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If Writing a Hit Song Is So Easy, Why Doesn`t Everyone Do It?

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  • If Writing a Hit Song Is So Easy, Why Doesn`t Everyone Do It?

    I have to admit, I used to be so guilty of this. It was not unusual for me to ridicule Top 40 radio. Then someone challenged me…. "If its so easy, why don`t you do it?" So I tried.

    I wrote a couple of tunes that I thought were catchy and those who heard them also said they were catchy but Top 40? Far from it.

    What is it about Top 40 tunes that eludes most writers? I`m sure someone has written a book on the subject or at least pondered it. What are your thoughts?

    Lets try to keep focused on the traits of the song, not the artist, even though I`m convinced that that has a lot to do with it. And feel free to include Top 40 songs from the 60s through today. This subject has fascinated me for some time and I`m curious to know if you`re thoughts are aligned with mine… (scary thought...)
    Last edited by Ernest Buckley; 12-01-2014, 04:22 PM.

  • #2
    In my opinion, this song sucks… but it was Top 40. I`m convinced if an unknown sang/wrote this, no one would give it 10 seconds of their life. Skip to :57 to get to the "music".

    Last edited by Ernest Buckley; 12-01-2014, 04:31 PM.

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    • #3
      A hit song is not defined by what it is, but by how many people buy it. So it's a natural selection sort of process - the ones that sell the most, the hits, will be few by definition no matter how many songs are written or what the song characteristics are.

      That's not to say there are no common elements to the songs that sell the most. Some important elements are marketing, paid access to mass media, a pre-existing fan base eager for more, the artist's sex appeal, overall genre and style, fads, Twitter presence, "bad boy" or "bad girl" media image, etc etc.

      And don't leave out blind luck.

      So the actual musical content counts, sure, but only in the context of all these other non-musical factors. It's the old "don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle" sort of thing.

      The circus sells the popcorn, not the other way around.

      nat whilk ii



      Last edited by nat whilk II; 12-01-2014, 05:27 PM.

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      • #4
        ... and how many people buy it depends in large degree on how much was spent getting airplay and distribution for it. I once had a very wealthy music biz parasite type tell me "I don't care what 13 year old girls like. They buy what I get put on the radio"

        Admittedly this was quite a while back, when radio still had some effect on sales.
        Maybe it's not true any more? Don't know. Don't care too much, one way or the other...

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        • #5
          It can cost anything up to $2m to break an act in the US - money that is ultimately recouped from the acts themselves. No one is producing top 40 material in their home studio. And, sadly, talent doesn't always have a lot to do with chart success. My songs are huge hits with my 2 young kids. That's good enough for me
          flip the phase

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          • #6
            I've written a ton of hit songs. Only problem is nobody wants to buy them.... )
            ______________

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            • #7
              Originally posted by nat whilk II View Post
              A hit song is not defined by what it is, but by how many people buy it. So it's a natural selection sort of process - the ones that sell the most, the hits, will be few by definition no matter how many songs are written or what the song characteristics are.

              That's not to say there are no common elements to the songs that sell the most. Some important elements are marketing, paid access to mass media, a pre-existing fan base eager for more, the artist's sex appeal, overall genre and style, fads, Twitter presence, "bad boy" or "bad girl" media image, etc etc.

              And don't leave out blind luck.

              So the actual musical content counts, sure, but only in the context of all these other non-musical factors. It's the old "don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle" sort of thing.

              The circus sells the popcorn, not the other way around.

              nat whilk ii



              I completely hear what you`re saying… I`m interested in the part I put in bold.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by guido61 View Post
                I've written a ton of hit songs. Only problem is nobody wants to buy them.... )
                They would, but you don't do enough twerking
                flip the phase

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                • #9
                  It's not what you do. It's who you screw.

                  Please quote me if you use that. Thanks.
                  He has escaped! Youtube , ​Murika , France

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                  • #10
                    You probably need a good, really catchy song that really gets under someone's skin, good connections, a lot of luck, a lot of perseverance, someone on a major label to record it, and a lot of people to promote, purchase, and play the song. I think the planets need to line up a lot of the time. But I'm guessing here. I've never had a hit song, although I've played on a song that apparently sold 20,000 copies in Europe.
                    Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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                    • #11
                      I think most songwriters know how to write something that contains the structural elements of a hit song: catchy hooks and choruses, usually under 4 minutes long...that's basically songwriting 101. I don't know how much new can really be said about that.

                      Writing an actual hit song would probably require lots of schmoozing, and most likely packing up and moving to Nashville or LA...many people don't have that luxury, or even desire.

                      As mentioned upthread...it's very difficult not to discuss all these other non-musical factors, when they play such a huge role.
                      ...

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                      • #12
                        I think that there are many more "hit songs" out there, but without the right promoter$ they go nowhere. I also think that politics play into it sometimes. Big corporations may get behind an artist with the same ideals and morals as they have.

                        Dan
                        http://musicinit.com/fastfingers.php An Experiment in 80's Technology

                        http://youtube.com/techristian My YOUTUBE channel
                        Music videos at http://musicinit.com/video.php

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Ernest Buckley View Post


                          I completely hear what you`re saying… I`m interested in the part I put in bold.

                          Yeah, I knew I was not really responding to your direct OP. I'll make up for it.

                          Billboard started a genre-specific list in 1981 called something like "Top Rock Tracks" - it's supposed to be "album-rock" fare - here's the top hits from the entire 80s from that somewhat narrowly defined list with the number of weeks at number one (on this list) from five on up. Not much quintessential 80s-sounding stuff, oddly enough.

                          It's as good a place as any to cull together a list of hits for purposes of discussion, seems to me, at least hits that probably most people who frequent this board have heard:

                          Start Me Up - Rolling Stones (13)
                          Every Breath You Take - The Police (9)
                          Jump - Van Halen (8)
                          Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - The Waiting (6)
                          Everybody Wants You - Billy Squier (6)
                          Photograph - Def Leppard (6)
                          Dancing in the Dark - Bruce Springsteen (6)
                          I Want to Make the World Turn Around - Steve Miller Band (6)
                          Heaven Knows - Robert Plant (6)
                          Angel of Harlem - U2 (6)
                          You Better You Bet - The Who (5)
                          I Love Rock and Roll - Joan Jett (5)
                          Heat of the Moment - Asia (5)
                          Eye of the Tiger - Survivor (5)
                          She's a Beauty - The Tubes (5)
                          On the Dark Side - John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band (5)
                          The Boys of Summer - Don Henley (5)
                          Lonely Ol' Night - John Cougar Mellencamp (5)
                          Silent Running - Mike + the Mechanics (5)
                          Midnight Blue - Lou Gramm (5)
                          With or Without You -U2 (5)
                          Paper in Fire - John Cougar Mellencamp (5)
                          Desire - U2 (5)
                          I Won't Back Down - Tom Petty (5)
                          Mixed Emotions - The Rolling Stones (5)
                          Rock and a Hard Place - The Rolling Stones (5)
                          Pretending - Eric Clapton (5)

                          Just a quick lookover, and it's clear that:

                          1 - love, lust, blues, anger - there's your menu of topics people never tire of.
                          2 - most all have good hooks with memorable lyrics for the hook, no surprise there..
                          3 - it helps to be a known quantity with a loyal fan base
                          4 - not too rocking, not too loud, not too soft, not too long, not too slow, not too fast, not too weird, not too far from the middle of the road for the greater part

                          Some good stuff in the list, no question. Not too many life-changers unless U2 changed your life back then.

                          Points up the issue of the target audience and what they want. For the album-rock crowd, it's pretty clear they didn't need mind-blowing innovation in the 80s - just good, solid, memorable, evocative material that sounded good in the car. And maybe some nostalgia.

                          nat whilk ii


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                          • #14
                            Just goes to show you how powerful the marketing and advertising departments of record companies actually were. Everything form the artists that created album covers, promoted tours, got air play, sold the albums to record chains earned their pay based on making those albums marketable and obtainable to the public, and earned money for radio Radio stations by keeping ears glued to that station through their advertisements.

                            Many of the songs recorded and considered hits in the past weren't overly technical or creative. Many could have been recorded by other bands and sounded just as good or better. Many times Its how they fit into a radio set list rotation of other hits songs popular during that time. Even timing when that song was released was important. In the 70's/80's it wasn't uncommon to have a big buildup to a live radio concert and those new songs got added in with that bands older hits.

                            You don't want to rule out new bands backing major headliners either. I saw Bands like Frampton's Camel, Joe Walsh, Foghat, Henry Gross, Golden Earring and maybe a hundred others who were practically unknown by anyone. They would open for a major headliner and the audience of 20,000 heard a good concert and went and bought their albums, only to find out afterwards many of those artists came from older hit bands and making a new comeback much better then the old.

                            Airplay in these cases often follow their road success. In other cases, bands created an underground following and had work for years without having a major hit. J Giles is an example. Thy must have had 20 albums all with cool catchy tunes before they finally made that one major hit that exposed their long career to the masses. The Tubes was another great live and recording band. I don't think they hit the pop charts until the band had practically retired and became Homogenized to a PG rating.

                            Some bands do it the other way around. Todd Rundgren had a couple of hits with Nazz and had one major hit on his Runt album. He made maybe 25 great albums solo and with Utopia that never hit the charts. Then when that band broke up he did a solo album with a corny sarcastic song I don't want to work, I just want to bang on the drums all day and that song was played on the radio all the time.

                            Today, its all about single tunes. and much less about the Creativity of the performers. I appreciate the entire works of bands that consistently put out decent material. Even if they aren't my favorite bands, they get my respect. If they do make it on the charts its usually well earned and you are rarely going to get burned buying anything else they recorded.

                            That however isn't what charts are about. Charts simply tell you how many songs were sold which includes the talentless bands that truly did get lucky enough to get hooked up. If you want to find the good stuff its a matter of judging the talent and knowing whether that performer is likely to produce allot of good work.
                            Last edited by WRGKMC; 12-02-2014, 10:47 AM.

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                            • #15
                              I took a marketing class in college that was taught by an independent record promoter. Although payola was technically illegal, according to him it was a big part of how the business technically worked.

                              Man the stories he could tell ! Cocaine, hookers, etc... He spent most of his time on the road visiting radio station promoters throughout the southeast and the record companies gave him assignments to get certain songs played on certain radio stations. They also gave him goals for certain songs to achieve certain chart positions.

                              He had promotional packages that were provided by the record companies and the companies had song and band priorities. Bands that the record companies had invested more in would get pushed harder. Bigger bands with bigger budgets had bigger packages and cooler stuff. Sometimes the record companies would even sponsor contests and provide prizes.

                              There was a lot of strategy involved. Once a week all the promoters would get together with the record company people to devise their plans. They would study national and regional radio charts to see which songs were moving up and which were tanking. If a song started rising in Birmingham they might decide to push it harder in Macon. If a song started tanking in Atlanta they might decide to abandon it altogether.

                              There was also a lot of competition from other record promoters so he had to build strong relationships with the program directors. He would try to get to know them and know their likes and dislikes. Lots of steak dinners, strip clubs and schmoozing. But in the end the program directors decided what was played. If a director really hated a song he might just refuse to play it. Or maybe another promoter did a better job of promoting their company's song. There were only so many slots on the playlists so they couldn't all be played.

                              One of the more interesting things he talked about was the relationship between airplay and sales... It was not nearly as predictable as people might think. He told us stories about pushing records and getting them way up in the charts yet they wouldn't sell. There was a record at the time he told us about that was in the top ten but hardly sold any copies. (I wish I could remember the name of it now because it was a pretty big hit).

                              But most of the biggest sellers had lots of radio airplay.

                              The industry is much more consolidated and less regional than it was back then (This was over twenty five years ago) so I'm not sure how much of this type of record promotion still goes on.
                              Last edited by Folder; 12-05-2014, 08:06 PM.

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