It’s become conventional wisdom that if you want a song to be commercially successful, it has to be three minutes long. Look on the song writing advice and tips web sites and they tell you the same thing. The art form called song writing has become constrained. Some will tell you the reason is that people have short attention spans and cannot take in a longer song. If that were true, nobody could or would listen to Wagner.
The real reason is that radio programming was formatted to allow only three minutes between the ads. The art form was subverted so that commercial broadcasters could maximise the number of paying ads they could play at you in an hour. The decision had nothing to do with art or attention spans, but everything to do with how little music they could get away with playing, to fill the embarrassing silence between the sales pitches.
Don’t misunderstand me. Getting an effective message across in under three minutes requires concision and skill. Those that can do it are very accomplished song writers. Not everybody can distil what they feel into such a limited amount of sonic space and still reach the audience emotionally. The practitioners of the three minute pop song are actually great artists.
On the other hand, what is a song for? To me, it is to tell a story, to take the listener on a journey, to evoke powerful emotional responses and most of all, to mark a significant moment in the listener’s own life in a way so memorable, that it will forever be associated with that piece of art – the song. This might be the worst piece of song writing advice you will ever read, but I believe the world is ready for songs that are not three minutes long. If you can do it in two, then so be it, but if you need six or even more, why not?
Radio is not the only way to get a song to an audience, these days. For many artists, the commercial radio transmission format is not even relevant. Their audience are not radio listeners. Radio will do precisely nothing to promote their work. If that’s the case, why would such an artist artificially constrain their song writing to fit a format that isn’t for them?
There always were long songs, even when radio ruled the roost. Stairway to Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody, American Pie, Hey Jude and many other classics are much longer than three minutes. Every one of them fought to be released complete and whole, as the artist intended them. In every case, it was a scandal. In some cases, there are three minute radio edits of the longer works, provided as a sop to broadcasters, but in all cases, the long version is as beloved and memorable as any three minute perfect pearl of pop music. Now, even the most popular radio stations will make time in their formats to play long songs of this calibre.
Prog rock is often pilloried for it’s album side long tracks. I am one of the people that really enjoyed those long tracks. It gave me time and space to let my imagination wander (and wonder) and to become fully engaged with the mood of the music. It was emotionally refreshing. The only reason that the prog rock era songs are limited to twenty or so minutes is prosaic: that was all you could fit onto a single side of vinyl without making the grooves so tiny, that the music was swamped in surface noise. It was a technical limitation.
Today, tracks can more or less be of unlimited length. My view is that if an artist chooses to make an extremely long track, then they should do so. As long as the track remains entertaining throughout (it is a sin to bore listeners rigid), then what is to prevent any artist from making a single song that is hours long? It could be like a modern day saga. If the story demands it, why not play out the song’s narrative in the same length of time as a feature film demands of an audience? If somebody can watch a film for ninety minutes, why not listen to a song for that length of time? The song would have to have scenes and movement and changes in tempo and timbre to be audibly interesting, but there is no technical limitation any more. The art can be free of time constraints.
If you think there is no precedent, think again. One of the most popular forms of contemporary music today is dance music. In a dance club, it is possible to listen to a continuous, uninterrupted aural experience, unbroken by moments of inter-track silence, for literally hours. In fact, DJs pride themselves on being able to seamlessly join two records together, with the transition being almost undetectable. What’s the difference between that and a song that does the same thing, by a single artist, instead of made up of several artists’ works invisibly, inaudibly joined together into a continuous whole?
So this might be a recipe for artistic aural excess, but it could also be a call to songwriters to ditch the conventional rules, break the strangle hold that verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus has over our art form and create something new and interesting.
I hope somebody tries. I also hope they make it extraordinary.