This summer, an article of mine published in The Independent asked some simple but fundamental questions about the music industry: how is it possible, with all of the upheaval surrounding the consumption of music, that the standard form of the pop song has remained virtually unchanged? Knowing that streaming services such as Spotify pay around £0.007 per stream, and that a song is counted as “streamed” when it hits the 30-second mark, why would an artist write anything longer than that? How will the art of songwriting be affected by the new technology that distributes it? Has the three-minute song run its course? And what will replace it?
Meanwhile in Soho, Mark Christopher Lee, a songwriter and the mind behind art-rock outfit the Pocket Gods, picked up the paper. “That night,” Lee tells me, “I brought the article to a meeting, and said to my manager, 'Read this, this is what I'm doing next.'”
The result is 100 x 30, an album of 100 tracks, each between 30 and 39 seconds long, each about some aspect of the music industry. (A standard LP is generally around 10 tracks long.) The song titles read like a manifesto for the project: “How Many Friends Have You Bought in Your Unsigned Band”; “Shake Your Aggregator”; “You Can't Shoplift MP3s”; and “EMI (Eat My Industry)”. A slim ray of hope lies in “The Great Sync Deal in the Sky”, a riff on Pink Floyd's “Great Gig in the Sky”, from 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, with an updated Holy Grail: instead of a “great gig”, the best that can be hoped for is a great song placement in a film or television show.
Lee enlisted an assortment of label mates and friends for genre-spanning contributions. “There's Owen Paul [who scored a hit in 1986 with ”My Favourite Waste of Time“], who's an old punk at heart. He said, 'I'm going to write a song called 'Spotify,' I'm going to put my heart and soul into it,' and he did. It's a punky, rocky track – 30 seconds of him letting all his frustration and rage out. It's one of my favourite songs off the album.”
While some have called the release a “protest” against streaming services, Lee shies away from the categorisation. “I'm a bit reluctant to use that word, because I've been trying to have a meaningful debate about how we value music, and how we pay for it. Certainly, Spotify is one of the main areas of focus, but it's wider than that. It's how the people play into it, as well.”
Obviously listening habits have changed since the 1950s and 1960s, when the three-minute song format was popularised. Spotify data from 2014 suggests that 24.14 per cent of listeners will skip a song within the first five seconds, and the chances that they will listen through to the end is about 50:50.
“I don't mean to sound like an old hippie,” Lee says, “but it used to be a big event, getting a new record and listening to it over the course of an evening. Now people listen wherever they are with playlists and mobile devices.” As the outside world continues to encroach on our listening, grabbing our attention in new and multiple ways, the relationship to listening has become, for most, a passive accompaniment to other activities.
Perhaps a song form that reflects our accelerated lifestyle is what is needed, and to Lee, a 30-second song can be every bit as fulfilling. He believes that “if you do it the right way, it's the ultimate musical art form. It cuts out the fat, and it can have quite a powerful effect.” He says that the form really shines when placed against so-called “proper” songs. “Now, when I rehearse with my band playing regular three-minute songs, I think, 'my God, this is so long!'”
Spotify has declined to comment, thus far, but it is familiar with a breed of artists who try to manipulate the service in one way or another. Funk-pop band Vulfpeck, most notably, released a 10-track album of total silence, entitled Sleepify, and told their fanbase to play it on an endless loop in order to get the band paid streaming royalties. New York-based indie duo Ohm & Sport manipulated the Spotify API to create Eternify, a website that allowed you to cycle a 30-second clip of any song you wanted indefinitely, essentially turning Spotify into an ATM.
Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
Both plans were squashed by the service, citing terms of service violations, but Lee seems to have added the necessary ingredient: actual songs. “We're actually playing by the rules,” he says. “There's nothing they can do.” The fact that the songs decry the very service that streams them is a bonus. “The great thing about this idea,” Lee says, “is that it's so easy to take your music off Spotify, but to put music on Spotify that is making a point to mess them up a bit is interesting.”
Reaction to 100 x 30 has been positive, although in ways that might not have been anticipated. “I've heard that Dutch radio has picked up on the album and they're playing the same song twice, because they like it. So, there's your repeat chorus – and we're getting paid double,” Lee says. Success has not been without its share of irony, either. “People like the idea so much, they actually want to buy a physical CD. So we've had to get CDs pressed, but we found out that you can't fit 100 tracks on to CDs. The standard maximum is 99, so on the CD, track 99 is actually a minute long with two tracks on it.”
Far from feeling constrained by the time limit, he's planning on sticking with it. “I've just done a Christmas single (”0.007 Licensed to Kill the Music Business This Christmas“), and I'm already working on the follow-up, volume two of 100 x 30. It'd be great to get some more established acts on board. I'm going to put a call out to Taylor Swift. If she wants to do a track on the next album, she's more than welcome.”
And though he rails against services such as Spotify, he's hoping his cheques will increase. “If people play the whole album, which won't take too long, we'll be... well I won't say quids in, but... we'll be pence in.”
'100 x 30' on Soundcloud: soundcloud.com/thejacula/sets/100x30
'100 x 30' official site: 100x30.com
Mike Errico is a songwriting professor at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His own contribution to the world of 30-second songs includes the theme for the MTV show, 'Pop-Up Video'.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies