While somewhere in the ballpark of three minutes has for years been the standard length for pop music hit singles, artists like EMM and Kenna are bucking this trend by releasing sixty-second "micro songs."
By Cortney Harding, author of How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations About Music and Technology
At first glance, EMM’s sixty second Flipagram video for “Killing All The Boyz” doesn’t seem that revolutionary. There is a girl-power statement, there is hair flipping, there is booty shaking. But then it becomes clear — this isn’t just a clip of a song pulled out and set behind a video. This is the entire song.
If you grew up with punk rock, you might be rolling your eyes — EMM and Flipagram certainly didn’t invent the sixty second song. But what was once relegated to fringe genres now seems poised to crack the mainstream — and predictions about how we define a song are starting to come to pass. The three minute pop single and the album aren’t dead yet — but at least people are starting to experiment and move the needle.
In EMM’s case, she seems like an unlikely person to do it. She grew up on the campus at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, raised by classical musicians. She has written, and continues to write, conventional-length pop songs, but when Flipagram approached her about reworking a track specifically for the format, she jumped at the challenge. While she’s not quite sure about writing another micro-song, she’s definitely interested in exploring new forms of media and storytelling. She says her next project is creating a series of videos for a group of songs that all tell one interlocking story.
While EMM is dipping a toe in the short-song stream, Kenna has taken the full plunge. In fact, he doesn’t even use the term song anymore — he prefers the word “sonic.” Unlike EMM, who is a relative newcomer, Kenna has a storied history in both music and tech — early in his career, he was featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink;” he later served as the Chief Vision Officer for the relaunched MySpace.
“An artist’s job is to innovate and and make music and sounds,” says Kenna. “There are other ways to perceive things outside the conventional parameters that have been set for us. I was in a meeting with, among other people, Robert Redford and the head of Google Creative, and everyone kept using the term ‘album.’ Someone else piped up and said to stop using it, because it limits how we talk about and think about music.”
In Kenna’s mind, sonics don’t have clearly set boundaries. “A sonic could just be a sound, it could be a traditional pop song, it could be longer,” he says. “It’s all about how you tell the best story you can. I’ve been saying to artists for a long time now that their music is in the air, and their job is to perform and engage the audience. People want to hear stories and connect with the storytellers.”
So are Kenna and EMM on to something, or are they just far out in left field? Certainly one of the most frustrating things about all the “new” media outlets is that they don’t seem to bend the rules all that far. Netflix is hailed as revolutionary, and on one hand it certainly takes risks by supporting shows that tell unconventional stories — but on the other hand, the formats it uses to tell those stories are very conventional. Most shows fit in the half-hour or hour long format and some are clearly timed for ad breaks; this means that they all have to contort whatever story they’re telling to meet a time requirement. If you’ve ever watched more than a few episodes of a Netflix (or Hulu, or Amazon) original show, you’ve probably seen plot holes drag and develop because someone needed to round out a few minutes of an episode.
But just like record labels, TV outlets need organizing principles. While plenty of people like to brag about cutting the cord, there are many who still watch traditional TV, and those networks still make money selling the same ad blocks we’ve had since the 60s. YouTube obviously permits its creators to make content of all different lengths — and their numbers are starting to match some of those posted by network shows, or in some cases, exceed them. PewDiePie’s videos routinely pull in the same number of viewers as a TV sitcom or procedural, although he is one of very few to make those numbers.
In music, radio is still king, despite all the advances in streaming, and again, stations have formats they need to stick to. Terrestrial radio is dependent on ads, and those ads are sold in blocks, and… you know how it goes. And for better or worse, many people still have fixed ideas about what constitutes a song, and how it should be consumed.
Those ideas are starting to shift, and I think that within ten years or so, people will be much more open to different formats. Every time I write something about the need to release different forms of content, I get a raft of screeching comments about “art,” and very few of those commenters are young. And look — if it takes three and a half minutes with a verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus-outro structure to tell the story you want to tell, go with it. If you are telling a story start to finish over the course of an album, you do you.
But maybe your story only needs sixty seconds to be told, and that’s just as valid. Maybe it should be told as a song and a video, or a song and an app, or a song and a treasure hunt through downtown L.A. There’s a great bit on the first season of Bojack Horseman where a project starts as a film and ends as a bi-monthly curated box of snacks, and while we don’t need to go that far (or maybe we do! Millennials like snacks!) it’s worth pushing the boundaries to time to make the best statements possible.