As we all know, music is a matter of preference. Some people like rock. Others like country. Still others like a mix of everything. What sounds great to one person might sound unappealing to another.
While there is music that appeals to the lowest common denominator – it’s called pop – just because you produce music that closely matches what you hear on mainstream radio doesn’t mean you’ll become an automatic success.
At the outset, I should point out that music that’s hit-bound and music that’s good enough to sell are two different things. You can start selling music immediately, and there’s virtually no reason not to. But if you’re looking to appeal to the masses, it will likely require a different way of thinking.
Here’s what you can do to prepare your music for mass consumption.
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Listen To & Study Tracks That Have Become Hits
Comparison is often a slippery slope. It causes you to measure yourself against what others have accomplished, usually in an unfair light.
But if you want to land a hit, you must get an objective perspective on your music by comparing it alongside music that’s charting. I use the term “objective” loosely here, because we all know likes and dislikes in music are quite subjective.
You must set aside ego and preferences if a hit is what you’re after. You must suspend your critical mind. You must be willing to dig into today’s hits and understand why they’re connecting with so many people.
Here are several areas you need to look at.
Some of the biggest hits don’t have the most meaningful lyrics.
Canadian rock band Nickelback was said to have endlessly analyzed hit songs to craft lyrics for their own songs. To be fair, they aren’t the most liked band in the world. But polarization is a marketing technique that’s worked forever.
What they did was write lyrics that could mean anything and apply to just about anyone in their target demographic. They wrote songs that would cause people to exclaim, “this song is about me!” The songs, of course, are so generalized and relatable that just about anyone could connect them to experiences and memories they have.
I would encourage you to go through a similar process of analysis. Look at the top hit songs of today. What are they saying? Who are they aimed at? Why are they saying what they’re saying?
You’re not doing this so you can copy verbatim what others have already said. It’s so you can learn how to craft a song that people will connect with.
If you want your song to become a hit, you can’t leave the lyrics to chance.
If crafting a hit song is what you’re looking to do, your song must have “hooks” or “earworms” that stick in people’s minds.
It’s easy to become cynical about the hits of today and even yesterday. But when you’re analyzing them, you must resist the temptation to criticize and instead listen carefully for what makes these songs so memorable.
Repetition is one tool that’s continually used in pop music to get people to remember the song. Even in the span of 10 seconds, you’d be amazed to find how much repetition you can squeeze into a song. This means your repetitive elements do not need to dominate the song. But you’re repeating because you want listeners to remember.
Unfortunately, attention spans are short. You can’t expect people to go home and look up a song they can’t even remember. When you repeat a phrase, they’re more likely to associate it with the title of the song. That makes it easy for them to find it on their smartphone or on their computer at home.
What genres and styles of music dominate the top 40?
I hardly even have to look at the charts to tell you, but I will anyway – rap and hip hop, R&B, EDM… you get the idea. Frankly, the artist behind the song doesn’t matter that much because there are only four or five songs on the charts, and they’re just being sung in different ways by different voices!
I’m not saying that there isn’t any room for rock, metal, reggae, funk, and other genres on the charts. Just look at the recent success of “Uptown Funk” and other Bruno Mars hits.
But the overwhelming majority of hit songs are ones you would expect to hear in clubs. They have a good beat. They’re easy to dance to. And typically, they don’t have a weighty message.
Now, if you could care less about the charts, don’t worry about trying to fit in. But if that’s where you one day hope to find your name, you must create music that fits the current definition of pop. This may be a moving target, but in my opinion hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years or so. We’re seeing more “retro” elements pulled in, but to call today’s music 80s music is an insult to music that came out in the 80s.
Does the production quality of your recording sound just as good as major releases? Is it anywhere in the general ballpark?
Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was recorded with just a Tascam Portastudio and two Shure SM-57 microphones. Somehow it still became one his most critically acclaimed releases.
If you’re under the impression that you need to put tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars into your home studio to get the quality you desire or even need, you’re wrong.
But if you’re going to be recording alone, you should become intimately familiar with the quirks and eccentricities of your gear to pull the best sound out of it. Most musicians will choose not to record alone, so you should work with a producer or engineer that understands what you’re after and how to make you sound like a million bucks with gear that maybe only costs a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.
The key thing here is to be intentional. You must know what you’re after in terms of sound, or you’ll just waste time and energy on a project that isn’t going anywhere. Some of the most talented engineers on the planet still work on CRT monitors, so when I say your setup doesn’t need to be state of the art, I’m not lying. But: The production needs to match the music you’re making.
Even the best and most prepared musicians often lay down several takes of the same parts in the studio, whether instruments or vocals. The engineer will then “comp” the best parts of 20 or more takes to get the best possible version of that track. And these elements are sometimes enhanced later using effects, samples, or pre-recorded sounds.
If you’re self-producing, it’s tempting to go easy on yourself and not take many passes at the same part. Plus, you might miss things other things a producer or listener would pick up on.
But a recording is supposed to be representative of the very best you’re capable of. Because there’s no limit to how many tracks you can record, or how many passes you can take at a certain part, there’s no excuse to settle for anything less than a great performance.
If the performance is great, the sound doesn’t matter as much. You can take a great performance with bad sound quality and make it sound good, but you can’t take a poor performance with great sound quality and cover it up with production.
You’ve pored over your music in the studio, and now you’re looking to get it out into the word. Just wait – if you’re looking to engineer a hit, you aren’t ready yet.
Now is the time to get feedback so you can make tweaks to your music. If you’ve done the hard work of making the best music you possibly can, you may not have to make massive changes to it later. But getting a third-party perspective can make a huge difference to the outcome of how your music is received.
You can get feedback from several sources, and I would recommend that you do. Here’s where to turn to.
Your Friends & Family Members
How do your friends and family members feel about your music? Are they apathetic? Do they tend to butter you up even if they don't like it?
You’re not necessarily going to be able to get an honest opinion from the people who are close to you. But if you’re good at reading people, you’ll be able to pick up on their honest thoughts just by watching their facial expressions and body language as they listen to your music.
Getting their perspective is helpful, because they’re going to pit your music against whatever music they’re familiar with, which is probably going to vary from person to person. If they seem engaged and surprised, you know you’re onto something. But if they happen to give you a lukewarm response, it isn’t necessarily because they think it’s bad – it could be that it isn’t their style.
Thus, you should also get feedback from…
Bloggers, Magazines, Journalists & Other Publications
In some cases, you may not be able to get bloggers and other publications to review your music until it’s officially released. If that's the case, there are a couple of things you can do:
- Release a single before you come out with your full album, and get their feedback on one song.
- Put out your entire release, have them review it, and improve your next release based on the feedback you get.
If you create a relationship with these people, however, not only will it be beneficial for your career, you will also get more valuable feedback from them.
Assuming you’re sending your release to the right stations, you should be able to get a pretty good feel for their thoughts on it by whether they select your song for regular rotation or not. In some cases, you may be able to get their private thoughts on your music, but remember to ask nicely and be willing to help them with whatever they need (audio bumpers, interviews, press releases, etc.).
Independent & Major Label Representatives
Reach out to label owners and representatives to see if they would be willing to have a listen to your music. Ask for feedback. No one is going to be more direct with you than people who deal in music every single day (“get to the hook sooner”, “keep it to under three minutes”, “crank up the bass”, etc.).
Another way to get your music in front of decision makers and industry people is to play showcases. This can be expensive, and may not give you a good return on investment, but you should at least get some feedback that will help you make necessary adjustments to your music.
When is your music good enough to sell? When I came out with my first solo album, it wasn’t anything special. It captured the moment, and it remains in my catalog, but there were many imperfections on that album in terms of performance and production. There were some great moments as well, but it’s easy for me to see now it wasn’t destined for mainstream success.
Nevertheless, some people still found it worthwhile. Some people still bought it. Some people still took a chance to support me, a virtual unknown.
If you want to start selling music, now isn’t too soon. I would still encourage you to write great songs, polish them to “perfection”, cut off the fat (set aside songs that don’t measure up), and put the best version of yourself out into the world. But the best you of today isn’t the best you of tomorrow, and there will always be room for growth.
If you’re looking to create music that’s bound for the charts, that’s a whole other matter. And it is an uphill battle in a world where the major labels still have a death grip on radio stations and mainstream media. But if that’s what you want out of your career, you must take chances. And though quality control is important, I would encourage you to take more risks rather than fewer. You might strike out often, but your chances at a homerun will also increase with each song you release.