What is the Ideal Length of an Album?
At midnight on April 29th, Drake’s new album, Views, dropped.
Like most people, I stayed up that night listening to the record in full. But when it finally ended, some time around 2 AM, about 90 minutes after I’d pressed play, I thought — gee, what a long album.
A few months back, I was listening to an Isley Brothers LP— the one with their famous hit “That Lady Pt. 1 & 2” (recently reworked for the Kendrick Lamar single “I”)— and after about thirty-five minutes, less time than it would take to watch a new episode of House of Cards, the album came to an end.
I thought — gee, that’s a pretty short album.
3+3 was released on Epic Records in 1973, and while the sound certainly reflects the year, as this was still the time of afros, sequins and soul power, the duration also reflects the technology of its day. Back then, you could only hear an album on a 33 1/2 LP record, which could technically only hold 45 minutes of audio, split between two sides.
So, artists those days were limited by the delivery mechanisms available to them. The content fit the container. Without extra space, every track really counted. There was no filler. 3+3 is a tight album and there no time wasted. You press play and just let it go.
When cassettes were introduced, there was more space available, sometimes 60–90 minutes worth. But if you look at albums from the 80's, they’re still about 45 minutes long (I suspect because industry standards still leaned towards the vinyl record model).
Michael Jackson’s Thriller is only 42 minutes. Madonna’s Like a Virgin, is 43 minutes. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A is about 47 minutes. Prince’s Purple Rain is roughly 44 minutes. These are some of the highest-selling albums of all time, and they’re all about the same length.
In the 90’s, there was an explosive new delivery format— the Compact Disc. It could hold a whopping 75 minutes of audio. Provided this extra space, musicians, who in that era were always looking to do things bigger, faster and stronger were like, whoa, we should probably use up all this extra space, right?
True to form, they did exactly that. Case in point, Guns N’ Roses. Their 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction was 12 songs, 53:51 seconds. When their proper follow-up was released in 1991, they dropped two separate albums, Use Your Illusion I and II — each about 76 minutes long.
This was a great thing at first, because back then fans weren’t inundated with thousands of things to listen to. Via streaming and the internet proper, the sum of all popular recorded music was yet to be at their fingertips. If an artist gave you 20 songs instead of 12, it was like Christmas came early.
There was also a financial incentive. Compact discs sold for more money than records and tapes. Remember, briefly, compact discs cost as much as $19.99 at big box retailers like Sam Goody— that is, before the industry got bagged for price-fixing. So, to justify the price, it had to feel like a premium product.
“The price of a CD is about 50% higher than other formats, so it seems right to have 50% more music,” Cliff Burnstein, manager to Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others told the Los Angeles Times back in 1991. “If you go to 60 minutes, that justifies the CD price, as long as it’s all quality.”
What’s more, digital audio was thought to sound better, CD’s offered convenience that tapes and records didn’t, and now the artists were making longer records. Fans seemed to enjoy it. The public was all-in on CD’s.
And yet here we are, years later, and the CD is no longer important. Arguably, albums aren’t either — they go as fast as they come, wrestling for mindshare, only very rarely attaining it. Which is its own set of problems, really.
In the fractured, always-on media economy, most artists are finally freed from traditional record business models, but find themselves trying to tackle an even more fickle beast— the consumer. The consumer whose attention is easily diverted, easily monopolized, and has a billion options to choose from.
In that kind of marketplace, it is not that artists must deliver great albums, but more so that they must consistently deliver… what, exactly? Doesn’t matter, just that it’s something. An album, a video, a photo or a soundbite — so long as the content keeps coming, keeps the people listening, watching, discussing. Music is not the business of records anymore, it’s the business of attention.
Which has actually been a boon for music’s upper class, the industry’s veritable 1%—i.e. the Kanye West’s, Rihanna’s, Taylor Swift’s and Beyonce’s of the world. Because these artists are now so famous that attention takes care of itself. They need not feed the beast, because the beast actually feeds on them.
And for them, the album is still the central product, the thing that tours, merchandise and sponsorships revolve around. As individual units, albums may not bring in the most money, but they’re still artistic statements. To make the machine work, they must stand out, they must do well.
The odd thing is, now that music is unbundled and space unlimited — now that albums are events again— most tentpole albums are not significantly longer than they once were. Recent releases from Taylor Swift (1989), Rihanna (Anti), Adele (25) and even Kanye West (Life of Pablo), top out, some with bonus tracks, at around an hour. Beyonce’s Lemonade is about 45 minutes long.
Partly, that’s because of back room music industry stuff — contracts that stipulate record companies will only pay mechanical royalties on say, 10 or 12 songs. It’s different for each artist, because all contracts are different, but for the most part an album is still the same length as it was in the CD days. Or, maybe it’s just 45 minutes to an hour is the sweet spot for attention spans.
But back to Drake. Like his buddy Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 release To Pimp A Butterfly clocked in at 78 minutes, Views is a long album. Unlike TPAB, however, Views does not benefit from its bloated tracklist, for it does not have a dominant narrative anchor, something that ties it all together. It’s just an album that doesn’t seem to end.
And yet neither artist is immune to what they’re up against. For his part, Drake released a flurry of songs and remixes, plus two full-length projects last year —the Future collab What A Time To Be Alive and the mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Earlier this year, Lamar followed TPAB with an E.P. of unreleased demos called untitled unmastered.
This is a lot of music, and if you’re a fan, just like the CD boom in the 90’s, it’s heaven. But there’s a fine line between satisfying fans and performing at peak level. You have to wonder how someone like Drake might have benefited from scaling it back, and releasing the best songs from all three recent projects as one. Then, fans would have gotten a 12–14 song opus that might have been one of the best albums of all time.
Maybe things were better when space was limited, when artists weren’t continuously jockeying for attention. Maybe 45–60 minutes is enough. So many great albums come in around that mark, it’s kind of hard to argue with.