Time in media

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how time plays out in the different forms of media in which it’s prominent, and how it’s changed throughout history. Why do we have the standard time lengths that we have in our modern culture? Why is the average length for a pop song 3-5 minutes, or for a movie 1 1/2 to 2 hours? How has our technological, social and cultural evolution shaped these time lengths over the years, and how will they be shaped in the future? These are all very interesting questions, but to answer them in a somewhat organized way, let’s focus on one medium at a time.

The first medium I’d like to discuss is music. As I mentioned in the introduction, the average length of the songs filling the charts today is around 3-5 minutes (as we’re all certainly familiar with) and has been for quite some time. One could argue that this had to do with blues music – one of the main pillars of modern popular music – which with it’s short and bittersweet suburban folk songs often were around that time length. Although while I do think that blues has a lot to do with it, I’d say that the main reason lies in the technological history of the music format.

Ever since Edison invented the first sound recording machine in the late 1800s, the act of recording music has steadily grown into a commonality and is now considered the primary format through which we perceive music. Because of this, the sound recording technology has had – and still has – a great deal in how music is made. One of the first commonplace music formats was the 78 rpm(revolutions per minute) disc, which could fit around 4 minutes of sound on each side. Thus I’d argue that the 78s are the main reason to why 3-5 minutes is the normal length for any pop song today. If we look at the other main pillar of modern pop music, namely jazz, we will actually find a very evident example on how the 78s affected music lengths. Before the commercialization of music records, jazz was very much built around improvisation; as they played in the evening clubs, the jazz bands would be up on stage jamming around a chord progression and taking turns in soloing as long as the dance floor was moving (kind of like today’s DJ sessions then). When then the recording technology took over the market and they were to put their music on record, they had to adapt to the format’s limited time length and organize it up more, thus going from improvisation to composition.

It doesn’t stop there though. In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the LP (Long Play), a format that, just as its name offered, could fit more music than any of its predecessors. With a playtime on around 20 minutes on each side, this disc came to lay the very basis for the standard full album time length – a time length which lives on to this day. We all recognize the formula; 8-12 tracks which are about 3-5 minutes in length, thus summing up to around 40 minutes. That is the typical framework for a music album which we’ve seen countless times. While there are other formats out there too, such as the EP and single, the LP is undeniably the main one through which we’ve perceived music for the last 60 years. Even if the LPs have stopped being one of the music industry’s major incomes for many years now, their formula is still highly present; even today a full length album is considered to be around 40 minutes to an hour long (with the additional 20 minutes arriving with the CDs, which could fit even more space). In fact, this isn’t just a spiritual tradition or a norm that’s sticked around; bands and artists are actually bound to follow the format due to record label policies. A good example of this can be found with the band The Mars Volta, who for their second studio album Frances the Mute ended up with 1 hour and 17 minutes worth of music, but because of that the album consisted of just five tracks the record label could only release it as an EP. So in order to sell it for the price of a full album, they had to split some of the longer songs into smaller parts. Of course, there are exceptions to this particular phenomenon; albums such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Sleep’s Dopesmoker all consist of one single song (although divided into two or three tracks due to the vinyl record’s nature), thus breaking the rule of not having enough tracks. But one thing that no artist can get away from is the album’s length – if it’s less than 25 minutes it’s an EP, and if it’s 1 hour and 20 minutes to 2 hours long it’s divided into two or three discs and thus considered a double or triple album.

Although due to the music industry’s gradual adaption into the digital age, it looks like the album format might actually cease to exist in the near future. Back in the day, if you wanted the option of listening to a certain song whenever you felt like it, you had to buy the entire album from which that song came (unless it had been released as a single). Nowadays though, you can just pick any individual song from iTunes or the streaming service of your choice without even bothering about the rest of the album. So there might only be a matter of time until the ”music album” is completely eradicated. This is something that can have both good and bad effects. In a pretty recent lecture with Red Bull Music Academy, drone metal musician Stephen O’Malley – known mostly from his band Sunn O))) – was asked a question on this particular topic. The question went as follows:

[…] You talked a bit about vinyl and having a song fit on to a side of a vinyl […], and I was wondering to what extent do you think the medium in which your music is distributed affects the length of music you make, and then following up that; with having stuff like Soundcloud and YouTube, do you think that’s helped to liberate the idea of tracks that have to fit a certain time or fit on an album in a certain way, or has [it] just made it easier to make little soundbites cause you can just flip through it so easily?

I find this removal of the album time length to be a very nice and liberating thought. There are plenty of genres out there that take up a lot of time – time that isn’t necessarily planned out – and therefore could gain from not being limited by the album format. This includes drone music, but also ambient, noise, free jazz, and practically all forms of improvisational music. With the digital format, you can record and release a track that is five or even ten hours long and there’d be plenty of space for it on any average computer. Although as pointed out by the questioner, the digitalization may as well have the opposite effect, which is mainly what O’Malley commented on in his answer:

Big topic. Been talking about it a lot in the last year. […] You can listen to every Sunn O))) track that’s ever been published on Bandcamp now, and you can download hi-res waves and stuff. I have Google analytics watching the page, […] cause I’m curious about, do people actually listen to a 20 minute track? The answer is no. The average attention period on Bandcamp is 2 1/2 minutes on the Sunn O))) page – […] that’s just the first note on some songs. Which is fine I mean, on the other hand there’s been something like, ten thousand people have listened to the page in one week. I just put this up last Monday actually, it’s pretty interesting. I used to be a bit more like anti mp3 and all this stuff, mainly because of fidelity, and also trying to be ’Vinyl! The best format for music!’. But whatever way you listen to music, the important thing is that you’re engaged with what you’re listening to. I mean that’s my approach to music – it doesn’t matter if it’s an eight hour piece you know. La Monte Young has his well tuned piano pieces, [which] varies from like eight to twelve hours. John Cage has like a 600 year organ piece that’s being played right now. If you’re listening to music with intent, then it’s informing you in some way, so it doesn’t matter if it’s ten seconds or ten minutes.

As O’Malley firstly points out, people don’t usually take their time to listen through a 20 minute song while browsing through the internet. This is something that I think has a lot to do with the speed of the platform. The internet is a very fast place; with the direct and instant access to all the information that the web provides us with, moving through it is a very fast and effective activity. It’s only natural that not many people would have the time or pleasure to sit through a 20 minute track that they’ve just stumbled upon during their browsing.

Or perhaps it doesn’t have so much to do with the song’s actual time length as with how time is used within that length. Sunn O))) makes music that very much revolves around sameness, and focuses on establishing a certain mood or experience rather than any musical progression. Thus, the band’s music is very demanding of the listener’s patience, no matter if the song is 5 or 20 minutes long. Contrary to that, Rolling Stone Magazine released in 2008 a list of the 50 best songs that are over 7 minutes long, a list that included smash hits such as Prince’s Purple Rain, Metallica’s One, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird, and The Beatles’ Hey Jude. So maybe sitting through a 7, 10 or 20 minute track isn’t such a hassle as long as it’s engaging. This brings us to the second part of O’Malley’s answer, in which he points out that the actual runtime of a music piece has no real importance; what matters is if you’re engaged or not. ”If you’re listening to music with intent, then it’s informing you in some way.” This is probably something that’s more up to oneself than anything else. But then again, I feel like the digital age may actually create a lack of engagement with its easy access – all those songs that I just brought up from the Rolling Stone list for example were hitting the charts long before the internet era was even a thing, so I wonder if a hit song that is 7-10 minutes would actually be able to happen today. This is something that I feel is positive about the record format as opposed to digital. I don’t wanna sound too nostalgic and conservative here, but one thing that I recognize from my own experience as a record consumer is that it’s a medium that invites devotion. Listening to a record isn’t so much (for me) just a matter of pressing the play button, but is more of a ceremony; you take your time with opening up the package, taking out the record and putting it on the record player, placing the needle, and then actually listening to the music with intent without doing anything else in the meantime. But hey, maybe It’s just a matter of adapting to the new format in order to enjoy it with just as much engagement – after all, it’s probably just up to each and every consumer how much devotion one wants to put into one’s music listening. Jeez, I feel like I’m just going in circles with this, so I’m gonna move on to the second medium that I wanted to discuss; film.

The story of film is a pretty different one. While music has existed in all different shapes long before its 19th to 20th century transition into what we today know as popular music, cinema had its actual birth around the same time. The ones credited for being the first filmmakers of all time are the two brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who had their first public screening in Paris in 1895 with ten different short films. Naturally, the first films ever are also the shortest ones, being only a few seconds long as they simply worked as demonstrations on what the technology was capable of. The footage shown were very neutral, everyday things such as fabric workers ending their shift and a train arriving at the station. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that people realized the potential that the technology had of telling actual stories. Some of the first and most significant movies of this era where James Williamson’s Attack on a China Mission – Bluejackets to the Rescue from 1900, which helped establishing visual continuity between camera shots, and Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune from 1902, which was the world’s first science fiction movie.

At this point though the movies were still very short, being no longer than a few minutes. In terms of feature length films, the first one in that regard was Charles Tait’s 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was around an hour long. Although as far as I’m informed, the movie that really opened up the gates for the feature length format was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation from 1915. Not only was it with its grand scale and a runtime of over three hours one of the first epic films, but it pioneered so many key filmmaking techniques that its technical aspect even today is worth seeing over its abundantly racist content. As Ian Haydn Smith writes in the book Cinema: The Whole Story: ”Other directors played with film’s possibilities and shaped a basic language, but Griffith created the grammar.” We probably have The Birth of a Nation to thank for that we today almost exclusively see feature length films in the movie theater.

Speaking of today; I’ve recognized a certain trend in the recent past among movies, a trend in that the average movie length has increased. I’m not the only one who’s recognized this apparently, as I searched on the subject and found several articles about it. Some of them actually did the math and showed statistics over the average length among the most popular movies over the years. Like this one by Randy Olson, which shows a diagram over the average length of the 25 most popular movies each year from 1931 to 2013. Interestingly enough, we can actually see that there’s been an ongoing wave of increase and decrease over the years, and that the average length has remained static between 2000 and 2013 on around the same level as its peak during the 1960s. So maybe movies aren’t getting much longer on an overall scale, but that’s not really what I’m after; my experience is that there’s been an increase over just the past few years. So I looked some more and found this one by Kirsten Acuna, which shows that among the ten highest-grossing movies of each year, the average length has actually increased with just over ten minutes – which isn’t much, but it’s still something. Although what these two statistics both have in common is that they’re focusing on the most popular movies. What I’m thinking about isn’t just trending blockbusters – blockbusters have always been long, that’s kinda part of their nature – but with movies such as This is 40 (133 minutes), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (124 minutes) and its follow-up (122 minutes), Bridesmaids (125 minutes), The Heat (120 minutes), Spy (120 minutes), Trainwreck (124 minutes), and so on, even the average not-so-ambitious comedy flick is reaching the 2 hour mark. So perhaps it doesn’t have so much to do with an increase as a normalization.

But if the movie length standard in fact has increased over recent time, then what’s the reason behind it? Rob Batchelor theorizes in his article that it has to do with the industry’s conversion from analogue cameras to digital ones. He suggests that due to all the time and money that is saved by using digital – from shipping costs, to easier and more flexible editing, to distribution – the directors are getting much more creative freedom, which allows them to make longer, more ambitious films. I’m a bit skeptical on this theory though. I’m not sure that the filming technology used is such a vital budget factor when there’s so much else involved in making a movie; actors, costumes, make-up, scenography, lighting, cinematography, sound design, special effects, and so on.

And even if this might open up the gates for directors to make longer, more ambitious movies at a lower cost, I still feel like there’s a certain drive involved that has to do with more than just possibility. I experience that a lot of the recent movies (especially the average not-so-ambitious comedy flicks mentioned above) are unnecessarily long, as if the directors are forcibly stretching out the script just so that their movie can fit the 2 hour standard. Is there actually some sort of quantity over quality mentality going on here? Bigger equals better? Well if we go back to Randy Olson’s article, we can find a very interesting connection to the past. He writes that the reason behind the increase in length between the 1930s and 1970s, as seen in his diagram, probably has to do with the introduction of TV in the 30s and 40s. As a response to this new competitor, ”movie producers were forced to raise the bar and start producing more epic films to keep audiences packing the theater.” My theory is that there’s a similar phenomenon going on today.

Right now, TV-series are more popular than ever. With shows such as Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Detective, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and many more being insanely popular, and with big Hollywood stars such as Kevin Spacey, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Buscemi starring in some of them, I’d very much argue that we’re in the middle of a golden age of series. A medium that was once considered highly secondary as opposed to cinema does now have just as much focus if not more, so it’s no wonder that there’s a competition going on. I don’t really have any theory as to why this new wave of popularity has occurred, but one thing that I think is a reason behind TV-series’ success in general is attachment, both in terms of the series themselves and the community surrounding them. (Game of Thrones for example has reached such a huge amount of popularity that it’s almost a fair assumption or even an expectation that the person next to you is following the series, making it just as general a conversation topic as discussing the weather.) The probably main way to create this attachment is through the characters; while movies always have centered a lot around the initial storyline, series are much more character driven. With the huge amount of runtime that a TV-series has on its hands, there’s a lot more room to present, focus on, and develop the characters – but most importantly there’s more time for the audience to get attached to the characters and thus wanting to see more from them. So maybe the reason behind movies’ increasing length has to do with attachment through characters, as a way to compete with series. If the audience gets enough attached to the movie, then they want to see more of it, which opens up for sequels. Perhaps that’s also partly a reason behind the ongoing trend of movies being based on already pre-existing franchises; if the attachment to the franchise in question wasn’t already there beforehand, then it most likely will be if the audience like what they see.

Although I can’t help but feel an irony in this increase in movie lengths. As I mentioned in my music segment, we live in an era of effectiveness, where we want and kind of expect things to go as fast as possible. We don’t have time to listen through 20 minutes of music, but we do have time to watch a 2 1/2 hour long movie? What’s up with that? This goes for TV-series as well; with 5-7 seasons and one hour per episode as an average, watching series is a huge time investment. Maybe it has to do with a situational difference; maybe going to the movies or putting on the weekly episode of your series is more of a ritualistic thing as opposed to listening to a song (similar to my experience with record listening). It’s not something that you just stumble upon in the midst of doing other things, but it’s something that you in one way or another schedule beforehand. Because of this, wasting time doesn’t really become a problem since it’s a main event.

So maybe it isn’t so much a matter of time-wasting as it is of endurance. TV-series may take up a lot of time as a whole, but you’re not required or even expected to sit through the entirety of a series from beginning to end; because of its division into pieces you have the freedom of getting through it at your own pace. Although the most important factor regarding movies and series alike is probably that of engagement. Just like O’Malley said about music, it doesn’t really matter how long a movie or a TV-series is as long as the audience is engaged. This has just as much to do with how invested one wants to be in one’s media experience, as it has to do with the movies and series themselves – more specifically how time is used within the frame. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky presented in his book Sculpting in Time and interesting theory on how film is essentially defined by its imprint of time into the frame, and what determines time’s passage within the frame is the movie’s rhythm. I’ve seen three to four hour movies that have just fled by in an instant, while Tarkovsky’s movies (to take a very prominent example) are ”only” around 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours but are among the most time demanding movies out there because of how slowly paced they are.

Now that I’ve touched upon both music and film, I think it also would be interesting to discuss the comparison between the two in relation to time. Especially the difference in average time length is very noteworthy; while the standard length for a movie is around two hours, an album that is two hours or even an hour and a half is considered super long. Maybe this has to do with the amount of information that each of the mediums usually want to present. While music only deals with sonic information, film presents a combination of three previously established mediums; sound (including music), picture (more specifically photography), and theatre. So perhaps the reason behind film’s longer average runtime as opposed to music’s is that it needs that extra time in order to create a working interplay between its three aspects. Ironically though, the longest music piece – being John Cage’s 639 year organ piece As Slow as Possible (the one that O’Malley brought up) – is significantly longer than the longest movie – being a 240 hour experimental film by Danish artists’ group Superflex called Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building, Helsinki). Maybe the reason behind the difference in lengths lies more in our cultural perception of the mediums than the mediums themselves. After all, everything is relative; 3-5 minutes is a normal time length for a song in our ears because that is how we perceive music in our modern day culture, but if the 78s and blues music hadn’t been around to shape that time length then we might have still been stuck in classical music’s hour long epics. The same thing goes for movies; if The Birth of a Nation hadn’t been made, then perhaps short films would’ve been just as common today as feature lengths.

Now before wrapping this up, there’s one last medium that I wanted to cover – a medium that I personally isn’t too involved with but that I nonetheless think would be really interesting to discuss, and that is video games. Earlier this year, a rumor was sparked that the then upcoming game The Order: 1886 could be completed in merely five hours, which is considered extremely short by game merits. That sure says something about how much time is invested within this medium. The probably main reason for this is that it’s a format that not only contains storytelling, but gameplay as well (and all that it entails). Between all the plot developments in a game, there are also often several minutes or even hours being spent on other various tasks. So you kind of need those extra hours as the medium consists of much more than just a narrative. But how does this affect the player? How does one get through a 12, 20 or 40 hour game and still be engaged all the way?

One word: interaction. Unlike any other way of storytelling, that is something that games uniquely carry. And naturally, with interaction also comes engagement; instead of just inhaling the information as with music or film, you’re actually participating in it, making it more engaging. This interaction aspect also says some interesting stuff about time. Since the storytelling is an interactive one, you as the player is partly determining the pacing, which itself is affecting the time length. Especially if it’s a game with an open world, the differences in time length can be vast depending on your own interaction, stretching from maybe 12 to 40 hours. Of course, this interaction has its limits; you can only get from one spot to another as fast as the game lets you for example. Also, a lot of games contain cut scenes which, aside from skipping them, you have no control over at all. Nevertheless, I think video games are straddling a very interesting line between constant and interactive in terms of pacing and runtime.

Another relevant aspect of video games in this regard is in what amounts one ingests them. Just like series, a video game is something you mostly go through piece by piece; it’s not very often that you play through an entire game in one go. The difference here though is that with series, the sizes of the pieces are already predetermined; if each episode is an hour long, then you’re obliged to get through it in terms of hours. If you’re watching it seasonally this becomes even more apparent, as you then literally have no other option than to get through it one episode a week. The thing with games though is that they’re served to you in their complete entirety, and it’s up to you how much you can muster today and how much you want to save for tomorrow. In that sense, playing though a game is more equivalent than anything to reading a book – both in terms of lengthiness, but also in the sense that it’s a whole and solid piece which you go through in smaller chunks of your own choice.

So to sum things up, there are indeed a lot of interesting things worth talking about when it comes to time in different forms of media. In fact, as I’m writing this there are even more stuff coming to my mind. I mean, I’ve only touched upon our modern era in this post, but music has existed in all different forms for thousands of years. And since cinema is, at its core, only an extension of theatre, there’s a lot more that can be said in that regard too. Although I feel like I have to wrap it up sooner or later, as I’ve already wasted way more time on this topic than I had initially planned. Maybe I’ll return and develop upon it someday in the future, but for now, good night.

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