 30s and three are shorter than three minutes.

Average lengths of UK number ones by year

  • 1998 – 4m 16s
  • 2008 – 3m 44s
  • 2018 – 3m 30s
  • 2019 (so far) – 3m 3s

Longer songs becoming less popular

As well songs becoming shorter on average, longer songs appear to be becoming less popular. In 1998, a third of all number one singles (12 out of 32) were longer than 4m 30s and four were longer than five minutes, including Madonna’s Frozen (6m 12s) and Oasis’ All Around The World (9m 38s).

No UK number one single in the past nine years has been longer than five minutes and in 2018 no original UK number one exceeded four minutes (the only song longer than four minutes was We Built This City, the Christmas charity single by LadBaby, a derivative work based on Starship’s 1985 single of the same name).

Of the 100 most-streamed songs on Spotify since its 2008 launch, just five are longer than 4m 30s and only one, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, released in 1975, is longer than five minutes.

Howard Murphy, founder of Ostereo, believes that algorithms may be encouraging artists to record shorter songs:

‘We’re seeing two trends emerge simultaneously here: the average hit song is getting shorter, while longer songs are becoming hits less often. Now that artists don’t rely solely on being playlisted by radio to achieve chart success, they are less constrained by the traditional demand to keep their song close to three three-minute mark. So in theory, they can make their songs as long or as short as they like.

Attention spans are getting shorter

‘But our own data suggests consumers’ attention spans are getting shorter. More people skip before a song has ended and there’s a theory that streaming algorithms see this as a signal of dissatisfaction, which means the algorithm is less likely to recommend that song to other users, which means it is less likely to become popular.

‘So something as trivial as having an outro that drags on for too long could see a song underperform in the charts and on streaming platforms.’

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