Short Attention Span Theater – The Death of The Musical Art Form [VIDEO]
Billy Joel once wrote: "It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long. If you're gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit. So they cut it down to 3:05."
The Piano Man understood the perils of the music industry in regards to keeping it relatively short and sweet in order to get radio air play. His lyrics perfectly broke down why songs like "Stairway To Heaven" and "Free Bird" never found a home on top 40 radio. While some epic songs were edited for the radio (Prince's "Purple Rain" quickly comes to mind), and the average pop song is around 3 minutes long, most artists of the 60's, 70's and 80's were unwilling to "cut-down" their 8-minute operas to make it on "pop" radio. But what is the magic of the 3-minute mark?
Pop music is, for the most part, an episode of "Short Attention Span Theater" with a catchy beat. In the early history of recorded music, the most common way to release music was via a 10-inch record. The 10" usually played at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute. Early 10" records could only hold three to five minutes per side. Twelve-inch records were also used, but they only held about four to five minutes. Songs had to be kept short in order to fit on the disc. Musicians of those eras were artistically limited by the technology (or lack there of) of the time. Artists had to create short songs if they wanted them recorded and released.
As recording technology advanced, the revolutions declined first to 45 rpm's to then 33 1/3, more music was able to be fit on a vinyl disc. Artists began to expand their artestry with epic songs and albums with themes and meandering stories. With the invention of the CD, and then the mp3, even those limitations went out the window. Other technologies, like YouTube and Sound Cloud have further expanded the aesthetic. But still, modern pop charts adhere to the "3:05 rule."
With the evolution of music has come the erosion of the listener's attention span.
In the 60's, bands like Iron Butterfly would record 17-minute songs like "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," then cut them down into radio-friendly versions in order to get airplay, though fans preferred the lengthy tracks. Led Zepplin refused to release "Stairway To Heaven" as a single, because they did not want to destroy the song's integrity by cutting it down from its original 8:02 length. The only way you could here the song was either by buying the album or listening to the young technology of FM radio. Stations that played extended versions of songs, even on fm radio, were few and far between.
So, with the advancement of technology, why haven't artists taken the opportunity to expand their art and take advantage of the tools available to them? Its simple; even though a song can still be artistic beyond the 3:30 mark, it has to keep the listening audience's attention.
With the evolution of music has come the erosion of the listener's attention span. Of this week's top 10 singles on the Billboard Top 40 chart, only one, Jeremiah's "Don't Tell Em," has even an album version that is over 4 minutes long. And even that song has an radio edit that times in at 3:48. Unlike the heyday of Zeppelin, fans won't just buy the album — they don't have to. Consumers today have many different ways to get the single, judge the artist, then move on to the next. They don't have the need to wade through album tracks to find that one song, when they can have hundreds, no thousands of artists at their fingertips.
Even television plays a part in the erosion of the listener's attention span. Shows such as 'American Idol' and 'The Voice' condense their contestant's performances to 1:30 or 2:00 to fit artists into the televised format. Today, the main objective is to grab the audience's attention as quick as they can, hold it for as long as they can, before wearing out their welcome. An album now has to be a collection of many singles, instead of a journey on which the listener can be led down many previously undiscovered magical pathways.
For the most part, lengthly songs have disappeared, unless you look towards the rap scene or dance clubs. Even rock stations have shied away from their classic epic grandfathers. Radio listeners, for the most part, have been trained to expect short tracks, to a point where it has become part of their radio "psyche". The shorter the track, the more artists that can fit into an hour. "5 in a row, nonstop" is only 15:25 if they adhere to the "3:05 rule."
The days of Pink Floyd and The Who's rock operas have faded away and have been replaced by artists who switch genres to make the quick buck before they are replaced by "the next big thing." The Buggles once sang "video killed the radio star," but in this day, it's more like technology killed the artistry of the star.