Will streaming algorithms kill off pop epics like Bohemian Rhapsody, Purple Rain and All Around the World?

Spotify streams music, with a advertising version free to listeners or a subscription service which plays tracks commerical free.

“We’re seeing two trends emerge simultaneously here; the average hit song is getting shorter, while longer songs are becoming hits less often. Now that artists don’t rely solely on being playlisted by radio to achieve chart success, they are less constrained by the traditional demand to keep their song close to three three-minute mark. So in theory, they can make their songs as long or as short as they like.” – Howard Murphy, founder of Ostereo

The research reveals that the length of the average number one song has shrunk by almost one fifth over the past two decades and continues to get shorter as 2018 saw the biggest drop in average song length, prompting suspicions about streaming platform algorithms influencing song length. Epic pop songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody, All Around the World and Purple Rain could be come a thing of the past, as streaming algorithms drive producers to make songs shorter.

The average UK number one record has already shrunk by 46 seconds over the last 20 years, according to a new data study – and experts believe streaming algorithms may be behind it. Researchers at music company Ostereo have analysed the UK charts and Spotify’s most streamed tracks since its launch and have identified a consistent shortening of popular song lengths between 1998 and 2018.

In 2018, the average UK number one track was 3 minutes and 30 seconds, 17 seconds shorter than the 2017 average, prompting experts and artists to speculate whether algorithms used by streaming and video platforms are driving producers to make songs shorter.

Producer and writer of six UK top ten singles and UK number one ‘Uptown Funk’ Mark Ronson* recently claimed that songs over 3 minutes and 15 seconds have a lower chance of success due to Spotify’s algorithm. If 2019’s number ones are anything to go by, he’s correct. All number ones songs so far in 2019 are 3 minutes and 10 seconds or less, and the average length is just 3 minutes and 3 seconds.

The days where millions of millions of records or CDs were bought to make a number one are long gone, just like chart-show Top of the Pops.

2018 was the first year since Spotify launched that no UK number one was longer than 4 minutes 30 seconds. Of the 100 most-streamed songs on Spotify, eight – including Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ and Imagine Dragons’ ‘Demons’ – were shorter than three minutes. One track, the song ‘Jocelyn Flores’ by late rapper XXXTentacion which has been streamed 767 million, times is under two minutes, clocking in at an efficient 1:59.

Only one of Spotify’s top 20 most streamed songs Mike Posner’s ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ lasts more than 4 minutes 30 seconds, while six are under 3 minutes 30 seconds and three are shorter than three minutes. As well songs becoming shorter on average, longer songs appear to be becoming less popular. In 1998, a third of all number one singles (12 out of 32) were longer than 4 minutes 30 seconds and four were longer than five minutes, including Madonna’s Frozen (6 minutes 12 seconds) and Oasis’ ‘All Around The World’ (9 minutes and 38 seconds)

No UK number one single in the past six years has been longer than five minutes. The last UK number one to exceed five minutes in length was Gabrielle Aplin’s cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power Of Love’, which hit the top of the charts in December 2012. In 2018, no original UK number one exceeded four minutes. Only one song clocked in at more than four minutes and that was the Christmas charity single ‘We Built This City’ by LadBaby, a derivative work based on Starship’s 1985 single of the same name.

Of the 100 most-streamed songs on Spotify since its 2008 launch, just five are longer than 4:30 and only one – Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, released in 1975 – is longer than 5:00. Only one of the songs with more than a billion Spotify Streams lasts more than 4:30 seconds – Mike Posner’s ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’, which lasts 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

“Our own data suggests consumers’ attention spans are getting shorter. More people skip before a song has ended and there’s a theory that streaming algorithms see this as a signal of dissatisfaction, which means the algorithm is less likely to recommend that song to other users, which means it is less likely to become popular. So something as trivial as having an outro that drags on for too long could see a song underperform in the charts and on streaming platforms.” – Howard Murphy, founder of Ostereo

Song Fact File

Shortest number one of the last 20 years: Mint Royale – ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ (2008) – 2:04
Longest number one last 20 years: Oasis – ‘All Around The World’ (1998) – 9:38
Shortest song in Spotify top 100: XXXTentacion – ‘Jocelyn Flores’ (2018) – 1:59
Longest song in Spotify top 100*: Adele – ‘Hello’ (2015) – 4:55

*Excludes songs released prior to Spotify’s launch, of which only Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ would be longer.

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