One of the topics I cover on this blog is music. So, how do you make a hit song? Why do some artists make it on the radio – even if they don’t appear to have a lot of talent – and others don’t? Why are some artists “one hit wonders”, and others can sustain a long and successful career?
These are all questions that author John Seabrook tries to answer in his book “The Song Machine”. It’s all about the making of a hit song, and how it’s as much a science as it is an art.
Let me start out by saying that I am not a fan of most Top 40 music. Occasionally, a song will grow on me and I come to like it. But for most of it, I think it’s monotonous and very hard to listen to. I sometimes find myself sounding like my parents. Who is listening to this crap?
In the same way I tend to support small businesses, I tend to support small bands. That doesn’t mean that I never shop at big box stores or buy things off Amazon, because I do. But, if it’s something that I can buy from a locally owned business, I prefer to do that. Same thing with music. I love big bands like U2 and Coldplay. But, I also love small bands like Red Wanting Blue and The Trews.
When I came across this book, I thought it would be an interesting read. As I got into it, I thought it could turn into an interesting blog post. This post is a combination of some of the things covered in the book, as well as my own thoughts on the music industry. Keep reading to find out more.
If you are intrigued and want to order the book yourself, click here.
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THE WAY MUSIC IS DELIVERED
I’m going to age myself, but the way I started listening to music when I was a kid, was on my record player. Whether it was a 45 for singles, or a 33 1/3 for full length albums, the record player was the only way to listen to music other than on the radio.
Of course, everything old is new again, and vinyl has made a resurgence. My husband bought me a turntable a few years ago and now I can listen to my old albums again. Click here for the one I have. Plus, we’ve had a lot of fun going to record stores and searching for old gems.
The music industry has also capitalized on the resurgence of records. I will be the first to admit, I am a sucker for buying those very cool (and expensive) re-released and re-mastered record sets of some of my favorite albums.
The first step towards making music portable was the cassette tape. The cassette tape let you take your music with you in the car or in the form of your Walkman.
The downside of the cassette – like the record – was that you could only listen to a few songs before you had to flip it over. I distinctly remember spending the summer of 1987 in the pool listening to The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me repeatedly on cassette tape. In fact, every time I had to get up to flip the tape over, I also flipped myself over to tan on the other side!
MUSIC GOES DIGITAL
The CD was invented by James T. Russell in 1965. He was granted a patent on the technology in 1970. Of course, it wouldn’t be until many years later that the CD became the “new” way people purchased music. The first commercially released CD was ABBA’s 1981 album The Visitors, which was released on CD in 1982.
By the 1990’s, CDs were becoming the primary means of purchasing music. They hit their peak in the early 2000’s. But, as with all technology, the next method to deliver music was right behind – the MP3.
While cassettes and CDs were much more portable than a record album, they still had a couple of issues. First, you still had to physically carry multiple CDs and cassettes. Second, you still had to eject and re-insert the cassette or CD to listen to more music.
The iPod changed that. Suddenly, you could load thousands of songs on a tiny device that you could take with you anywhere.
The first version of streaming music was Napster, which was created by a 19-year-old Northeastern University student named Shawn Fanning. Started in 1999, it had a huge impact on the record industry. In 1999, worldwide record sales had peaked at $27 billion. By 2014, record sales had declined to $15 billion.
Fanning tried to sell the idea of streaming music to the record companies. In fact, he offered to partner with them, so they had a platform to stream their music. Instead, the record industry decided to fight Napster, and sued them for copyright infringement in December of 1999. While they were successful in putting Napster out of business, they weren’t successful in stopping the music streaming technology.
Today, most music is either sold by digital download such as iTunes or Amazon, or it’s streamed on services like Pandora or Spotify.
Spotify was founded by Daniel Ek and launched in Sweden in 2008. Ek describes Spotify as not a platform to sell music, but a platform to sell access to music. Additionally, Spotify purchased a company called Echo Nest, which provided them with a technology that is basically artificial intelligence for music. It learns what you like, and then finds music for you.
Ek spent a lot of time negotiating individual deals with all the major record labels, which allows Spotify to stream all the music that it does. But, are those deals good for the artists? When a song is played on the radio, the writer of the song is paid, but not the artist or the label. On Spotify, the business model is the opposite. The label is paid every time a song is played, and it’s up to the label to distribute the proceeds appropriately to their artists.
Besides changing the way we purchase and listen to music, MP3s and streaming changed the way we buy music as a whole. Although there were always “singles” on every format, music was primarily purchased as a whole album. With the advent of the MP3 and streaming, music is almost only purchased as singles. Which makes the idea of having a hit single, even more important.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A HIT?
THE HISTORY OF MAKING HITS
If you aren’t a fan of today’s Top 40 music, you can blame it all on the Swedes and Ace of Base. Yes, I’m totally serious. One of the biggest hitmakers of all time is a Swede that most people have never heard of – Max Martin.
It all started with a group of DJ’s in Sweden. One of those DJ’s was named Denniz Pop. Denniz believed that he could “create” a hit song by mixing various pieces together. He started mixing songs and playing the mixes while he was doing a DJ gig. After experimenting, he started looking for a song he could create that way and turn into a hit single.
ACE OF BASE
A band called Ace of Base sent Denniz a demo of one of their songs. As the story goes, Denniz popped the tape into the cassette player in his car. He believed that the key to coming up with a hit song in the U.S., was playing the music in his car. If it didn’t sound good in the car, it wasn’t going to be a hit.
At first, he didn’t like the song. Unfortunately (or fortunately for Ace of Base), the tape got stuck in his tape player, so Denniz was forced to listen to the song repeatedly for 2 weeks. At some point, Denniz heard something in the music. He eventually turned that demo into the song “All That She Wants”.
Denniz got Clive Davis at Arista Records to agree to sign Ace of Base and distribute their album. The Sign ended up selling 23 million copies, making it one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. This was from a totally unknown band that had not gone out on tour.
Denniz formed Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, which is where some of the biggest hits of the 1990’s were written and recorded. Among the many writers and producers Cheiron Studios brought on board, was Max Martin (aka Martin Sandberg), who started as the lead singer for a metal band called It’s Alive, and ended up writing some of the biggest hit singles of all time for artists like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry.
In today’s world of music, making a hit is as much about the artist as it is about the person writing and producing the music. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist is the person with the most talent. It means that the artist has the “it” factor.
From the time we could first regularly see musicians on television, music was as much about the look of the artist as it was about the song. Whether it was the Beatles with their “long” hair, or Elvis shaking his hips, the image of the artist could ultimately sell a record.
THE BOY BANDS
The whole idea of “creating” artists started with the boy bands. Lou Pearlman first saw New Kids on the Block, and it gave him the idea that he could create his own boy band. He went to Orlando and started searching for talent. He chose each of the members so that they would appeal to different demographics – the young one, the jock, the bad boy, etc. His creation became known as Backstreet Boys.
After Backstreet Boys began seeing some success, Pearlman got nervous and decided to beat everyone else who wanted to copy his success to the punch. So, he created a second boy band – NSYNC. Unfortunately, Pearlman was not the most honest person in the world – neither with the bands he managed nor with his business dealings. Both the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC sued Pearlman to be released from their contracts with him, and to recover money they felt they were owed. Pearlman was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements in 2008, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died while still in custody in 2016.
AMERICAN IDOL AND REALITY TV
The idea of “creating” an artist really peaked with the debut of American Idol, which first aired in June of 2002. The whole concept of American Idol, is to find “America’s favorite singer”, sign them to a record deal, and make a star out of them.
The first, and most successful, winner of American Idol was Kelly Clarkson. When Clarkson was crowned the winner of American Idol and given a record deal, Clive Davis said that she was never going to be as original as some of his “real” artists like Alicia Keys. Ironically, Keys and Clarkson are currently both judges on The Voice, another reality television singing contest.
Original or not, Clarkson went on to have several hits, all of which were written by the music machine, including Max Martin. When Clarkson told the record label that she wanted to write her own songs, the record label told her she was asking for the end of her career. They allowed her to do it, but Clarkson never gained the level of success with her own songs as she did with those written by the hired guns of the record labels.
HOW DO YOU WRITE A HIT?
Writing hits has become an assembly line production. For those of you that still watch the Grammy’s, you know it’s very rare to only have one or two names read for any “writing” award. Writing music is all about the track-and-hook approach now. A track maker/producer is responsible for the beats and chord progressions. Then a hook writer/topliner comes in and adds the words and melody.
Writing and recording the music has very little to do with the artist themselves anymore. In fact, artists spend most of their time on the road touring today (which is where the money is), and very little time in the studio. Many songs are recorded by having the artists record their vocals anywhere they can – on their tour bus, in a hotel room, or a rented studio space.
TOP 40 RADIO
Hit music today is all about the hook and repetition. What’s the earworm that won’t leave you while you’re in the shower or laying in bed at night?
In 1996, the Telecommunications Act went through a major overhaul. One of the changes, was that it increased the number of stations that one entity could own. That lead to a major consolidation of broadcast companies, which in turn, lead to Top 40 radio as we know it today. Now, rather than individual stations being able to select their playlists, the large corporate entities dictate what their stations play.
In addition, radio execs soon learned the power of repetition. Originally, they believed that a song shouldn’t be played more than once in a 24-hour period. However, one exec used to visit a diner across the street from his office. When he went in during the day, he knew the patrons played the same songs on the jukebox all day. One night he was there after close, and noticed that when the waitresses had control, they still played the same songs on the jukebox, even though they had heard them all day long. And, the concept of repetition on the radio was born!
HOW DO ARTISTS MAKE A LIVING?
In today’s world, artists don’t make money off record sales. It’s all about touring and merchandise sales. In fact, many artists have come up with a new way to “sell” albums – they give them away for free when you buy a ticket to their concerts.
It’s not unusual for artists to tour in support of one album for years. Coldplay toured in support of A Head Full of Dreams from March of 2016 to November of 2017. The tour had eight legs and spanned the globe. I saw them on the same tour three times – once in the summer of 2016 and twice in the summer of 2017.
HOW DO YOU MAKE IT BIG?
For every band like Coldplay, there are thousands of bands out there that will never have a hit single. In fact, they will never hear their music played on the radio.
Some bands are content with that. They may not be rich, but they build a large and loyal fan base and are able to make a living. There are bands like Carbon Leaf, who believe in writing and recording their own music and making it work without a record label.
A friend of ours has a daughter who is the lead singer in a band called Echoheart. On a Sunday night, they were playing a local dive bar in the Philly area, so we went out to see them and support them. There were only a handful of people there. When I spoke to the lead singer after the show, I tried to encourage her, even though it had to be tough to play to a nearly empty room. Her comment back to me was that there is always the story of the band that is playing in some dumpy bar, and a record exec happens to be there and discovers them. Maybe it would happen to them? In the meantime, they were going to continue to trudge along.
Those stories of discovery do happen from time to time. But often, they happen after the artist puts in years and years of hard work. Who had heard of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats before Jimmy Fallon “discovered” them and put them on The Tonight Show? Rateliff formed his first band in 2002, and trudged along in virtually anonymity until appearing on The Tonight Show in August of 2015.
I hope after reading this article, you have a little bit better insight into the music industry. Over the years, it’s changed significantly – both in how the music is delivered to the consumer, and how the artists break into the business.
If you’re intrigued after reading this, I think you’ll find John Seabrook’s book “The Song Machine” fascinating. I recommend it!
So what do you think? Are you a fan of Top 40 music? Comment below or e-mail me at email@example.com.
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