When we were teenagers, we could get into the car in Port Credit, Ontario and play the song "Who Are You" by the Who (on cassette) with our goal always to see how close to Toronto we could get by the time the song was over. The track was six minutes and 21 seconds long and we'd regularly pass the ‘Welcome To Toronto' sign just as Roger Daltry was about to swear. Back then, QEW traffic travelling east, was non-existent and as reckless teenagers, driving the speed limit was rarely a consideration. A track like "Lazy" by Deep Purple where the intro alone is 4:22 long, would have taken us to the Yonge Street off ramp for sure! I am lucky to still be alive, as a Ford Pinto was never designed for speed.
Yes, I am waxing nostalgic for the days when songs had a beginning, middle and an end. Bands like the Talking Heads had the best intros in the business - beautifully structured instrumentals that would go on for minutes. How about Supertramp's "School" or Pink Floyd's "Money" or The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin Jack Flash? No artist was in a rush to get to the chorus - you needed a lead-up. Well those days seem to be over.
According to Hubert Leveille Gauvin, a US doctoral student in music theory, the length of a song's introduction has dropped from what was an average of twenty seconds in 1986 to less than five seconds today. So why have musicians restructured their composition with no grace for a good start? Part of the answer is rooted in economics, with the villain being streaming music services. Spotify, the largest global streaming company, only pays an artist for a song after 30 seconds of play. So songwriters have an incentive to cut to the chase.
This of course is not the first time that art has been constricted by technology. The reason that most pop songs (actually any song back in the day) were inside three minutes was due to three minutes being the maximum amount of time that could be captured on a 78" record. In 1949, RCA introduced the 45-rpm record that also had a sweet spot of about three minutes of recorded music, which became known as the single.
To be played on radio in the 1950s and ‘60s, a band had to have a single and to get airplay, the shorter the song the better. Motown Records was the first label credited for remastering songs to sound their best on AM radio which later became known as drive time radio.
Songs were the shortest in the 1960s and according to Mark Bannister, a London-based data analyst, were the longest in the 1980s which ironically, according to Financial Times arts critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, was also the decade when "attention deficit disorder" first appeared in the American Psychiatric Association's Statistical manual of Mental Disorders.
Another area where music has changed dramatically is in the use of swearing. Roger Daltry was an extreme bad boy to introduce foul language back in the 1970s that today is commonplace. One reason for the rise in bad language again can be credited to streaming audio services. When musicians were dependent on radio play, swearing was a no-no. Such censorship does not exist on Spotify. The most streamed performer in 2017 was Canadian rapper Drake with 6 billion streams. Lots of swearing!
So we can blame Spotify for killing the album and the chances of us ever hearing a new release single that is eight minutes long, but they sure have motivated musicians to get on with it and be catchy out of the gate. In our distracted, pre-occupied world, what else would you expect?
As always thanks for reading.