In early October, Lil Yachty uploaded the 83-second track “Poland” to SoundCloud along with a grumpy message: “STOP LEAKING MY SHIT.” “Poland” consists of two keening hooks and some slack rhymes; a veteran publishing executive calls it “an idea, almost a tweet,” more than a song.
Either way, it’s a hit — it reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and it’s part of a larger trend: The average length of popular songs has been shrinking steadily for years. A 2018 study by San Francisco-based engineer Michael Tauberg concluded that songs on the Billboard Hot 100 shed around 40 seconds since 2000, falling from 4:10-ish to roughly 3:30. The average length of the top 50 tracks on Billboard‘s year-end Hot 100 in 2021 was even less, a mere 3:07. (Though this is a simple average, whereas Tauberg’s calculation was weighted by weeks spent on the chart.)
“Everyone’s aware of it — it’s a reaction to the culture of soundbites that we moved towards,” says Vincent “Tuff” Morgan, vp of A&R at the indie publisher peermusic. “I have producers in the studio this week just going through and making songs shorter.”
In this climate, writers are increasingly willing to ditch a third chorus and a pre-chorus — the musical alley-oop that sets up the hook’s slam dunk — according to the analytics company Hit Songs Deconstructed. And the portion of sub-three-minute top 10 hits ballooned from just 4% in 2016 to 38% so far in 2022. “Over the last two years, as I get demos back from artists, they’re consistently down to two minutes and 30 seconds or even two minutes,” says Caterina Nasr, senior manager of A&R at Elektra Entertainment. “Artists feel like they can express themselves quicker.”
Shorter songs aren’t exactly a new trend. Back in the early 1960s, little miracles of concision like The Chiffons “He’s So Fine” (1:52) topped the Hot 100 and The Beatles rose to international fame by releasing a series of snub-nosed pop missiles. More recently, Piko-Taro’s “PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen)” made history as the shortest Hot 100 entry ever (45 seconds) in 2016. The following year, XXXTentacion‘s 17, which cycles through 11 songs in just 21 minutes, became a streaming sensation. In 2018, Travis Scott effectively mashed three 90-second songs into the massively successful “Sicko Mode.”
If the focus on brevity in the early 1960s was driven by the pace of AM radio, the streaming economy imposes its own pressures on song length. One theory holds that a concise track is more likely to spur multiple listens. “There’s charm to a short song because the person hits repeat — play it again, play it again,” according to Mitch Allan, a longtime writer-producer (Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson).
The other side of the same coin: “People are acutely aware of skip rates and how that relates to success on streaming services,” says Talya Elitzer, a former Capitol Records A&R who co-founded the indie label Godmode. Tracks with lower skip rates are prioritized by the platforms, and Elitzer believes that “a short song is less likely to be skipped.”
Most importantly, song snippets resonate with a generation of listeners used to short-form video apps. “To me this really started with the Vine era and Instagram,” says writer-producer David Harris (H.E.R., Snoh Aalegra). Brief clips have achieved a new level of commercial resonance in the music industry thanks to TikTok, where users repeatedly seize on fragments of unfinished singles and incorporate them into videos, making a mockery of the idea that a popular track must include a verse and a hook.
“Generally a song that pops off on the platform is based around a little moment,” says Elie Rizk, a writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist (Mazie, Remi Wolf). “Subconsciously you think about that: ‘Let’s pack a track with moments and try to hit the jackpot.’ I don’t feel the need to repeat a section three times — they’ve already heard that part; it doesn’t matter.”
What’s the difference between an explosive moment and a song? Since 2020, if not before, a heap of young acts have gone viral with the former and then scrambled to transform them into the latter — to build a full track around the snippet that captivated TikTok. Examples include Will Paquin’s flashy “Chandelier” (85 million), David Kushner’s woebegone “Miserable Man” (73 million), and Avenue Beat‘s goofy “F2020” (54 million).
As singles get shorter, though, the gap between a song and a hooky fragment begins to lose meaning. “To a lot of people, I think the snippet [they encounter on TikTok] is the song,” says Bart Schoudel, a longtime engineer and vocal producer (Pop Smoke, Selena Gomez).
Kuya Magik, a producer and DJ with more than 11 million TikTok followers, agrees. “If you go to a club and you watch people dance, they only dance to the 15 seconds of a song that’s famous on TikTok,” he says. “For the rest of it, they just sit there.”
For now, platforms like Spotify count 30 seconds of listening as a full play that triggers a royalty payout, so it makes sense to expand a musical idea to that length. But a generation native to TikTok may not require even 30 seconds to engage with the music. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine that the length of singles will continue to shrink.
When a short verse goes viral on TikTok, “if that’s what the artist wrote and that’s what’s being used [on the platform], who’s to say that’s not the song?” asks Daniel Sander, chief commercial officer for the music-technology company Feature.FM. “The question is: How do you monetize that differently?”