It should surprise no one that success in the music industry does not necessarily mean success at music, or even a basic understanding of the building blocks of the very music that allows said industry to thrive. Consider Nathan Hubbard, current host of The Ringer's Every Single Album podcast. Hubbard had previously served as CEO of Musictoday, which was bought by LiveNation; after LiveNation merged with Ticketmaster, he became CEO of the latter company, before moving over to Twitter for some time. In 2018, he started a new ticketing service, Rival, which was also acquired by Ticketmaster on behalf of the LiveNation Entertainment conglomerate.
In a recent thread of the Social Media App Formerly Known as Twitter, Hubbard shared some thoughts about GUTS, the new album from former Disney darling-turned-emo-angst rocker Olivia Rodrigo. And it was in that thread that he shared the particularly eyebrow raising observation that the album's 39-minute run-time is the result of — in his words — "the ongoing TikTokization of this era of music."
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social media has indeed been changing the length and format of pop music. But this is hardly unique to TikTok. The entire history of the music industry has been intrinsically tied to the development of audio recording and broadcasting technologies. That certainly makes sense when you consider that it is an industry that is supposedly meant to represent music! Early pop singles were released on vinyl, and the recording and mixing processes were optimized to consider the physical limits of that media (namely, the fact that lower/bass frequencies made larger scratches on the plate, which impacted the frequencies that surrounded that). Those songs relied on radio play for marketing, but the radio also had to play other content, including commercials. So songwriting was optimized to grab attention in between commercials; you couldn't make your songs too long, either, because the radio stations wanted to cram more songs in to draw in more listeners, and so on.
As the vinyl production industry scaled upwards, the music industry realized that it was ultimately cheaper to have a single artist or group record multiple songs, and maybe even tour to promote them, instead of just releasing stand-alone singles by stand-alone artists. But even as recording formats expanded from mono to stereo, there were still physical limitations on those actual vinyl records—because you are literally scratching frequencies into the plate with a needle, and there's only so much space to use. A 12-inch LP, for example, can hold up to 22 minutes of audio per side when played at 33rpm (depending on the complexity of the master track wave forms). These time-limits, combined with the inability to accurately skip songs, also affected and inspired the sequencing of early pop music albums. You had to make it easy for people to play their favorite songs, so the popular tunes had to be towards the front of the album sequence on either side. Maybe you wanted to do something at the end of Side A to encourage listeners to actually flip the record over and continue listening to Side B (or at least go out with a banger of a song that leaves the listener wanting more).
So we have these roughly 3-ish minute songs, whose popular structure has been dictated by commercial needs as well as physical limitations. And then we have vinyl records that can physically hold no more than 22 minutes per side. But 22 isn't evenly divisible by 3! Which makes things more complicated! So you're left with … about 20 minutes per side, to be safe.
20 minutes per side. With 2 sides to the vinyl. That's 40 minutes, give or take. That's why Springsteen's Born To Run album clocks in at 39 minutes. That's why the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album also clocks in around 39 minutes. The Beach Boys' opus Pet Sounds is only 38 minutes!
Olivia Rodrigo's GUTS album? Also a TikTok-ified length of 39 minutes (with one less song than Pet Sounds, or Sgt. Pepper's, if we're being technical!).
The technological advances of the streaming era mean that modern pop music is not as constrained by the physical limits of a vinyl LP (although vinyl is still the most popular physical format). And indeed, the streaming era incentivizes shorter singles that hit the hook sooner over album-length compositions.
But a modern pop star like Olivia Rodrigo is still building on the established traditions of the music industry, and various factors over the last 70 years have led to that 39-ish minute runtime being a sweet spot for album lengths. If you want to play pop music, you've got to follow at least some of the basic established rules of pop music. Which is how you get Olivia Rodrigo writing 12 songs of roughly 3-ish minutes each, that roughly follow a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format (or some variation thereof), for a totally running of 39 minutes. It has nothing to do with TikTok.
But if you asked me for a perfect microcosm of the music industry, a simple synecdoche that could explain the glaring disconnect between the wealthy executives that profit off of the music industry, and the actual writers, engineers, and musicians whose labor they profit from, then I would give you this: a former LiveNation exec who has also sold multiples companies to LiveNation, who sees a pop star creating "content" in the exact same format as pop stars have been doing for 70 years, and then calling it an outlier, because of Kids Today on social media (while completely overlooking the actual impact of Kids Today on Social Media).
And don't even get me started on what the fuck his "Songs with relatable ADHD moments" comment means …