Written by Prakriti Panwar, a first-year undergraduate student
First, some background
Much before DVDs and digital music, songs used to be stored in something known as flat records. These flat records basically looked like big CDs and were placed on a record player (also known as gramophones)
Back then (specifically between 1858 and the late 1950s), these flat records could only spin 78 times per minute. In technical terms, they would spin 78 revolutions per minute (also known as RPM)
These flat records would come in two sizes: 10 inches and 12 inches. The 10-inch flat record could fit in three minutes of music while the 12-inch flat record could fit in four minutes of music.
This would limit musicians’ abilities because to get radio stations to broadcast their music, musicians had to fit their songs within these time limits only. This means they had to keep their songs limited to 3, or a maximum of 4 minutes.
45 RPM Disks: the real reason behind 3 min songs
However, in 1949 a flat record that spun 45 times per minute, came along. These were known as the 45 records.
Like the previous flat records that spun 78 times per minute, the 45 records also held about 3 minutes of music. However, the difference was that the 45 records were made out of vinyl instead of shellac, were more durable and easy to carry around, and were cost-effective to create and sell.
All this made radio stations prefer 45 records over the previous flat records that spun 78 revolutions per minute.
It was also cheaper for people to buy a single 45 record (which contained 3 minutes of music) instead of purchasing the entire album. This even gave birth to the term ‘single’ which refers to a record containing only one song.
Hence, having a 45 flat record or a 3-minute song became a prerequisite for artists to get their song played on the radio and their singles purchased by the audience.
Once the 45 records became an accepted norm, it gave rise to popular music of artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc.
Long Playing records (LPs)
At the same time, Long Playing records (LPs) were also introduced and there were artists who created music longer than 3 minutes.
They either started creating shorter radio edits for radio stations or at times, fans would call up radio stations and demand that full versions be played instead of cut short ones. This happened with Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone ” which was more than 6 minutes long. Either way, it wasn’t as if music above 3 minutes did not exist at the time.
With the evolution of technology, the number of “physical restrictions” on songs such as size or material of the record no longer exists. Also, radio ceases to be the only platform for artists to broadcast their music.
Unlike in the 1950s, money nowadays does not come from the physical sale of records but from the number of streams on platforms such as Spotify or YouTube (which is counted only when the audience listens to a song for more than 30 seconds).
Yet, most popular songs even today are about 3 minutes long.
This is because a song needs to make money and profit for the record label/artist. And for that songs have to be of a particular popular length, so that it appeals to the decreasing attention span of the audience, and simultaneously increase the number of streams.