What makes a monster hit single? It is a question which most bands and songwriters muse over. Some bands are “One Hit Wonders” other churn out hit after hit. Some bands start with a bang and then disappear, where as others chug along for years and then suddenly a track catches the public imagination. Some songs are hits for several bands, some songs are not hits for the original artist, but are picked up when they are covered.
I am asked all the time “Is it possible to rite a surefire hit?” The answer is no, but some people are very good at it and have managed it on numerous occasions. If it was as simple as writing a great tune, recording it and then getting a worldwide smash, that would simplify things. You’d just know that when you wrote an awesome song, you were set up. Sadly there is also a big element of luck and “right place, right time”.
If you are an artist or band looking for a breakthrough track, you can’t guarantee that you’ll be successful, even if you are brilliant. All you can do is try and stack the odds in your favour as much as possible. How do you do this?
We’ll assume that you are not a multi millionaire, platinum disc owning superstar (if you are you probably don’t need any advice and should be writing a guest blog for us). What can you do to stack the odds a bit in your favour.
1. Understand the genre of music you are playing. The rules are completely different for a dance to a metal band. You would be amazed how many bands and artists think they are playing a genre and their music is nothing like the genre that they think it is. In certain genres of music, particular styles, beats and attitudes are considered “last weeks thing”, so make sure that you have something which fits the current trend. I am all for being ahead of the game, but if you are making dance records and your music sounds like the music in the charts three years ago, it will make it a million times more difficult to have a hit. I would never advise a band not to do something, but if your priority is commercial success, you have to be aware of the current trends in the genre of music you are playing.
2. Make sure your music sounds good in the environment people will first have contact with it. A classic own goal bands make is to record and master their music so it sounds great on studio monitors or on their expensive home system. These days people usually hear songs on crappy laptop speakers, headphones or on a car radio. It is vital that your mixes sound good on these.
3. What is your music saying? Who is it talking to? If the answer is no one then you wont have an audience. New artists have hits because something they are doing lights a fire in the imagination of the audience. A song can be a great song, with a strong beat and good hooks, but unless it connects, it will only do so much. How do you work out what connects with people you like? I advise bands to make a list of their five biggest influences. What track was their breakthrough? If you can understand why someone who’s music you admire was successful, then you have a chance. Bear in mind that the industry has changed completely over the last ten years, first with myspace, then youtube, facebook, soundcloud, iPods, iTunes etc. Try and pick someone current if you can. If you are playing a genre of music which hasn’t been successful commercially for a while, then you have to accept that it is likely to be a long and difficult slog. The great thing about music is that things change and styles come in and out of fashion. If you are doing something unique, there are no rules as to whether and when it will come into vogue. What you do need to do is make sure it connects with an audience.
4. If appropriate, use a gimmick. Serious muso’s sometimes say “we don’t do gimmicks” but using a new effect or groundbreaking sound is in its own way a gimmick. If you have a strong track with something new and dfferent in, it could well be the difference between a hit and just another track. An of such a thing is the slide guitar in the Joker by the Steve Miller Band. The band had been chugging along for years, scraping the edges of the charts, when the song was released. Because it has a slide guitar that imitates a wolf whistle, it sold millions and Mr Miller has been living in a mansion ever since. Most muso’s don’t consider that a gimmick, but it did the trick. Singers such as Adele have taken songs by artists such as Bob Dylan in “feel my love” and had a huge hit. I would guess most people would have a strong preference for one version or the other and not like both. The point is that it was a song that suited her voice. For me it wasn’t an obvious choice and the fact that it was Adele covering a Dylan song was a pretty cool gimmick ((for want of a better word).
Of course sometimes you just hear a new song or artist on Jools Holland, the radio or even a commercial and think wow, that is great. That is why I’d always say make the first priority to write a great track. If it is good enough, then you just have to have a bit of faith.