Coronavirus

How Does Radio Play Bob Dylan's 17-Minute New Song 'Murder Most Foul'?

Bob Dylan
Fred Tanneau/AFP/GettyImages

Bob Dylan performs on stage during the 21st edition of the Vieilles Charrues music festival on July 22, 2012 in Carhaix-Plouguer, western France.

"I don't usually overthink song lengths, but it matters not with this one," says WFUV's Rita Houston.

Bob Dylan made personal history this week, as his new single "Murder Most Foul" debuted atop the Rock Digital Song Sales chart (dated April 11), becoming the legend's first-ever No. 1 song as a performer on a Billboard chart.

The track started with 10,000 downloads sold in the week ending April 2, following its March 27 release (on Columbia Records), and drew 1.8 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

The piano ballad, which, at its core, recounts the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, also garnered 27 plays on adult alternative radio stations in the week ending April 5.

If that last total seems exceptionally low, perhaps it shouldn't, and another number helps explain why: The song runs 16 minutes and 54 seconds in length.

(Remember that Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" last year led the Billboard Hot 100 for a record 19 weeks with a 1:53 run time for its original version and a 2:37 span for its remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. Plus, the longest song ever to hit the Hot 100, also last year, is Tool's "Fear Inoculum," at "only" 10 minutes and 21 seconds.)

SiriusXM's The Spectrum led all reporters to Billboard's Adult Alternative Songs radio airplay chart with 12 plays for "Murder Most Foul" in the tracking week, followed by four on WPXN Philadelphia, three on KCMP Minneapolis and two each on WFUV New York and WDST Woodstock, New York. (The song ranks just inside the top 200 most-played at the format for the week, well below the chart's No. 40 threshold.)

How does a station set aside all other options (and any apprehension that listeners might tune out if they're not drawn in) and devote almost 17 consecutive minutes to one song?

"It's an instant Dylan epic. We had no concerns about playing it at all," says WXPN program director Bruce Warren. "We play a lot of Dylan, and if a song is great, in our opinions, we'll play it no matter how long it is."

"I wasn't concerned at all," echoes KCMP program director Jim McGuinn. "Our audience expects a bit of the unexpected. It's a wild ride, with Bob backed by a simple, alternating chord pattern. And we're in Minnesota … he's our favorite son."

"I don't usually overthink song lengths, but it matters not with this one," says WFUV program director Rita Houston. "It pulls you in with its narrative, spooky vocals and beautiful arrangement. And, like any good story, it pulls you forward, making you want to know more."

Houston also notes the song's more pointed lyrics. (In one line, Dylan sings, "I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free.") "It immediately felt like a communiqué about what we are all living through right now, this unknown and dangerous virus and lack of leadership, or comfort," she muses. "Although the song is deeply rooted in history, it resonates now."

Says McGuinn, "The song dropped at a time when so many of us were starting to figure out how our new reality might look, freaked out at the unknown and, at the same time, craving both the familiar and a moment of discovery. Bob provided both with this song."

As it covers the length of four typical tracks, Dylan also finds time to more whimsically name-check everyone from fellow icons Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to Buster Keaton, Nat King Cole and Thelonious Monk ("… and all that junk").

"The pop-culture and music references are so interesting," Houston says. "He sure knows everything!"

Helping the song's cause at such stations as WXPN and WFUV, among others in the adult alternative format: As non-commercial outlets, they don't need to worry about breaking for lengthy sets of ads, so even a song that runs over a quarter of an hour fits snugly into an almost nonstop musical flow.

Plus, many Adult Alternative Songs chart reporters are not owned by large chains with corporate programming edicts. "Being able to drop a 17-minute song into rotation because it's a good song and we want to share it with our listeners is one of the best things about being an independent station," says WDST music director MaryKate "MK" Burnell. "For flavor, the song works beautifully."

Lisa Sonkin, Columbia senior vp of rock/public radio promotion, values the format's "groundbreaking stations" for playing the song (Dylan's first original composition released since 2012), all nearly 17 minutes of it. Says McGuinn, "I joked with Columbia that we could play 34 Ramones songs in the time it takes to play this song three times."

McGuinn and other programmers add that audience reaction is so far backing up their choices to help expose the song.

"Dylan has written another masterpiece," praises Warren. "It's another unique take on the American experience, which, in the context of the current pandemic, sounds timely and important as ever a Dylan song was."

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