Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time researching how to create a hit song. I’ve checked out dozens of blog articles and YouTube videos by producers, writers, A&R guys and many other industry experts (and some maybe not so expert). I expected to learn the secrets to what makes some songs a smash hit while others lapse in inevitable obscurity. Perhaps there is a secret chord progression (check out this video by The Axis Of Awesome) or a lyrical technique. Maybe it’s in the production or the mix of the song? Is there a trick to writing melodies that I haven’t yet discovered? After hours and hours of painstaking effort and research (ok some of the videos and articles were quite entertaining) I finally arrived at the two fundamental steps to make a hit song 1) write an actual great song then 2) convince everyone that your song is great. I know this seems almost insanely simplistic but it’s the honest truth.
- Write an actual great song – This seems pretty self explanatory and that’s mostly because it is. It’s also very arbitrary due in large part to the subjective nature of music: Just because I think a song is great doesn’t mean that you will too. Most industry professionals will tell you that writing a great song is not a guarantee to a having a hit, it’s just a prerequisite for having a hit in the first place. In other words, writing a great song is the price of buying a lotto ticket, you have to buy a ticket to win but the odds of you winning are still really bad. There are just too many great songs out there and by default only a small percentage those can be hits. Now I know we’ve all heard hit songs that we can’t stand listening to and seem so bad that they make our ears want to bleed but that doesn’t make them any less great to someone else. In fact you could define a great song as one that connects emotionally with the listener on a significant level. So a hit song essentially is one that millions of people connect with. There is so much more to this that several books could be written about it (and I’m sure people already have) but really as long as your song is relatable to other human beings it has the potential for being a great song. Now we just have to convince everyone else that it is.
- Convince everyone that your song is great – This is probably the harder and most important of the two steps but first I think it’s important to realize that it is actually possible to manufacture popularity as a 2006 Study by Columbia University has proven. I found this study from a YouTube video How Pop Music Has Become A Science and am quoting a section of the video. “Researchers sent participants to a music site where they could discover, download and rank music. On that site there was a popularity section. People listened to, downloaded and enjoyed the songs that were ranked as popular (songs that other people were also listening to). The researchers inverted the rankings putting the least popular songs as appearing to be the most popular. Previously ignored and disliked songs became the most popular while the previously most liked and popular music (the songs everyone loved) went to the bottom of the rankings and nobody seemed to like them. Just seeing that a song was supposedly popular got more people to enjoy them, listen to them, download them and ultimately talk more about them.” We may think of listening to music as a very individual and personal experience (and to a degree it is) but it is also a very social experience as well. We want to share with and talk to others about the music and artists we love. There are infinite ways to influence what’s popular and that is what record labels both major and indie have been focusing on and trying to do for decades (to varying degrees of success). For instance record labels have discovered that the more you hear a song typically, the more you are likely to enjoy it and buy it. So now you hear the same songs played on the radio almost twice as much than you did ten years ago and there is less diversity of music on the air waves today due to homogenization (if a certain song is popular, let’s play more that sound exactly like it). The labels have also discovered that social capital, viral marketing and branding are hugely important. In a 2013 YouTube video interview of Def Jam VP of A&R Lenny S, he says that “there are only two things I or anybody should look for in an artist… People have to want to be you or believe you.” It has become more about image than substance.The music business in a sense is nothing more than a huge popularity contest with the winner being the next number one hit (this is not a criticism, just a fact).
As simple as this formula might be it is incredibly hard to implement. Remember you need both a great song and the ability to convince others it’s a hit. You may not have the same resources as a record label but that doesn’t mean that you can’t compete with them. With the internet and all the social networking sites out there artists with the creative ability to market themselves effectively will do very well and there are so many books on the subject that I won’t get into now. The real secret to creating a hit song is to put in the hard work necessary to get good at influencing others and get out there and do it.
Cary Crichlow, Senior Producer and Engineer
RCR Recording Studios