Why are some CDs longer than others?

by on September 28, 2009 at 7:19 am in Music | Permalink

Adam Smith, a loyal MR reader (yes that is his name), writes to me:

I had a very MResque thought today I wanted to share with you.  Why are the typical lengths of albums across different music genres so different?  In particular, I was thinking most of my rap albums are at least over the hour mark and many run all the way up to the 80-minute maximum.  They're usually packed with intros, skits, and lots of 5 minute tracks that have extended intro and outro instrumental beat only sequences.  My metal albums, on the other hand, have an average run length of  no more than 40 mins.  Most albums are between 8 and 10 tracks with little in the way of tangential material.  These different run-times show up in other places too.  For example, my older jazz albums (i.e. Kind of Blue, Time Out, Blue Train) typically run around 45 mins with a half dozen or so tracks yet my newer jazz albums like MMW's The Dropper run almost the whole 80 mins.  Also, prog. rock bands tend to produce much longer albums than garage rock bands.  Even adjusting for the fact that prog bands emphasize longer musical passages, they could compensate by just having fewer songs or garage rock bands could just have twice as many (like the White Stripes did on their first album). 

Is there a relative price argument for these differences?  Or even signaling?  Perhaps there is a rat race among rappers to signal they're capable of coming up with enough material to fill out the maximum length, even if it includes lots of filler.  Perhaps the recording costs are lower as instrumentation relies so heavily on sampling.  Maybe metal runs into diminishing returns after 30 mins or so where the listener becomes numb to the intensity.

I'll offer a few points:

1. The average career of a rapper is short.  A long CD increases the chance that something will "stick" and the rapper won't get too many other chances to try.

2. Some metal bands develop great loyalty among their followers and achieve durable franchises.  That gives them a lower discount rate and they are more inclined to save up material for the future.  Plus they are marketing an overall sound — rather than clever particular innovations — and if the first forty (five?) minutes don't convince you nothing will.  Rap songs probably have a higher individual variance.

3. Many older albums are short for technological reasons, plus the albums were due in relatively rapid succession for contractual reasons.  In the 1960s there was lots of technological advance in music, so if you sat on the sidelines for a few years you could become obsolete.

4. It is relatively easy for a contemporary jazz artist to tack on additional improvisations and he can choose standard compositions if necessary.  Other forms of popular music cannot expand quantity so easily without hitting a wall in terms of quality.  One prediction here is that "compositional jazz" albums should be shorter in average length than albums of jazz improvisation, contemporary that is.

5. If you wanted a somewhat strained explanation, you could argue that the longer CD is a more bundled product and it will make economic sense as a form of price discrimination, the more varied the valuations of the audience.  This would require that rap CD buyers have a higher variance of marginal valuation.

Andrew September 28, 2009 at 7:26 am

Division of labor. Producers are a big part of more modern music such as hip-hop and the like. While producers played a large role in the sound and evolution of Def Leppard or U2, they don’t add much content.

jn September 28, 2009 at 8:27 am

You need to make clear for younger readers that early jazz albums were produced at a time when no more than 40-45 minutes could comfortably fit on a long-playing vinyl album. [Audiophiles then debated the degradation in pressing and sound of the rare albums that pushed the 55-60 minute mark].

The more interesting question is why reissues aren’t bundled with more extras. And of course some classic reissues do include extra takes, interviews, etc.

Ryan September 28, 2009 at 8:38 am

Most record companies have a rule that bands have to put at least 9 (or something) songs on a CD in order to get contractual credit for having issued an album. Anything less than that is an EP, anything more than that is additional effort that the artist is not financially compensated for.

Prog-rock and rap artists pack material onto their albums because they’re not bound by the contractual arrangements of a “pop” band. They are given less money and often self-produce. As a result, they offer longer albums to give their fans better value-for-money. The album is the artistic medium, whereas “pop” bands are more interested in a hit single than an epic album.

I’m surprised to hear that metal albums are shorter than average. Most metal bands I’m familiar with produce long albums, for all the same reasons rap and prog-rock artists do.

Trevindor September 28, 2009 at 8:45 am

Live performances. It’s physically taxing to play metal or other fast rock/punk.

Once you’re an arena rock act, you can’t play fast, tight songs. The venue mangles the sound so you play songs with big, ringing chords instead. You can play those all night without fatigue.

The recorded albums have to be the result of the live performances.

mk September 28, 2009 at 10:00 am

I think both proggers and rappers try to make their album a real, grade A “event” that people will perk up and pay attention to. So each of them stuffs the album so that people will see the length and think “this is a big deal.” The amount of material is a signal for the prowess or prolificness of the artist.

Econometron September 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

The answer isn’t that complicated. Rap songs require less effort on the instrumentation side. Since beats are almost exclusively electronic, they can be made in high volumes at relatively low costs. Rock, jazz, and other genres require more complex instrumentation, especially for songs with live/real instrumentation. As the effort and costs are higher in making these music genres, it shouldn’t surprise that albums would contain fewer songs. Another indication of rap music’s relative ease in creation is the fact that artists not only produce more songs per album but also they produce albums more frequently than the genres above. Again, this highlights the low cost of production. Some rappers are also qualified freestylers, allowing them to enjoy low production costs on the lyric side of music creation. While interesting, Tyler’s comments are too sophiscated and largely incorrect in my view.

CB September 28, 2009 at 10:44 am

True the vinyl LPs would only play for about 45 minutes. Also labels must pay mechanical royalties to songwriter and publisher per song (often they share in publishing) so too many (non hit) songs per album increase costs. Also consider the obvious costs of writing/recording and producing each additional song.
When is the last time you listened to an album all the way through anyway? It’s more a singles market these days. The shiny discs are going the way of cassette tapes. Online delivery is more convenient. Like Daniel Lanois said ” it’s possible to write and record a new song overnight, immediately post it on the website and have money in your paypal account the next day. The problem is it winds up on free torrent sites the next day too.

DM September 28, 2009 at 11:18 am

The question is, why is someone who is smart enough to read and understand MR listening to that crap?

Josh September 28, 2009 at 11:21 am

It signals quality for sure. If I was to rank my top 20 albums of all time, the top 10 would have a significantly shorter running time. A couple cases in point: Nas’s Illmatic (among the greatest hip hop albums) runs only 39:43, whereas It Was Written (this is is like comparing First Blood to Rambo II here…) runs in at just shy of an hour. Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All clocks at 51:13; St. Anger (shudder) runs an interminable 75:01.

I think some better points have been made with respect to jazz and metal, but length is definitely a signal of quality in hip hop recordings.

Sean P. September 28, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Indie and alternative rock albums got shorter when people started buying them on LP again. The difference mostly seems to be in the form of fewer songs rather than shorter songs. The aforementioned label pressure probably explains the difference in length between major-label and indie albums of similar styles.

My suspicion is that a lot of hip-hop albums are padded to make them seem like a good value to people who don’t normally buy albums.

David Harrell September 28, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I’m not sure how the trend for relatively long rap albums began, but I can tell you that the mid-90s, consumer expectations played a big part in perpetuating that trend.

Back then, I worked a regular Saturday shift in a record store a friend managed. There were usually three staff members working a shift, and we’d alternate “picks” for the CDs we played on the store’s stereo system. I usually opted for indie rock while my co-worked often picked rap. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was losing out in terms of percentage of time for my selections, as my picks usually lasted less than 45 minutes, while the rap albums were all an hour plus. Anyway, my friend claimed that if a rap artist actually released an album of less than 60 minutes, people would bring it back the store for a refund, saying they were ripped off because the CD was “too short.”

Sohaib September 28, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I’m a pretty heavy fan of rap and i think there is definitely a signaling component. A primary example was the deluge of double albums in rap in the mid 90′s. Releasing a double album was seen as something only the very best rappers were capable of and thus there became a strong incentive for the top rappers to release such albums. They were meant to be THE DEFINITIVE album for the rapper; their magnum opus must be a double album. We see this clearly in 2pac’s All Eyez on Me, Notorious BIG’s Life After Death. After these initial blockbusters we saw whoever wanted to be the best rapper would release a double album such as Bone Thugz n Harmony Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2 and so on.

A lot of it was surely copycatting the best selling albums. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and Wu Tang’s 36 Chambers sort of set the stage and was a extremely popular album so many rappers followed suit because those were the albums they wanted to emulate.

Trevor September 28, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Adding to the comment on division of labor above, the ubiquity of the “feature” on rap albums also plays a role. Many rap songs will feature one or more additional mc. See, as an extreme example, Wale’s “Back to the Feature”, clocking in at just under 80 minutes, about half of which are filled by other people rapping.

BW September 29, 2009 at 12:41 am

While it’s loads of fun to hypothesize about this, isn’t it worth questioning the premise? Or at least asking for further definition of the genres? For instance, my collection works the other way: the hip-hop albums are shorter than the metal albums.

My strong hunch is that the answer isn’t to be found in superficial analysis. I think that the most important factors are the creative impulses/judgments/styles of the artists, with the ratio between production costs and available financing running a fairly close second. Both of those factors are hugely impacted by whether the music is commercial or underground.

Andrew September 29, 2009 at 8:39 am

Jain,

Tyler didn’t make this a world of crap, he just describes it.

There is also the issue of credit. A metal band says “look, we did this. Just us. F off” A rap crew says “look, we did this, look how huge our crew is. Get with us or we pop a cap in your ass.”

Sigivald September 29, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Oh, and to reinforce Josh’s point… Slayer’s Reign in Blood is 28 minutes long, and one of the defining moments in speed metal (and arguably a serious influence on death and black metal).

Universal Indie Records September 30, 2009 at 8:23 am

At this point and time, the fans also play a huge part in this. With limited funds, they see more songs as getting their money’s worth and will be more likely to pick up the album of their favorite artist that has 15 songs as opposed to the one that only has ten.

Boone October 12, 2009 at 3:46 pm

There is a functional point to all of this too. Many albums are shorter these days because you can only fit 38 minutes on an LP. A large part of the vinyl resurgence comes from indie fans wanting albums on vinyl, therefore most indie releases are released on vinyl as well as digital and CD, but also, more often than not, are made on a budget that does not allow for double gatefolds or fancy LP packaging. This leads to most albums being limited to the 38 minute or less length so they can fit on one LP. A lot of rap albums are still running on the old CD model still upheld by the major labels which allow up to a full 80 minutes of music. Vinyl is of course important for rap and hip hop, but a lot of that comes in the form of singles or remixes. As we’ve moved out of a “CD way of thinking” into the digital one album lengths are shrinking. This is also due to the pricing structures at iTunes which do not necessarily reward longer albums with a higher price.

Mark October 17, 2009 at 12:04 am

Also, to Jain,

Speak for yourself. Just because your country is immolating itself does not mean the rest of us have to drop everything to focus on your problems. When I see Australia or Finland or Greenland mentioned once on the US news, maybe I will consider your country’s problems marginally more relevant to my life than CD lengths.

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