Should Pop Radio Force Every Song To Clock In At Under Two Minutes?

Maura | July 20, 2009 - 5:15 pm

Everybody’s got a crackpot scheme to save the music industry these days—giving away songs for free, sending people on wild goose-chases, just giving up and waiting for the current global mess to blow over. One radio analyst has thrown his own proposal in the ring, and it not only plays to the shortened attention span of the modern age, it eliminates the possibility of piracy from home-taped radio rips! Edison Research co-founder Larry Rosin thinks that programmers should turn pop radio into an endless stream of sub-two-minute “trailers” of songs, so that hits would be both distilled down to their essence and only available in full to people willing to pony up 99 cents. Hmm. It sounds so crazy, it just might work! Let’s hear more!

Over the last forty years, the average length of pop songs (or country songs, or most rock songs etc.) has grown from a tight two minutes to an ungainly four. This has effectively cut in half the number of songs played per hour. Actually, it’s worse than that of course, because spot loads have grown over the years too.

So what is the net effect? Vastly fewer songs are played. Radio stations get killed for not having enough variety. Music companies can successfully promote fewer songs, and the pool of what can become a hit is shallower. Way fewer novelty songs are played, because there is simply no room for them, thus radio is less fun.

Four minute songs have created a vicious cycle where fewer, safer songs are played more and more because they are the only ones that can rise to the top. Having risen, they just keep playing as recurrents and gold.

Music companies should think of what they send radio stations as ‘trailers’ for the full song that appears on CDs or as downloads. “Want to hear the whole, long version? Go to…” Radio stations should be thrilled. Shorter songs means they can play more songs, have more variety, please everyone. Stations should cut their older songs down in length at the same time.

But would increasing the number of songs really help audiences feel more in tune with the top 40, especially now, when so much of the problem facing pop music seems to be the data smog resulting from all the non-back-announced songs that are pretty much only identifiable if the listener has a Shazam-equipped device? I kind of doubt it. And maybe I’m a pessimist about the willingness of program directors to experiment, but I’d think that this “cut everything down” movement would only serve to reinforce radio’s hegemony, not cause it to diversify—after all, what better way to reinforce the status of a “hit” than to squeeze it into a playlist even more times over the course of an hour? And what of the songs that are slow-builders, or that do something totally crazy on their bridge—won’t those be cut out as well? What section of Maxwell’s four-minute-plus “Pretty Wings,” for example, would make this cut, and would showcase the song’s steady burn?

Perhaps you disagree, and could see a world where radio is the equivalent of Movietime? Which, wait a second, doesn’t exist anymore, so perhaps that isn’t the best analogy.

(Also, despite Rosin saying that stations should go back into their catalogs and do some editing, I’m going to assume that this approach wouldn’t be used on album-oriented rock stations, whose listeners cling to their canons in a way that’s almost as fervent as your average Comic-Con attendee’s.)

Shorten The Songs. Help Radio. Help The Music Industry. Done. [Infinite Dial; HT scroll]