How Much Does Song Length Matter for Artists' Revenue?

Travis Shinn
Tool

Does a 10-minute song, like Tool's "Fear Inoculum," pay more than something short, like Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road"?

Lil Nas X and Tool have something in common. Each set a record on the Hot 100 this year: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” for shortest song to reach No. 1 in 54 years and Tool’s “Fear Inoculum” for becoming the longest ever to hit the chart, and the first to stretch over 10 minutes. Otherwise, the songs have few similarities. They differ in genre and style, and their lengths vary by more than eight minutes. “Old Town Road” topped the Hot 100 for a record 19 straight weeks, while “Fear Inoculum” was gone after one week, buoyed by Tool making its catalog available on streaming services for the first time, as well as the band’s return after a 13-year hiatus.

At 10 minutes and 21 seconds, “Fear Inoculum” is 24 seconds longer than the previous record holder, David Bowie’s “Black Star.” Kudos to Tool and RCA Records for the success in spite of the venture past the 10-minute mark. Tool doesn’t have many songs beyond 10 minutes; its longest song is “Third Eye” from the 1996 album Ænima at 13:47. But the band has dozens of tracks longer than five minutes.

Popular songs tend not to surpass the five-minute mark, let alone 10. The two five-part songs on Green Day’s multi-platinum album American Idiot, for instance, clocked in under 10 minutes: “Jesus of Suburbia” at 9:08 and “Homecoming” at 9:18. The longest song on Radiohead’s breakthrough album OK Computer is “Paranoid Android” at 6:23. Many classic rock albums have songs beyond 10 minutes. Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from 1984’s Powerslave runs 13:43. Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” from 1977’s Animals runs 17:04. But long songs are hardly the norm.

Financial wonks might wonder if recording contracts, licensing agreements and copyright law treat songs differently according to their length. Yes and no. Copyright law gives songwriters the right to license their musical works for reproduction. A song’s standard mechanical royalty, paid by the record label to songwriters for copies made for digital downloads and physical formats, is 9.1 cents for a track five minutes or less in length. But the mechanical increases 1.75 cents for each minute the track exceeds five minutes. In theory, a 10-minute track purchased as a standalone download would earn 60 cents (if priced at 99 cents) and a 17.5-cent mechanical royalty. Subtract 17.5 cents and the label gets 43.5 cents.

But in practice, artists generally agree to limits within the contract that set a ceiling on mechanical royalties accrued by an album, explains attorney Michael Ackerman. “The pool of mechanical royalties would be limited to 91 cents, no matter whether the songs were one minute or 30, and whether or not there were co-writers,” Ackerman explains. What’s more, the mechanicals would be capped if the album had 10 songs or 20 songs. (Specifics of Tool’s contract with RCA Records are not known.)

What’s more, the common “controlled composition” clause lowers the mechanical rate by 25%, because many albums include songs written by the performing artist. (The controlled composition clause allows labels to pay reduced royalties when the recording artist is also a songwriter.) In that scenario, the songwriters on the Fear Inoculum album would receive 75 percent of mechanical royalties, or 6.825 cents for each of the seven tracks. In some cases, an artist/songwriter can earn less than 75%. “An outside co-writer is not necessarily subject to the 25-percent reduction,” Ackerman says. “From the total pool of 91 cents” for a 10-song album, for example, “the artist would be paid four cents and change, because that would be half the statutory rate if he wrote half the song.”

The four songwriters on “Fear Inoculum” won’t get more performance royalties than the four songwriters of “Old Town Road.” (Lil Nas X shares songwriting credit with producer YoungKio and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for sampling the Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghosts IV.”) There could be some slight variation because performance royalties paid for the musical work -- the songwriting part of a song -- varies from case to case. For example, ASCAP and BMI calculate royalties differently. As a result, two songs with different levels of broadcast radio plays -- as is the case with these two songs -- could have different royalties for an equal number of spins. (Who knows why? Collection society calculations happen within black boxes.) In addition, two songs could get different per-spin royalty rates from internet radio services like Pandora and iHeartRadio; both companies have direct licensing agreements with some publishers that circumvent ASCAP and BMI.

In any case, a single spin of a song doesn’t count as, say, two spins because it’s abnormally long. At broadcast radio, a spin is a spin (although collection societies have different approaches to tracking and paying royalties). At on-demand services like Spotify and Apple Music, a two-minute song is counted the same as a 10-minute song; the amount of the royalty can vary from one label to another, but not based on song length. The same goes for internet radio services like Pandora: although one stream might get a higher royalty than another -- some labels have negotiated licensing agreements, other labels get a rate fixed by the U.S. government -- a stream is a stream. At satellite radio, too, a short song and a long song both count the same. Licensing agreements between SiriusXM satellite radio and record labels might pay songs differently, but licensing deals don’t discriminate by song length.

Short songs have a distinct advantage over long songs: a person could listen to “Old Town Road” fives times for every stream of “Fear Inoculum.” That’s five times the on-demand royalty for both the recording and the musical work. Of course, people might burn out on “Old Town Road” while “Fear Inoculum” joins Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” as epic-length songs that stand the test of time. Then again, “Old Town Road” will probably be on “Hits of the late 2010s” playlists for decades. Ultimately, the royalty rate could depend less than a song’s longevity. 


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