In it, the piano man warbles about the perils of the music industry, and having to limit himself to writing radio-friendly tracks.
"It was a beautiful song/But it ran too long/If you're gonna have a hit/You gotta make it fit/So they cut it down to 3:05."
It's a deft set of lyrics that perfectly sums up the music world's short attention span. In the pop industry, most radio hits typically can't be longer than three to four minutes. Case in point, the top three songs currently on the Billboard Hot 100. For the week of November 22, the reigning trio was Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" (3:39 minutes), Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass" (3:08 minutes) and Maroon 5's "Animal" (3:49 minutes).
What makes three the magic number? And will that magic number change with the ever-evolving music business?
As it turns out, average hit song length has more to do with historical limitation than an audience's focus level. Let's take a quick trip back in time, to the beginning of the record.
The origin of the single.
In the early 1900s, the most common way to release music was via a 10-inch record. The 10" usually played at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute (rpm), which measures the frequency of a rotation.
Early 10" records could only hold three to five minutes per side. Twelve-inch records were also used, but they only held about four to five minutes, according to the Yale Music Catalogue.
"If it went longer than that, the grooves became too close together…the sound quality went down," explains Thomas Tierney, director of the Sony Music Archives Library, in an interview with Mashable.
Thus, musicians in the first half of the 20th century were artistically bound by technological constraints. The limitation meant pop artists had to create quick tracks that fit the mold if they wanted a song to be released as a single.
A short single could be played on the radio and become a hit song
A short single could be played on the radio and become a hit song, wholly unlike the DIY aesthetic that allows modern artists to get famous via social media, blogs or music sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud.
"In those days, if you recorded a song that was longer than three minutes and 15 seconds, they just wouldn’t play it," Tierney says.
Naturally, there were exceptions, but they were reserved for other genres. Duke Ellington could record longer songs, because jazz had different rules.
In the pop world, exceptions were rare — and relied on deception. One example of a song breaking the 3:15-minute rule was the 1964 smash "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" by The Righteous Brothers.
Produced and co-penned by hitmaker Phil Spector, the song was actually 3:45 minutes, much longer than its contemporaries. Unwilling to cut it down, Spector stamped 3:05 minutes on the single, so DJs would play it without realizing its actual length.
It went on to become the most played song on American radio and television of the 20th century.
A folksy sea change
Bob Dylan on tour in 1966.
Modern pop charts show that artists still stick to the three- to four-minute mold, though radio restrictions are no longer as ironclad. For that, musicians can thank Bob Dylan.
Unlike the pop scene, folk artists of the '60s typically recorded longer songs, Tierney says. They didn't care for singles, which were more for trying to climb the Top 40. Instead, they focused on "selling LPs in college towns," Tierney says.
By 1965, Bob Dylan was already a respected artist. He had released now-classic albums like The Times They Are A-Changin', and "Subterranean Homesick Blues," cracked the top 40 chart at spot 39.
Then he went electric. He released Highway 61 Revisited, which contained the 6:34-minute track "Like A Rolling Stone."
Despite wanting to make it a single, the Columbia Records sales team nixed the absurdly long song — well, except for employee Shaun Considine.
Then the coordinator of new releases, Considine sent the track to a popular Manhattan DJ. According to History, the track spread like wildfire, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts. It was an unprecedented success and a "watershed moment in pop history," Tierney says.
Rock changes, pop remains the same.
Robert Plant performs.
Dylan's success didn't completely alter pop's future, but it did shape rock's trajectory, where singles mattered less and less. Bands like Iron Butterfly would record 17-minute songs like "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," then cut them down into radio-friendly snippets, though fans preferred the lengthy tracks.
Led Zeppelin never released "Stairway to Heaven," which is 8:02 minutes, as a single, but the track still became the stuff of legend.
"The only way you could hear 'Stairway to Heaven' was by buying the album," Tierney says. "Bands began to have that type of power and say, 'This is our art. You’re not cutting it down.'"
So why haven't songs gotten longer?
If a song can still be successful beyond three or four minutes, why aren't pop artists exploring that option?
Well, with the onslaught of good music comes the erosion of the public's attention span. Unlike the heyday of Zeppelin, fans won't just buy the album — they wait for the single, judge, then move on to the next. Today's top chart is a little more cutthroat, because some music fans won't listen beyond what they hear on the radio.
As far as length, some exceptions remain. Hip hop and EDM, arguable today's most influential genres, get away with longer songs because they're suited to club culture, which is "more dance oriented…and lasts a little longer," Tierney says.
For example, the longest songs in the iTunes Top Songs chart as of this week include "Tuesday" by ILOVEMAKONNEN, featuring Drake (5:21 minutes), "Bed of Lies" by Nicki Minaj, featuring Skylar Gray (4:30 minutes) and "I Don't F**ck Wih You" by Big Sean, featuring E-40 (4:44 minutes).
These are the rarities surrounded by a sea of short tracks. For example, take Taylor Swift. Her first "official" pop album, 1989, is largely dominating the charts — but only two tracks are a little over four minutes. Compare that to her previous three albums, where at least half the tracks were well over four minutes.
"Young people will always be pop music’s biggest consumers," Tierney sums up. "[They] are always going to want their songs to be three minutes, and on to the next one."
Audiences have already been conditioned to desire short radio hits. It's a deeply engrained habit of the music and radio industry, despite anomalies and limitless technology. For Tierney, the foreseeable future won't yield longer radio hits. At this point, it's almost like "it’s embedded in our DNA."
Like a wise singer once said: If you want to make a hit, you've got to make it fit.
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