By Chris Mench
When the music industry really wants you to hear a song, you will hear that song—over and over again. It’ll find your ears in pizzerias, at the pharmacy, ringing tinnily in gas station parking lots.
Hit songs have always been important for artists’ careers. But in today’s world of fractured revenue streams, they’ve become a golden ticket. A viral song or video can quickly turn an unknown artist into a celebrity, eliciting label deals and profitable tours alongside more established acts.
By the same token, a pop artist without a hit can hardly be called a pop artist at all. Once you’ve written a viral song, it’s all the crowds will want. There’s a huge incentive for artists to recreate the original magic and keep the (similar) hits coming.
For something so formulaic, you’d think anyone could write a catchy hook. But big radio is dominated by a small cabal of super-producers—these days it’s Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco. They’re responsible for the lion’s share of today’s pop hits.
They work scientifically: the radio hits of the moment are carefully crafted concoctions, hook-filled earworms with chord progressions written to stick in your head and evoke a certain mood.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this—Chris Anderson’s long tail theory predicted that the digital marketplace would create more space for alternative music to succeed commercially, alongside traditional hits.
But John Seabrook’s recently released book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory has claimed the opposite is true. Seabrook claims 90% of all music industry revenue comes from just 10% of the songs, a disparity that has only increased since the dawn of the digital music era.
So what happened?
It starts with the way songs were created before and after turn of the millennium. For many years, songs were written in a “melody-and-lyrics” style—an artist and songwriter sketching out the chord progression and melody of a song together, sometimes with the help of a lyricist.
90% of all music industry revenue comes from just 10% of the songs, a disparity that has only increased since the dawn of the digital music era.
Seabrook claims the early 2000s brought a shift. “Melody-and-lyrics” was largely replaced by a more efficient “track-and-hook” method. A producer is responsible for a song’s beat and chord progression. They’ll create a large batch of beats and send them to “topliners,” who create the melody and hooks.
Topliners (think Sia and Ester Dean), run through these beats, hoping to find immediate inspiration for catchy hooks and melodies to form a base for the song. Seabrook estimates their success rate at about one hit song for every 10 beats they go through.
“Track-and-hook… allows for specialization, which makes songwriting more of an assembly-line process,” Seabrook writes. “Different parts of the song can be farmed out to different specialists—verse writers, bridge makers, lyricists… It’s more like writing a TV show than writing a song.”
After the topliners find a hook, the song makes the rounds. “A single melody is often the work of multiple writers,” Seabrook claims, “who add on bits as the song develops.”
Catchiness and repetitiveness have become increasingly important as listeners’ attention spans have shortened. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre[chorus], a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge too,” says Jay Brown, the CEO and co-founder of Roc Nation. “People on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you have to hook them.”
Whether this equates to good songwriting is debatable, but it’s definitely good psychology. Elizabeth Margulis, the director of the University of Arkansas’ Music Cognition Lab, says “when we know what’s coming next in a tune, we lean forward when listening, imagining the next bit before it actually comes. This kind of listening ahead builds a sense of participation with the music… It’s experienced by many people as highly pleasurable, since it mimics a kind of social communion.”
Our brain’s response gives it away: a 2011 study found that familiarity with a song will cause reflexive engagement with it, even if the listener doesn’t particularly like the song.
This enjoyable sense of familiarity and communal engagement causes the brain to release dopamine, a chemical that helps regulate pleasure and motivation. The neural response rewards songs that are repetitive and hook-filled; thus, a song’s chance of commercial success on the radio or online increases alongside its recall, whether or not it makes the listener feel good. The human brain is a breeding ground for simplistic pop songs.
Familiarity with a song will cause reflexive engagement with it, even if someone doesn’t particularly like the song.
But if nearly every song is following such a strict formula for success, then how does any one of them stand out? Why do such a small class of producers run the radio?
Clay Stevenson, a former commercial musician who now works as a music professor at Elon University, says the key is to switch things up without straying from the proven formula.
“Within the vein of all the other successful pop music, [it helps when] someone does something that’s just a little bit different. So maybe they throw in a different instrument, maybe they throw in an extended bridge, or an extended part to their hook.” Once listeners have gotten used to Max Martin’s style, they lean in to expect more of it.
Pianist and musician Chilly Gonzales points to ILoveMakonnen and Drake’s “Tuesday” as an example of these in his Pop Master Class series. “The chords that Makonnen focuses on are the unstable chords… chords that kind of skim around C Major or A Minor but never really land on them. That’s why it never really resolves and you have the feeling that it could go on forever.”
From all this talk of hit formulas and psychological appeal, it can seem like the old-school singer/songwriter doesn’t stand much of a chance. Luckily, this isn’t entirely true. Independent artists benefit from a sense of what Stevenson calls “perceived authenticity.”
“They’re able to express their thoughts and their emotions on their own terms to some degree as opposed to like Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, pop stars who have their songs written for them.” This can help give artists like Adele or Hozier (whose music doesn’t seem like it would fit on contemporary pop radio) a boost by way of authentic artistry.
But familiarity and hook-ability remain the sure thing, the key to industry success. In The Song Machine, songwriter Bonnie McKee explains that “People like hearing songs that sound like something they’ve heard before, that are reminiscent of their childhood, and of what their parents listened to. I mean, every once in awhile something new will happen, like dubstep… but people still just want to hear about love and partying.”
The key to success remains finding that sweet spot between the familiar and the exciting, and the formulaic and the cutting-edge. Find that, and the song machine will find you.