Less Is More

...like trying to fit a quart into a pint pot

Once again, Monday finds me sitting down to build next week’s BBC Introducing Mixtape, and as usual it’s a case of trying to cram a quart into a pint pot.

That’s the expression we used in the old days before decimalisation: somehow trying to cram a litre into a half-litre pot doesn’t quite have the same ring. But you get the idea.

Each week I listen to somewhere between 100-200 tunes here at Fresh On The Net: see Listening To The Inbox for how the process works. I also hear several dozen tunes a week fowarded by radio colleagues via the BBC Introducing Uploader.

So on the one hand BBC Radio 6 Music gives me one hour of airtime a week to play these tunes. And on the other hand there are always quite a few hoursworth of interesting tunes that I’ve discovered over the previous few weeks.

So Monday is crunch time, when 400-500 minutes of music has to compressed into a 60 minute radio show. It’s actually more like 57 minutes – to allow for programme idents, trails and spoken links between the songs.

The first thing to do is to import all that week’s contenders into iTunes like this:

iTunes Library

The next job is to start pulling tracks into a new playlist to hear how the songs will sound next to each other.

When doing this I assign each song a star rating in terms of musical energy. Full-on rock and electro tracks get five stars ***** while solo songwriters are given one *. One isn’t better than the other – you just need to keep note of light and shade in the playlist.

All the contending tracks tend to be pretty good, but you inevitably end up with favourites. These key tracks automatically form the basic bare bones of the show, which gets fleshed out around them.

Once we have about 50 minutes’ worth of music, the jostling begins.  Tracks start getting pulled out and replaced, others get moved around, trying to fit in as many great tunes as possible into the final ten minutes. Since all the remaining tracks are equally great, the ones that get included is usually a question of simple arithmetic.

The shorter the track, the better its chances.

The playlist below managed to squeeze eighteen tracks into just 57 minutes – and that was only possible because ten of them are under 3 minutes long.

BBC Introducing Mixtape playlist

If everyone had sent us 5 minute tracks, we could only have played eleven of them.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with longform music, and you should never compromise your art just in the hope of chasing airplay. Artists such as Deadmau5 or Mogwai have built their careers on alternative ways of reaching an audience that don’t depend on national radio support.

Actually we occasionally do play tracks on the Introducing Mixtape that are 7 minutes long or more. But the standard with these tracks has to be higher, to justify dropping three other artsts to make room for them.

So here’s the bottom line:
If somebody at radio adores your record, they’ll play it regardless of how long it is. But if you’re just one of several great artists competing for the last slot on a busy show, then a 3 minute song gives you a big advantage over a 5 or 6 minute epic.

In radio promotion as so often in life: less is more.


Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...


  1. Interesting observations and useful information. In this poster you can see that the length of Beatles songs when they started out was quite short
    Apparently, when they were established musicians the need for short from became less pressing.

  2. Jon Ford

    oorlab: It’s also worth noting that there were technical limitations to the length of music you could put on a single in the early days. Variable groove spacing and other techniques helped to extend this in later years.

  3. Tom Robinson

    @JonFord that’s certainly true and definitely played a part. Another key consideration was – the shorter the track the louder it could be cut onto vinyl, even in the 70s and 80s. That could make a big difference on jukeboxes and in the listening pile at radio stations.

    But my main point is that the number of minutes in an hour has remained constant while the amount of music being submitted to radio has increased exponentially (due to cheap recording and the democratisation of promotion via social media)…

    As @Oorlab says George Martin probably kept those early Beatles singles down to 2 minutes not due to technical limitations, but because they were desperately competing against the established stars of the day and needed every scrap of needle time they could get.

    Once they had got bored with every single they released going straight to number one, they started to experiment and began to regard themselves as Artists with a capital A. And if any of today’s emerging artists sends us a song as great as “a day in the life” I promise you it will go straight on the playlist.

    But if that had been The Beatles’ debut single it wouldn’t have given Cliff Richard any sleepless nights back in 1962. For today’s unknown artists battling for attention – whether on radio, YouTube, Spotify or Hypem – keeping it brief will still give you a competitive edge.

  4. Thats great advice Tom, Thanks, for providing the platform for new music. Your words are appreciated as its often difficult to get this across to bands when they are recording, that a single for radio should be 3 minutes or under ideally. Quite rightly they are precious about their art, and we ourselves, love a wonderful intro, heady guitar solo, string, synth, drum fills or breaks as much as anyone. However like you say, most of your moderators and your self have gallons of music to listen to and only, as you say, “Pint Pots” of airtime to play with. Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, and Morrisey have penned the perfect 2-3 minute or less classic. Just for fun- some of our fave examples of two minute classics;

    The White Stripes – Fell in Love With a Girl.
    The Beatles – I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.
    Soundgarden – Kickstand.
    The Clash – White Riot.
    The Rolling Stones – Not Fade Away.
    Pearl Jam – Lukin.
    Daft Punk – Nightvision.
    Queens of The Stone Age – Six Shooter.

    Thanks TOM,

  5. Jon K (Betty pulls a fast one)

    Wise words! Reminds me of a blog article I wrote a few years ago about the best shortest songs:


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