I noticed this question on ask.com: Why are there only 12 songs in most albums? Of course I tried to create an account there to answer the question, but since it failed, here’s my researched answer to that question.

Most record deals from major labels require the artist to record an x amount of “albums”. The record deal usually clearly defines “an album” as being a musical recording that is 40 to 50 minutes long. You can see an example of it here (in the first clause) and here (paragraph 2d). Since most pop-songs are between 3 and 4 minutes, it has become an industry standard that this means about 12 songs (4 x 12 = 48 minutes).

Artists that have more than 12 songs usually have short ‘in between’ or ‘intro’-tracks that are just between 30 seconds to 90 seconds, but often you’ll notice the total running time of the album is still between 40 and 50 minutes, like the contract specifies.

The line that specifies it has to be 40 to 50 minutes prevents an artist by getting off easy by recording a 20 minute ‘album’, but also prevents the artist from recording an epic work that lasts 80 minutes, that the record company could have sold as two albums.

So why 40 to 50 minutes? There’s no limit on how large a modern digital release can be. A cd can hold 74 minutes and in some cases 80 minutes of sound. There’s even an anecdote that the cd is 74 minutes long, because Sony executive Norio Ohga felt that the┬áLondon Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony should fit exactly on one disc.

But before the cd there was the vinyl LP which can hold only 22 minutes of recording on two sides, so a total of 44 minutes. The LP was the industry standard for the longest possible recording that would fit on one disc for 30 years from it’s introduction in 1948 until roughly the 1980s when the CD was introduced. As such the ‘album’ become synonymous with a 44 minute recording, even when the CD was introduced. In the beginning this was because ‘albums’ still had to be released on both LP and CD. CD’s did some times get bonus tracks, also to lure people to buy the more expensive CD.

But over the years, the recording industry simply held onto the ‘standard’ 44 minutes and simply loosened the definition to somewhere between 40 and 50 minutes. Or like usually … 12 tracks.

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