On March 17, 2023, Taylor Swift took the stage at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona to kick off her highly anticipated Eras Tour. Three hours and thirteen minutes later, she walked off the stage after finishing a 44-song set spanning her ten musical eras (albums). With a packed audience of over 69k people, this show became the highest-attended US concert for a female artist in history, surpassing the record of 63k held by Madonna since 1987.
While she is not the first artist to perform a three-plus hour set – many classic rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen are known for marathon concerts – her doing so was extra significant due to the production and theatrics involved in her live performances. On the first night of a tour that is set to become the highest-grossing of all time upon completion, Swift provided the blueprint for what the future of live music may soon look like.
Currently ranked by Chartmetric as the most popular artist in the world, Swift has cemented her place at the top of the music industry. Before it even began, this tour was dominating global news this November when the huge demand among fans for Eras Tour tickets caused Ticketmaster to crash in an incident that would ultimately lead to a U.S. Congressional hearing. While 2.4 million tickets were sold during the initial on-sale, Ticketmaster reported that 14 million fans attempted to buy tickets that day, thus creating a huge secondary market with prices in the thousands per seat.
Swift, always in tune with her fanbase, quickly issued a public statement on her Instagram story expressing her displeasure with Ticketmaster’s handling of the situation and acknowledged the controversy during the first night of the tour. However, fans quickly forgot about the “trauma” they endured to be there as Taylor proved the exorbitant prices were worth the experience of hearing highlights from all ten of her albums. In doing so, Swift proved even artists with the deepest discographies and largest levels of production could pack all the songs fans wanted to hear into one night.
While a 193-minute set seems like more than ample time to perform 44 songs, this becomes far more difficult when you factor in introductions, stories, outfit changes for each era, and ten minutes for the extended version of her fan favorite “All Too Well.” Subtracting those ten minutes and 35 minutes for her thirteen outfit changes plus stories and introductions leaves under three and a half minutes per song for the 43 remaining tracks in the setlist.
That’s a blazing fast pace to maintain for so long and barely affords Swift enough time to catch her breath, especially if she were to perform each track as it was recorded in the studio. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of the songs were slightly altered to fit into this tight schedule of a setlist.
Specifically, several songs, including “You Need to Calm Down,” “Fearless,” “marjorie,” and “...Ready for It?” were shortened, likely out of necessity. In total, around 20% of the songs (9 out of 44) were trimmed down to fit into this musical marathon. This resulted in a difference of over 15 minutes between the total time Swift took to play all 44 songs live (157 minutes) versus if the studio recordings of the same songs were played straight through (174 minutes).
The decision to abbreviate certain songs was undoubtedly strategic and one that we may see more often in the future from other top artists as it allows them to pack more songs into a setlist. However, this process may become increasingly unnecessary in the future due to an ongoing music industry trend that has resulted in increasingly shorter songs and bigger albums (in terms of the number of tracks).
Shorter Songs and Bigger Albums
Within popular music, this has been the case for several years now, as can be seen via an analysis of the discographies of the 200 currently most popular country, pop, and hip-hop/rap artists (based on Chartmetric rankings from April 2023), plus Taylor Swift’s ten studio albums specifically.
The average song duration for hip-hop and pop songs has fallen significantly between 1995 and 2022 — decreasing over 30% for hip-hop songs (down from 4.5 to 3.2 minutes) and 18% for pop music (down from 4 to 3.36 minutes).
Country songs peaked in 2005 with an average length of 3.57 minutes but have continuously dropped since. Of note, there was a decline from 2019 to 2022, decreasing from 3.48 to 3.35 minutes on average. While a change of 0.13 minutes, or around 8 seconds, may seem minuscule, this change is significant given the large sample size and small time period.
Albeit a much smaller sample size, Taylor Swift’s average song duration amongst the tracks on her ten studio albums (excluding the deluxe and re-recorded (“Taylor’s”) versions) has also decreased significantly since 2017. Averaging just over 4 minutes on her 2017 album reputation, that number dropped to 3.6 minutes on 2022’s Midnights, a difference of over 20 seconds.
This downward trend in song length across the industry is reflective of a rapidly changing dynamic which is mirrored by a different metric also shifting over the same time frame. Looking at album size as measured by the number of songs per album, each genre saw an increase around 2019, directly coinciding with the steep decline in average song duration.
While there are not as many hip-hop albums in the dataset from 1995 to 2010, this genre has historically had some of the biggest albums by track count in music. That number steadily declined from the turn of the millennium until 2019’s inflection point where it once again began to rise. With an average that year of 14.2 songs per album, the average has since increased by 16% to over 15 songs per album in 2022.
While pop and country saw their average track counts remain relatively flat around 13 songs per album since the early 2000s, this metric also began to shift in recent years. County’s average album size steadily increased from 12.58 to 13.22 from 2019 to 2022 while pop’s average jumped from 13.25 to 13.68 in just one year (2021 to 2022).
Similar to the trend in average song length, Taylor Swift’s album size has also followed a similar trajectory to the broader industry. Examining the largest version of each studio album she has released, including deluxe and Taylor’s Versions, there is a clear pattern of bigger albums starting in 2021 with Fearless (Taylor’s Version).
The majority of her most recent releases have been Taylor’s Versions, which naturally necessitate extra length for “vault” tracks not included in the original projects. However, Midnights (The Til Dawn Edition) was released in 2023 with 23 brand-new songs. That made it the largest non-Taylor’s Version album she has ever released.
With no signs of Swift intending to stop adding to her prolific catalog and the partial data from the first half of 2023 showing a continued increase in album size across the genres examined, all indications point to albums growing even larger in the years to come.
These changes are best explained at the intersection of human psychology, technology, and economics. By analyzing how music is heard and how artists are compensated for it, it becomes clear that the industry’s new standard of shorter songs and longer albums is a direct response to changing patterns of music consumption.
As seen on the earlier charts marked with music consumption tool release dates, the last few decades have seen the creation of a litany of impactful music technology services that dramatically changed the way people discover and listen to music. Of them, Napster was by far the most influential as it brought music into the Internet age.
The peer-to-peer file-sharing service allowed users to distribute songs amongst each other and before long, anyone was able to access and download any song for free. Napster ultimately didn’t survive, but the age of digital music piracy had begun and led to hemorrhaging industry revenues for the next 15 years as consumers were largely no longer paying for music.
Revenues did not see growth again until 2015 when streaming gained a foothold in the market thanks to Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. With no one buying music anymore due to free downloads being readily available, streaming had to introduce a model of access to nearly all music at a low cost on a secure, easy-to-use platform. Otherwise, consumers would continue illegally downloading free music.
The streaming model is far from perfect: artists are making significantly less money now than they did in the CD era and many, including Taylor Swift herself, believe they are not being fairly compensated for their art (hence the Taylor’s Versions). Consequently, artists and their teams are working to maximize their profitability on recorded music revenues, which is where shorter songs and longer albums come in.
On most streaming services, musicians are paid royalties per stream, but a stream does not require the entire track to be played. For example, on Spotify, any track listened to for more than 30 seconds is counted as a stream. Thus, artists are financially incentivized to have a higher number of streams rather than being streamed for longer periods of time.
If an artist releases a 60-minute-long album and a fan listens to its entirety once, the artist will earn twice as much money if it contains 30 songs that are each two minutes long as opposed to 15 songs that are each 4 minutes long. This is the simple math that is leading artists to record bigger albums with shorter songs.
It’s also not just bigger albums. Artists have been releasing a steady dose of content to digital service providers (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) in order to supplement the streams on their regular studio projects. Taylor Swift does a great job of this by releasing deluxe versions of albums, remixes, live recordings, and compilations to always be at the forefront of fans’ minds to rack up additional spins and consequently, revenue.
Finally, the rise in popularity of TikTok has compounded the emphasis on quick, eye-catching content. With more sources of entertainment and social media platforms than ever before constantly vying for people’s attention, TikTok separated itself through a sophisticated algorithm. By learning from every bit of the user’s input, the algorithm can show them exactly what will keep them engaged, if only for a few seconds at a time. With the platform becoming a huge music discovery and promotional tool, the hyperfocus on grabbing people’s attention has seeped into the music itself.
Instrumental introductions are being skipped in favor of going right into the first verse or even starting songs with the hook or chorus to immediately grab the listener’s attention. This is resulting in shorter songs, as TikTok and other technologies have wired the human brain to expect satisfaction quicker than ever before. Thus, it’s no surprise that the average song length across genres nosedived around 2019 when TikTok really began to explode in popularity.
With the app's influence growing stronger by the day, this trend is going to continue as artists look to cater to a population of fans who are accustomed to scrolling past things that don’t interest them. This is the framework with which smart musicians are crafting their musical projects, and genius musicians are crafting their live shows – which takes us back to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour.
Impact on Live Music
Every night of the Eras Tour is an over-the-top spectacle that bombards every aspect of fans’ nervous system. It is truly a tour built for the TikTok age as concert-goers stay engaged the entire time, despite the long set length. While this is primarily a result of the huge production budget and Swift’s abilities as an entertainer, the choice to reduce break times and abbreviate songs keeps fans locked in for all 44 songs each night.
Short, attention-grabbing content is how media is now being consumed, so why should the live experience be any different? Swift has this figured out, which is among the many reasons fans continue to pay thousands of dollars per ticket to see her show. In the copycat world of the music industry, it didn’t take long for others to employ similar tactics.
Beyoncé, currently ranked as the 22nd most popular act in the world by Chartmetric, launched her Renaissance Tour on May 10 in Stockholm, Sweden. While her tour is centered on her album Renaissance, she still plays over 30 songs a night, but in an even more condensed time frame. Averaging 34 songs per show in 150 minutes, she shortens a third of the songs in her setlist (11 out of 34) in order to fit that many tracks in the show.
Another example is the tour just announced by the Jonas Brothers, also one of the most popular acts in music. Kicking off in mid-August, it is being advertised as “Five Albums. One Night.”
Another page straight out of the Swift playbook, fans are being promised the ability to hear nearly the entirety of the trio’s discography. This will likely require songs to be abbreviated, but nonetheless will satisfy attendees looking to hear specific songs that often get left off their normal setlist, while simultaneously increasing the perceived value of the experience. With the ever-rising cost of attending concerts, this is an extremely effective and necessary tactic as artists continue to rely on touring for an increasing amount of their annual revenues.
Of course, tours of this magnitude take months, if not years, to plan, and the setlist decisions of these artists with their own creative processes were not made solely due to the success of the Eras Tour. However, it is very likely Swift did have some influence on these decisions, along with the growth in album size and reduction in song length observed in the last few years.
So while not every act has as deep a discography as Swift, Beyonce, or the Jonas Brothers, other artists may soon be packing as many songs as possible into their live shows to keep the crowd engaged. This could lead to the inclusion of more medleys as intros and verses are skipped in favor of short sound bites which fans have grown accustomed to on social media.
Doing so would create a positive feedback loop as songs continue to get shorter and albums continue to get bigger, further requiring artists to cram more tracks into their setlists. Like anything else in music, it will not be every artist who chooses to employ these tactics, but when the biggest artist in the world leads, many will follow.
Graphics by Danny Katz and cover image by Crasianne Tirado.