In 2014, a Calgary radio station rattled the Canadian music industry when it began airing songs at roughly half their original length. By editing the tracks down to no more than two minutes, the thinking was that listeners would be better engaged.
“It was clear to us that people were consuming media differently than they used to,” says Steve Jones, who oversees content on Stingray Radio’s 100 stations across the country, including 90.3 AMP in Calgary. “They were on the go and consuming in smaller chunks.
The QuickHitz format, which allowed the station to play around 24 songs an hour instead of the usual 12, did not last, however. Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization that represents the interests of Canadian record labels and distributors, objected to the radical editing on the grounds it interfered with artistic integrity.
Jones and the station backed down. “Looking back, it really feels like a missed opportunity for the industry. Our focus groups reported back that, with the shorter songs, there was a sense of perpetual momentum.”
The thing is, what the QuickHitz editors did – remove intros, guitar breaks, rap breaks, bridges and fade outs – is now being done by songwriters and producers as a matter of course. The average length of popular songs has been steadily shrinking on its own for years.
Of the five nominated songs up for single of the year at Monday’s Juno Awards, three of them (including Avril Lavigne’s Bite Me) are less than three minutes. Twenty years ago, all the songs in the category clocked in at least four minutes. The winning single, Lavigne’s Complicated, was the shortest at 4:04.
Country singer Tenille Townes, alt-rock band the Sadies among early Juno winners
There is no one reason for the shrinkage, but the rise of social-media video applications such as TikTok is likely the main driver of the trend. The apps allow users to create short videos that often feature song snippets in the background.
“With TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, people consume, like, four different pieces of content a minute,” says Akeel Henry, nominated for the Jack Richardson producer of the year award. “It’s harder to keep someone engaged for over three minutes nowadays.”
The focus on song hooks is evident beyond radio. For her Super Bowl halftime show, Rihanna rattled off a medley of the most memorable parts of 13 different songs in as many minutes.
In dance clubs, people might only react to the fragment of a song they heard on TikTok. “They go crazy for 20 seconds, and then they just drop,” says Rob Laska, songwriter and lead singer with the Toronto band Valley, which won top group honours at last year’s Junos. “They don’t know the rest of the song.”
Fed on a diet of earworms, listeners have less appetite for traditional song structures. The old record-business axiom “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” is strict song-writing doctrine today. The hook to Valley’s 117-second single, Throwback Tears, comes before the first verse. Lavigne’s Bite Me starts with the chorus.
“Everything is bite sized now and, as a result, the smaller packets of consumable hooks are slowly being integrated into song architecture,” says Jody Colero, a veteran music supervisor who creates and licenses music for film and television.
Though pop songs that begin with the chorus are not new – think Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name and the Beatle’s Help!, She Loves You and Eleanor Rigby – the practice is much less rare today.
The advantage of leading with a hook relates to the way music is consumed now. With streaming services, music is more accessible than ever. But if it is easy to click on to a song, it is just as simple to leave it behind and move on to something else.
“The intro needs to be short and straight to the point to catch the attention of the listener right away,” says Yannick Rastogi, one half of the Montreal-based production team Banx & Ranx, with Zacharie Raymond. Their Juno-nominated single, Flowers Needs Rain, with Preston Pablo, kicks in with the chorus immediately. “It is,” says Rastogi, “superefficient.”
A succinct track is more likely to spur repeated listens, which drives up the numbers. “Shorter songs that people love will get more streams because you just want to hear again it and again to get that fix,” Raymond explains.
Of the top 10 songs in last year’s Billboard Hot 100, half run under three minutes. A decade ago, none in the top 10, including Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, were as short.
Of course, teeny tunes are not altogether new. In the 1950s, AM radio preferred brevity – if the listener didn’t dig one song, no problem, the next one was quickly on its way. Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and Ray Charles’s Hit The Road Jack both clocked in at one minute and 58 seconds. One imagines fans stuffing coin after coin into jukeboxes, the conciseness of the songs leaving the listener wanting more.
Streaming platforms are the new jukebox. The question is, how short can songs go? Last fall, the American rapper Lil Yachty had a hit with Poland, which consisted of little more than a woozily repeated hook. At 83 seconds, the track is finished in about the same time it takes to microwave a sack of Orville Redenbacher’s finest.
Poland is an extreme example of pop songs becoming more and more like jingles. Which might be appropriate in an age when the sale of recorded music does not generate the income it once did.
“Unless you have a giant hit, the money from streaming just isn’t there, and as a result the song is now a way to build your brand and drive interest in selling concerts tickets and merchandise,” says Colero, who at one time produced music for Molson and General Motors. “So, just like a jingle, songs are becoming little ads for the artists.”
Today’s radio: all commercials all the time.
What’s the rush?
Not all artists are shrinking their tunes. Taking its cue from seventies progressive rock icons Yes and Rush, in 2021 Canada’s Crown Lands recorded an EP, White Buffalo, that included the 13-minute song, The Oracle.
Initially, the duo of Cody Bowles and Kevin Comeau were pressured to cut the song up into four tracks.
“A lot of our team encouraged us to remember that we’re not living in 1972 anymore, and that we have to embrace the modern world of streaming,” the 28-year-old Comeau told The Globe and Mail. “But what’s more important to us is the preservation of certain art form and a certain song form that we believe in.”
In the end, they stood their ground. “We don’t regret our decision, but it definitely was a stinging moment for us that we had to face such a choice.”
This year Crown Lands released the single Starlifter: Fearless Pt. II. It will be the opening track on their forthcoming new album, Fearless, and it is more than 18 minutes long.
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