At this year’s annual music industry jamboree South-by-South-West in Austin Texas, I got to witness the standard Paddy’s Day fare of green Guinness as America paid homage to their Irish roots. You could hear bands covering U2 songs in each and every bar; my favourite being their 1986 anthem ‘Where the Streets Have no Name’ - a suitable title when walking zig-zagedly down Sixth Street at 2am.  

‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ may remind the American audience of their ancestral roots, but it reminds us of something more pertinent: how our attention spans have changed in a streaming age. Think about this: it takes almost two minutes of anthemic guitar build up from The Edge, before you hear Bono’s vocals. Now stop. Ask yourself this: do you think the youth of today would wait more than two minutes for the vocals to come into a song? Would they have the patience? 

Streaming is changing how we listen to music. On the demand side, audience attention spans are getting shorter, more fickle. There are now 80,000 new songs a day being uploaded onto streaming platforms. On the supply side, songwriters are adapting to the streaming economy by changing how songs are structured, and how long they last. 

Songs are adapting to a streaming economy in two ways that teach us a lot about today’s attention economy. First, songs are getting shorter. It’s not uncommon for hits to be done and dusted in under three minutes. Lil Nas X smash hit Old Town Road fades out after two minutes, around the same time as Bono’s voice was coming in. Second, choruses are being brought to the front. Around half of hits today have the chorus beginning within the first fifteen seconds. Bono’s chorus doesn’t kick in till 2:50.

This is partly due to our attention spans getting shorter, but it's also due to the rules of the game. Streaming services only pay when you’ve been played for thirty uninterrupted seconds so it makes sense to shove the chorus upfront to hook you in and deter the dreaded, (and unpaid), skips. What’s more, streaming services don’t pay a penny more for lasting a second more so there’s little incentive to write long drawn out anthems. Cannier songwriters write shorter tunes. 

What is technology doing to art? What’s more, what’s it gone-and-done to our attention spans? If chorus-led pop hits have shrunk from three minutes to thirty seconds, then when does it stop? 

Dealing with disruption is like staring into darkness. That’s why I went into a bat cave for over a year to write my first book ‘Tarzan Economics: Eight Principles for Pivoting Through Disruption’; to offer you the reader some light at the end of the tunnel. 

And one of those principles is aptly titled ‘Paying Attention’. The syntax in that title matters: in English, we use the currency of  ‘pay’; in Spanish we ‘lend’; in French we ‘make’; and in Swedish we ‘give’. In each principle you’ll find a way of navigating through the endless wave of disruption, but more importantly you’ll pick up reassuring anecdotes that we’ve been here before.

And that goes for songwriting too. We've been here before - during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the mafia owned and controlled jukeboxes across America, they insisted that a record was limited to 2 minutes 30 seconds, allowing them to boost their take permachine. 

For brands trying to stand above an increasingly crowded room, perhaps the lesson they need to hold dear is the same that was written large on the staircase of the Brill Building, the home of many of the great songwriters in New York in the 1960s: ‘Please don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’

Will Page is the author of Tarzan Economics: Eight Principles for Pivoting Through Disruption and former Chief Economist of Spotify, he’ll be speaking on the ATTENTION@MAD//Fest stage which takes place at MAD//Fest on 5, 6, and 7 July at The Old Truman Brewery

Over 7,000 brands + agencies are expected to attend MAD//Fest London 2022, 3,000 more than 2021 when MAD//Fest was the only UK industry festival to take place in physical form. In addition to access to the ATTENTION@MAD//Fest stage, you'll also be able to hear from Rachel Waller, Global VP Innovation, Burberry; Cristina Diezhandino, Global CMO, Diageo; Tina Koehler, Global VP Marketing, Deliveroo; James Brown, MD, BrewDog; and Sir Martin Sorrell, Founder & CEO, S4 Capital.

Earlybird tickets are available here.