Discover more from The Honest Broker
How Short Will Songs Get?
We now have 30-second classical works and pop tunes you can sing in one breath—but is this really the future of music?
I often hear people talk about longform journalism—expansive writing that resists the rigid word count limits of modern media. There’s even a revival of it, as writers migrate from newspapers to more freewheeling platforms such as Substack.
But what about longform music?
I’ve never heard anybody use that term. But they really should. Music also operates under strict time constraints, and in recent months they’ve gotten tighter than Elvis’s white jumpsuit.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Not only did a robot recommend them, but they embody a robot aesthetic. The same four chords are played mechanically in the same key, over and over—without melody or lyrics. Even the rhythmic placement of the chords is formulaic to an extreme.
To me, this sounds like a playlist from a factory job in a lower circle of hell. But it’s actually a result of the best thinking at the dominant music platform in the world, aided by the smartest artificial intelligence it can muster.
But do you really need a robot to come up with this kind of music?
“Songs are more like elevator pitches, where you need to reach the end before the doors open on the fourth floor.”
Bite-sized, formulaic songs are everywhere, and it’s not just AI that’s making them. Real flesh-and-blood musicians are composing in formats shorter than a New York minute. But here’s the key point: humans are increasingly writing these blink-of-an-eye songs to please the algorithm.
This is truly a doom loop. Musicians are rewarded for serving the algorithm—and the algorithm is designed to punish anything fresh or creative or different from the prevailing formulas. You might be able to run a bureaucracy like this, but does it make sense for a nightclub or concert hall or record label?
Right now, the algorithm wants short songs. And in contrast to previous commercial constraints that imposed a three or four minute limit, more or less, on songs that hoped to go viral, these new hit-seeking missiles of music explode in just a few seconds.
Songs have been getting shorter for quite some time, but recently durations have collapsed. Even this chart, which is current as of last year, barely captures what’s happening right now in the musical culture of late 2022.
TikTok is now the driving force in commercial music, and although it recently loosened some of its time constraints, the platform is still ruthlessly focused on short duration music.
One minute seems to be the accepted new limit to the listener’s attention span. But even that might be too long, according to some experts. Here’s one of them.
That’s brutal. Nothing good in life should last only 19.5 seconds—and I mean nothing.
I’ve written elsewhere about why this approach is out of sync with how human beings respond to music. That leads me to believe that, sooner or later, longform music will enjoy a revival (more on that below). But there’s little sign of that on the horizon right now.
In the meantime, people with longer attention spans are probably doing what I do—namely, focus more on genres where robots and downsizing directives have less influence, such as jazz or classical music or more rule-breaking corners of popular idioms. But I note, with some alarm, that even classical music has decided to put the squeeze on its offerings.
I once admired Deutsche Grammophon, a Berlin-based label, as the gold standard in classical music. But at the very same moment when rival label ECM was promoting a 12-hour Beethoven project by esteemed pianist András Schiff, the marketing staff at DG was proudly inviting website visitors to experience Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas in Under 15 Minutes.
I trembled when I saw that. Because if Berlin falls, well. . . (here’s the place to insert one of those distraught Hitler video remixes.)
But even 15 minutes soon proves too burdensome. The New York Times, also a gold standard in cultural reporting for decades, has now proudly embraced five-minute introductions to classical music. In fact, this storyline works so well at the Gray Lady (who has algorithms of her own, I suspect), that they have started using it as a recurring journalistic device for covering concert music of all sorts (see here and here).
Ah, but five minutes, as we have already seen, is also an excessive demand in today’s culture. Songs are more like elevator pitches, where you need to reach the end before the doors open on the fourth floor. Even those snooty elitists at the philharmonic have to get with the times.
So I can only admire the bravery of Warner Classics, which not only is releasing 30-second orchestral works, but is taking the further step of relying on familiar TikTok tunes as material.
Media articles are prodding music educators to embrace this trend. To reach the next generation, we must adapt to their entertainment preferences—or so the conventional wisdom goes. This same article bows down before the wisdom of Ludovico Einaudi, who has been called many things over the year, some of them not suitable for me to repeat, but apparently is now lauded as “TikTok’s biggest classical composer.”
Consider me an outlier, but when I see this trend I’m reminded of the quip about the musician who “put the ‘poser’ in composer.” I’m not sure who deserves that title most, but for all the contenders, their moment has arrived.
Many people in the music industry see this as an irresistible trend. The attention span of the average consumer has collapsed, they will tell you. You can’t change this, or fight against it—they believe this at a very deep level, but rarely say it out loud. The only rational response, according to this worldview, is to jump on the bandwagon in the race to the bottom.
But are they correct?
The evidence of the newspaper business should make them cautious. The papers that took the lead in downsizing articles have lost the most readers, and in many instances have gone out of business.
The only newspaper in the country with a print circulation still above a half million is the Wall Street Journal. Whatever you might think about the WSJ, there’s no doubt that it has resisted the ultra-short news story more than its competitors.
Contrast the WSJ with USA Today, the pioneer in promoting very, very tiny articles supplemented by bright colors suitable for a toddler’s playroom. The folks at USA Today love simple charts—so here’s one to consider:
That’s what chasing a short attention span gets you over the long run. Stories get smaller, and so does your readership.
I will add, from a strictly personal perspective, that every editor who tried to get me to write shorter, stupider articles is now gone from their job. The race to the bottom turned out to be a race to unemployment.
Is music really so different?
The accumulated evidence from neuroscience and biochemistry is that our bodies need more than a few seconds to respond to the trance-inducing power of music. Even a three-minute song is not enough—which is why listeners tend to play their favorite songs over and over, in order to compensate for their short duration. From a purely biological point of view, a song of just a few seconds is a dud.
So who wins this battle: the algorithm or the human organism? Big money is now getting wagered on the algorithm, but I’m not so sure that this is how the story ends.
My hunch is that a short attention span is an obstacle to musical enjoyment, not its source. It’s like the difference between looking at the menu in a restaurant (which experts tell us ought to be a quick, easy process), and actually enjoying the meal. If you study the greatest restaurants, you realize that the menu is short, but the meals are long. I fear the music business has gotten these two things confused, making the experience of enjoying the song too short, while creating a drawn-out process of scrolling through the menu to find it.
Am I a fool to deny the trend? Time will tell. Right now, the ultra-short tune is in ascendancy, and most of the music business is running in lockstep to follow the trend. And in an age of algorithms, trends feed on themselves, repeating and repeating and repeating. That’s obvious, even to me.
But there’s wisdom that no repeating feedback loop can ever grasp. It’s the wisdom that arrives at a fresh, new way of seeing things—that bold leap that always signals the arrival of a major creative shift in a culture.
If you study the artistic cycles of the past, you learn that repetition and lockstep formulas come at the end of each era. They set the stage for the emergence of the next new thing. They are an indicator of a deadening of creativity, not its rebirth—which always involves a radical step outside the formula.
The time is ripe for that in music—and other parts of our culture too.
And if a new cycle of musical innovation arrives in our digital world it might take many forms. It may come from overseas or, just as likely, from some forgotten, neglected sector of our own home turf. It might try to fit in with the dominant technologies, or work to overthrow them. It might cooperate with the robots, or resist their stale feedback loops.
But one thing is certain. Judging by past history, a new musical revolution always shakes things up and leave many folks reeling in the aftermath—especially the people at the top who thought they had everything figured out.
What would a song that could do all that sound like? I have no idea. But I’m fairly certain it will last more than a few seconds.