In recent years, the three to three-and-a-half-minute song has been an accepted standard in the pop world; especially on radio.
It's because of this that this is the length most musicians write their songs.
Has it always been that way? No.
If you think back to the 60s and 70s, there were plenty of hit songs that exceeded the three-and-a-half-minute mark. You have but to listen to the likes of Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to Heaven” – just not in a guitar store), The Doors (“Light My Fire”), Derek and the Dominos (“Layla”), Pink Floyd (“Money”) and many others to see that hit songs weren't as homogenized and cookie-cutter as they tend to be today.
However, things have changed. Fans and radio station alike have certain demands. Should artists just give in and make radio-ready music? Is there a specific length songs need to be in order to have mass appeal?
We'll examine these questions from a few different angles.
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How Long Should A Song Be For Radio Play?
In general, a radio-ready song is one that is three minutes, give or take 30 seconds. It doesn't have a long intro, and it should get to the main hook within the first 30 seconds. Typically, even if it has an instrumental break, it's a shorter one, because three and a half minutes doesn't offer a lot of breathing room.
But to really get to the bottom of this issue, we have to take a closer look at radio in general. If you're an independent artist, you have to remember that your chances of getting on mainstream radio are close to none. College radio, community radio and internet radio tend to present better opportunities for independents.
So, if you're going to be sending your music to specialty programs, college stations, community stations and the like, you don't necessarily have to fit the typical pop mold. You'll still want to make sure that your music fits the esthetic of specific stations or programs you're sending it to, but you'll probably have a lot more flexibility as far as song length is concerned.
If you one day hope to be heard on mainstream or DAB radio, then perhaps deviating from the formula isn't a good idea. Sticking to the format won't guarantee you airplay, but at least you'll be better positioned to move into that space should the opportunity present itself.
In the end, it really depends on your goals. There's a fan base out there for practically every type of music imaginable, and you don't necessarily have to “play by the rules” to build a fan base that will support you. At the same time, if you're going to be sending your music to radio stations – no matter the format – you do need to be aware of what they're looking for so you have a better chance of getting played.
How Long Should I Make My Songs?
There are a few different ways of answering this question when starting a song.
One of the most important considerations here is fan experience.
If you recorded and released a seven-minute song, would your fans listen to it and enjoy it? Would they appreciate the experience that such a song could provide? Or would they rather hear a radio-ready hit?
This depends on what your fans have come to expect from you. In general, though, your fans are the ones supporting your music and your career, so pleasing and delighting them should be high on your priority list. If you give them something they like, you'll keep them coming back for more.
Also keep in mind that longer intros, instrumental breaks and solos tend to work well onstage, and even bands or artists that aren't in the habit of writing longer songs may play extended versions of their songs in concert. This means that you don't necessarily have to sacrifice your vision onstage, even if you do in the studio.
Musical vision is another important factor.
There are some things that just can't be said in a three-minute song. A concept album, or a thematic release might call for songs that are longer, build over a longer stretch of time, are more intense, or feature an unusual arrangement. Some bands, like King Crimson, have virtually never sacrificed vision for song length.
King Crimson may not be a known act everywhere, but they have a long and illustrious career, and rest assured they have a large fan base too, even if they aren't talked about in the gossip columns.
Even here, there is a happy middle ground, however. Just look at a band like Marianas Trench. While they are undoubtedly appealing to pop sensibilities, their albums are more conceptual in nature, and the songs tend to blend into each other. In short, there's nothing saying you can't have it both ways.
Another important element, as already discussed, is radio play. If you want to get DAB radio play of any kind, song length is something you have to pay attention to (also remember that you may have a little more flexibility with the stations you're sending your music to as an independent artist).
Ultimately, you have to weigh what you value most. Is it popularity? Radio play? Is it your fans? Your musical vision?
Sometimes there is a meaningful intersection of all of these elements, but don't forget that you can't please everyone.
How Long Should A Song Be? Conclusion
Whether you want it played in live venues, over DAB radio, on TV shows or other, a song doesn't necessarily need to be a specific length. If you write, record and produce songs that you like, odds are you will also find people that like your songs too.
From a marketing or business perspective, you can't ignore song length. You have to be smart in how you frame and present your music.
From a creative perspective, you can try just about anything you want. If you take this approach, it may take longer for you to find fans, but it doesn't mean that they aren't out there.
Also keep in mind that sometimes writing whatever you want is exactly what the world wants. At other times, writing what you think the world wants isn't what they want at all. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be strategic when it comes to song length, but it does mean that there's plenty of room for experimentation.