You’re not satisfied with playing it small – you want mainstream success in music. Or, at the very least, you want to create music that appeals to mainstream music fans.
Does this sound ambitious? That’s because it is.
Writing catchy pop songs is not the hard part. Getting them out to the masses is. If you’ve been a musician for any length of time, then you already know how challenging it can be to cut through the noise and stand out from the crowd. Music is just one factor – your personality, branding, image, and a variety of other elements all play a part!
But if you want it bad, there is only one course of action to take – start making pop songs and market them like crazy. Here’s what you need to know about reaching fans who love top 40 music.
Ensure Your Lyrics Apply To A Wide Range Of People
As they sought to establish themselves as a creative force in the music industry, Canadian rock band Nickelback was said to have studied pop songs extensively. And as they dug deep, they realized something important – pop songs tend to have universally applicable messages.
Now, don’t get me wrong – not everyone has loved or lost. Not everyone has been lonely and depressed. Not everyone has suffered heartbreak or the death of a close one.
And yet, the basic underlying emotions are shared by all of humanity. We all understand what it’s like to love, to lose, to be happy, to be sad, and so on. And, to a large degree, we all have the same base instincts and desires. This is what you want to hit upon in your music.
When you refer to ideas that are too specific in your lyrics, it can make it harder for a broader audience to relate. Sometimes a well-placed reference can win over a portion of your audience or make your song novel (i.e. “Gangnam Style”), but it won’t necessarily be understood or appreciated by everyone hearing your songs.
True, people still love Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69”, even if they were born after 1969. People still sing along to “Sweet Caroline”, even if they don’t know anyone by that name! That’s because, at the core, these songs are both about something we can all appreciate – love.
They Might Be Giants is one of my favorite duos. They are one of the world’s most popular independent bands, and for good reason. But they don’t exactly scream mainstream success. This is partly because their lyrics are layered, complex, humorous, dark, obscure, and unique. This has helped them find their core audience, and it has brought them success, but they aren’t exactly household names. So, if you want to write for a mainstream audience, you should avoid following their example.
I hate to say it, but the way to the heart of the mainstream fan is paved with appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Keep The Beat Simple & Repetitive
You have very little if no time at all to grab the attention of your listening audience – 30 seconds at most. It’s a wonder that so many musicians insist on creating weird, overly ambitious, epic intros to their songs. There are fans for that type of music, but guaranteed it’s not what radio program directors (or mainstream music fans) are generally looking for. Save your long intros for music videos or live performances.
So, first and foremost, you need to start your track off with a BANG! Establish the mood, the beat, and the hook of the song. If the hook of the song appears later, then bring it to the front. The verse can wait.
Next, you won’t find too many pop songs that deviate from a familiar format. For example, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”. After a brief intro, the vocals come in right away. The verse builds into a pre-chorus section, which then leads into the chorus. Rinse, repeat. After the second chorus, there’s a bridge section of sorts. But it doesn’t digress too far from the established beat, and, unsurprisingly, returns to the chorus. So, you basically have:
Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
Now, I’m not a fan of the song. But it is a good example of a song that’s simple and repetitive. The chorus isn’t really singing per se, it’s more like chanting (anyone can chant along!). It’s repetitive, and it sticks in your head.
I know it kills the romance and emotion of music when you deconstruct it this way, but you must when you’re looking to create music for the masses. You must stand in the shoes of the listening audience and recognize what they’re looking for in a song.
Another great example that illustrates my point is KISS’ signature song, “Rock and Roll All Nite”. When you listen to this song – I mean really listen – you realize there isn’t much to it. Just a couple of verses and the chorus repeated over and over. How else do you think it got stuck in your head? Repetition is a key ingredient of making a song memorable (just beware of overdoing it). To be fair, the hook to the song is also great. There would be no point in repeating a chorus that wasn’t worth repeating.
There isn’t any need for complex backing tracks to appeal to today’s top 40 fans. A drum machine, a bass, and a couple of keyboard parts tend to do the trick. Sometimes, you will hear songs with other instruments and more complex arrangements. But for the most part, there isn’t much to it.
Develop Melodic Hooks For Your Songs
Let’s say you have all the ingredients necessary to create a hit song – broadly applicable lyrics, a simple and repetitive beat, a familiar length and structure, and so on. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a hook, it doesn’t matter how polished these other elements are.
What is a hook? It’s an “ear worm” – something that sticks in your brain, preferably with as few listens as possible.
I’m a fan of Marianas Trench. Their music is laden with melodic hooks. Just about any song in their catalog would serve as a good example, but for the intents and purposes of this guide, let’s look at “Haven’t Had Enough”.
You’ll notice that the backing track is familiar. To be perfectly honest, the chord progression a lot like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, just with a different rhythm.
The point is that the melodic hook is memorable and sticks in your head almost instantly. The right combination of lyrics and melody makes it near certain that you’ll remember the song and want to hear it again.
Now, it’s all good and well to have a melodic hook. But sometimes the hook of the song isn’t the vocal part. Sometimes, it’s the drums, the keyboards, the guitar, the bass, or something else. If you can create a song with multiple hooks, it will increase your chances of landing a hit.
But just so you know, tension and release can still apply to pop music. In other words, you can sometimes emphasize a hook by writing a part that isn’t a hook – just a part that’s meant to accentuate the hook when it reaches the listener’s ears. Sometimes you can go from dissonant or dark and moody to consonant or happy.
Keep Your Song To Three And A Half Minutes Or Less
You’re probably starting to see just how formulaic pop music can be. But it is what it is because it works.
You won’t find too many popular songs out there that last longer than three and a half minutes. Some are shorter. Make note.
Some artists, like the J-Rock outfit B’z (one of the best-selling artists in the world) are perfectly capable of making a strong statement in three and a half minutes. It’s worth learning from their example if you think a two-minute guitar solo is a good idea (tip: It isn’t if you’re writing for the masses).
That’s right, you can still make a statement in three and a half minutes, no matter what anyone tells you. You can create an epic anthem that doesn’t have a longer playtime. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of longer classic rock songs like “Layla” and “Stairway to Heaven”, but I’m not sure these songs would make it on mainstream radio today.
Play nice with program directors, A&R reps, talent seekers, and so forth. Even those that might be inclined to give you a chance won’t if your song drones on for five minutes. Maybe in a rare instance they’ll still come to you with a proposal, but they’ll probably want to alter your music or create listener-friendly radio edits.
If your song is under three and a half minutes, it’s an instant checkmark. Influencers should at least give the first 30 seconds of your song a chance if you pass the first test.
Study Mainstream Music
Become a student of pop music if you aren’t already. This will help you identify common elements that exist between most popular songs.
It’s even worth delving into the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, because some of today’s pop music was inspired by movements that happened back then. Just think of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”. Funk is not a new genre – it’s quite old, in fact. When people think funk, they usually think 60s and 70s. It had its hay day decades ago. All that’s happening now is that older genres are being formulized, repackaged, and sold all over again.
If you’ve been following along to this point, then you should also recognize that the members of Nickelback were avid students of pop music. Sure, they may be a rock band as opposed to a pop act, but they nevertheless found mainstream success. The genre of the track doesn’t always matter as much as other factors already mentioned above.
Could you take what was popular in the past and make it popular again today? With the right approach, you can. That’s why it’s important to take cues from songs that have a proven track record.
If you’re serious about making pop music people love, then you’re never too good to take cues from those who’ve gone before you and succeeded.
Keep It Simple
Above all, keep your music simple. Keep your songs to three and a half minutes long. Don’t bore people with long intros. Stick to familiar formulas. Create memorable ear worms. Don’t get too carried away with fancy beats, progressions, or backing tracks. Don’t worry about layering too many instruments. Stay up-to-date with trends and don’t be afraid to add a little bit of your own flavor to your music.
To me, today’s top 40 music all sounds alike. With few exceptions, it’s the same song being sung by 40 different artists. This makes it easy to duplicate what other popular artists are already doing.
Just don’t fall into the trap of following what’s on the radio now and constantly duplicating it. This could set you behind the curve. Listen and take inspiration, but do not copy. Innovate a little.
I used to think the best music was complex. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes, three chord songs rock! Sometimes, simple song structures are better than more complicated ones. Sometimes, a simple melody beats a more sophisticated one.
Just think of The Eagles. Virtually all their songs are simple. And yet, they’re able to bring out the intricacies and nuances of the music by adding layers. At the core, it’s all straightforward.
Writing a pop song is relatively easy once you understand the process. Again, the challenge comes down to marketing. How will you get your song into the ears of eager listeners? How will you appeal to the masses? If you don’t have a strategy, then you’re waiting on a miracle. You can’t just make music and hope someone will discover you. Either you need to learn the business side of music, or have someone you trust take care of it.