Short and sweet, or maybe not-so-sweet, may be the wave of the future in today’s music industry.
The No. 1 album in the U.S. this week is by rapper/singer XXXTentacion (real name: Jahseh Onfroy). His ? debuted at the top of the March 31, 2018, Billboard 200 chart with about 131,000 album equivalent units consumed during the chart’s tracking week (album equivalent units is a combination of streaming, downloads and physical copies sold).
The troubled 20-year-old rapper, who recorded the album while on house arrest for felony charges including aggravated battery and domestic violence, is among a crop of emerging so-called SoundCloud artists who’ve found success by blending genres (his is an amalgamation of new-school trap, old-school rap, EDM, acoustic R&B ballads and even screaming punk-rock on occasion). Of the 18 tracks on his new No. 1 album, for example, there are three headbangers that would feel as at-home on any industrial metal album as they do on ?: “Floor 555” and “PAIN = Bestfriend” and “schizophrenia.”
But X’s penchant for mixing musical types – sometimes even in the same song – is but one of this album’s selling points.
Another is brevity.
Of its 18 tracks, only two clock in at more than three minutes each, the longest being “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish LOL” (featuring Rio Santana, Judah and Carlos Andrez) at 3:12. That reggaeton tune seems like an epic compared to the majority of the album’s other numbers.
Ten of the tracks are under two minutes long, with one of those – an interlude – being just 48 seconds (yes, in an album full of songs that have times like 1:20, 1:33, 1:39, etc., he actually had the audacity to brand one an interlude).
The whole album has a total running time of 37:36. Heck, I’ve had longer taxies on airport runways.
Or to put it in this perspective, if you played the unedited album version of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” just three times in a row, you’d be finished listening to X’s entire album.
There’s an obvious reason for having so many short songs, which makes it something other current artists may want to emulate: more streaming numbers.
Younger acts like XXXTentacion and fellow SoundClouders like 6ix9ine and Lil Pump are making a habit of keeping their songs short. XXXtentacion’s first album, last year’s 17 (which peaked at No. 2 in August), has eleven tracks that only totaled 22 minutes in running time. The average song length on the latest albums by 6ix9ine and Lil Pump is just over two minutes.
It all makes perfect sense. The shorter the songs, the more likely they are to be streamed on repeat by music consumers. And higher streaming counts lead to higher chart positions (plus bigger royalty payouts) for the artists.
Of course, song quality is still important. A hit song has to be considered worth listening to multiple times regardless of its length. But a good short song could actually leave listeners wanting more – actually driving fans to intentionally stream songs multiple times as the burnout factor doesn’t set in as fast.
Think about it, as much as people love the Beatles, how many folks do you think would have the seven-minute version of “Hey Jude” looped on repeat on their Spotify playlists if the song were a hit today?
Indeed the days of epic song lengths – more prominent in the late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s when album-oriented rock was big – may be a thing of the past. We could be returning to the days of the early ‘60s when two-minute songs were the norm.
Back then it was radio station programmers and disc jockeys who preferred the shorter lengths for faster song turnover and more time for advertisers and station jocks to get in their own air time.
Today it’s streaming – currently the biggest source of music consumption – that’s driving artist’s decisions to keep it short, with the more direct impact on their bottom lines as the impetus.
Young hip-hop artist XXXTentacion and a few of his peers have figured it out.
Maybe others should take note.
P.S. XXXTentacion’s ? is the 176th hip-hop album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200. To see the complete list, click here.