Going Against the Grain

It’s not something I particularly want to encourage, as you’ll no doubt have figured out by now, but hit songs are a necessity if you want to make a career out of your music. Be it as a performer or for selling your songs.

I may have mentioned before that the industry is money-driven . . . What a revelation! I’m sure you would never have guessed it for yourselves . . .

The industry makes money by selling records. Records are sold to the general public on the basis of hit songs. No hits, no sales. Generally. Please don’t write back stating that such and such artists have made a decent living without ever having a hit song. I know this, but that’s beside the point. Mike Oldfield and the others you could name generally started their careers in the 70’s when record companies were not as big as they now are and where originality was a factor. And they are really exceptions.

If you want to make it in today’s market you have to play by today’s rules. To a certain extent. I, by no means, wish to imply that you should sell-out. The only thing I can say about that is that you’re the one who’ll have to live with yourself tomorrow.

What I do mean, imply, whatever you wish to call it, is that you should compromise. To a certain extent. Remember that when you’re starting out, you’ll have to compromise a bit more as you are nothing in the eyes of the record company execs. As you get more successful, you can compromise less. Odds are though, that you always will have to compromise to a certain extent. Only a very few artists don’t. Most of these are on their own record labels. Peter Gabriel being a good example. He records on his own label, does what he wants to do then turns over the finished product for distribution to Geffen. That’s what Geffen do; distribute the package. David Bowie is still on a major label and still does what he wants because no matter what he does, he sells.

But for most artists, the record company is still the boss. However much you want to compromise depends on many criteria. How much do you want to remain true to your art? How much money do you want to make? How many fan clubs do you want? How many people attending your concerts? Celebrity is a drug and make no mistake, when you attain it, it does influence you. Just play in a local bar and see how many rounds you get paid after. See how many offers of casual sex you’ll get. These are things that don’t normally happen when you walk into a bar.

So, back to the subject at hand, the hit song. In interviews, most people in the business will say that nobody knows what makes a hit song, that you can’t predict whether a song will be a hit, blah blah blah.

There are many things the Industry doesn’t want you to know… This is one of them.

When they say that they don’t know what makes a hit song, they are referring to a certain category of songs, for example: Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen).

They are not referring to My Heart Will Go On (Celine Dion), Rebel Rebel (David Bowie) or Hotel California (Eagles).

Hit vs Classic

Also, do not mistake “Hit” for “Classic.” Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin), Roundabout (Yes), Lucky Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), The Carpet Crawlers (Original version) (Genesis), etc. are all songs that are classics. Some radio stations play these songs regularly. Most people enjoy these songs. The public in general like them but have no idea of who does them. Nor do they care. These are songs that have withstood the test of time. Originally, they popped up on the charts, somewhere around number 40, stayed there a week or two, then disappeared. At shows, though, these songs were much appreciated by the crowds and people started requesting them on certain specialized radio stations. But these songs were never hits.

There are a few interesting cases like the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin originally released in 1967 from the album Days of Future Passed. The song became very requested by the fans and audiences. But it’s only at its re-release on a compilation album in the early 70’s that it actually became a hit. Same sort of scenario for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Intriguing, nevertheless, exceptions.

Make or Break

Generally, when a band releases a new album, a song is chosen to play on the radio. If it isn’t successful, a second song will take its place. If that fails, a third one will be chosen. If none work, you’re in big trouble. In today’s market, that generally means that the record company will dump you.

If you get one hit out of the three, you stand a chance of getting that second album done. Again, the same process will happen. If you make it to the third album, that’s the “Make or Break”. Record companies do expect that with the first two albums you’ll get to know your fans and refine your style. If the third album goes nowhere, you’ll follow it.

At this point I want to mention the differences between the two major markets: North America and Europe. The European companies are more tolerant and artistically driven. Although they are beginning to resemble more and more the North American companies. The North American companies look only at the money factor. Originality has its place only in the measure where it will bring money into the company’s pockets.

More and more, your chances to make it to the next album depend on the current one’s success. Therefore, every album is becoming a “Make or Break”. I personally don’t believe this tendency will remain in effect much longer. People will want something more and will start putting their money in something different.

The ugly world of dance music

If you look at dance music, it all started in the seventies with disco. These were actual bands, artists, performing actual music with real instruments. Then the digital craze happened. Now, in the US at least, there are no more people making Dance music. Or not very many. Essentially, the record companies own studios where they have “composers” using computers and drum machines and MIDI synthesizers to come up with a different beat and the occasional different music. Then this is given over to a team of “writers” who add insignificant lyrics. A singer is then brought in the picture to lay vocal tracks (because they haven’t yet figured a way to do it via computer).

The finished product is turned over to a marketing team who make up names, come up with a promotional package and flood dance radio stations and clubs with the thing. If there is a need for public appearances by the “performer”, actors are hired. Ever wonder why they’re all people with above-average looks and bodies?

So these people are all paid according to Union standards and the record companies rake in a lot of money for very little expense.

Marketing = $$$

The lessons the companies learn from this are applied to other forms of music. Marketing means a lot nowadays.

Take for example My Heart Will Go On from that awful movie Titanic. The song was at number one at least as long as the film was. The general public tend to believe it’s because it was a good song. The real reason was that it was sung by Celine Dion. And that she has an incredible marketing team behind her.

Last year, Bravo channel were showing two Sarah Brightman concerts back to back. Of course, I had to watch! Ms Brightman, for those who don’t know her, has been singing since the late seventies. She was at one time married to Andrew Lloyd Weber. She performed in many of his musicals. A lot of her career has been spent in France, therefore she learned the language. She’s also been singing a lot of opera. Opera is usually performed in Italian. So she learned the language. A class act.

Sarah is not well known to the general public, but is very respected in the milieu. So during one of the two shows, the décor was that of a ship and she was on it singing in Italian. It’s only after about two minutes that I realized she was singing My Heart Will Go On. Unbelievable! The song was actually good… (If you don’t understand the lyrics…)

However, if Sarah had originally performed the song, even in English, it would never have been the hit it was.

Sarah vs Celine

Consider: Sarah is not with a huge American label. Celine is. Sarah’s career choice brings her to many places: rock, pop, opera. Celine’s manager’s career choice brings her in one direction: money. Sarah does it for art. Celine does it for cash. Cold and simple. Sarah enjoys the performance and hopes that people will enjoy it. Celine enjoys believing she’s on top of the world and doesn’t care whether people like it or not.

Beyond that, Sarah’s voice is rich and carries emotions. Which is why I didn’t recognize the song at first. Celine’s voice is high and based on performance rather than emotion. When she sings the song, she’s probably wondering if she wore the right dress and whether her thighs look fat. Sarah is beautiful, Celine looks like an anorexic horse. On a bad day. (I’ve been seeing and hearing her since she was twelve: She actually looks better now than she ever has…)

I could go on and on about all this, but I’ll save some of it for a future time. I think you should get the point by now.

Writing the hit song

Hit songs, not classics, but songs that are written with the express idea of becoming hits are not songs that are written with the idea of doing something nobody else has ever done. They are written using formulas.

This is where you have to take your creativeness and stick it in a drawer somewhere. I hope you read David Hodge’s column on structure (Unearthing the Structure) or that you are familiar with structure.

First we look at the structure. The basic formula is very simple and dates back several centuries, probably more. The structure is as follows:

  • A short musical intro, based on the verse, with one instrument performing a lead
  • A four line verse
  • A second verse
  • A four line chorus
  • A third verse
  • Chorus
  • An instrumental, based on the verse, with one instrument performing a lead
  • A bridge
  • Chorus
  • Chorus
  • A short musical outro, based on the chorus, with one instrument performing a lead
  • Fade

There are many variants to this, such as starting with the chorus, performing a verse, back to chorus, etc. Some songs forgo the Bridge altogether. But this is the basic formula from which all others are derived.

The Music

Musically, you should try to remain conservative. Verses should use two chords and the chorus two more. The bridge should be a mix of the verse and the chorus, i.e. using the same chords, but with a different arrangement.

This is not the time to start exploring the guitar’s neck and finding out just how far your fingers will spread. It is rather a time to be conservative and use the basic major chords the way you probably originally learnt them:

  • A: X02220
  • B: X24442
  • C: X32010
  • D: XX0232
  • E: 022100
  • F: X03211
  • G: 320001

If you’re going for a ballad, transform these into minors.


Put away the dictionary, you don’t want it. What you do want are clichés and common expressions. What you have to understand is that most people who’ll listen to it and that are susceptible to buy the album are not very educated. You must therefore aim for the lowest common denominator: a High School education.

Ingenious twists of phrases won’t work. The trick is to make the listener believe that he/she is thinking while you do all the thinking for them.

Generally, if you go for a love song, you can’t go too wrong. A Harlequin Romance type is pretty much a sure thing. Harlequin sell millions of books every week throughout the world. Women like this kind of story. Guys tolerate them because of the girls. Present them with a song that has some key elements of Harlequin Romances.

My Heart Will Go On is a good example of this. Actually, the whole Titanic film is just one big visual Harlequin Romance.

Frasier is one of the top-rated TV shows in North America and essentially rolls on the story of Niles and Daphne (I don’t mean to take anything away from the actors who are, for the most part, very good). Does it really make sense that a rich, well-educated psychiatrist will fall for a girl who is almost a peasant (compared to him), with no superior education and a whole thought-process that has nothing in common with his own? Yet this is what sells the show.

It can also sell your songs.

“Oh how I loved you” then explain why she ran away or a slight twist: “Oh how I loved you, but I was the one who decided to go” are time-tried winners.

As I said, this is not the time to be original, but a time to present fantasies.

Now all of this will not guarantee you success. But it will give you a fighting chance. The reality is that if you want to present something to the record companies, you need to have a few of these songs. Actually, if your whole demo is formula-written, you’re only augmenting your chances of success. I know that a lot of you are cringing right now as you’re reading this, but it’s a simple reality. If you don’t believe it, try it. Talk to people in the business. It’s what I’ve been doing.

It’s a grim portrait, but it’s today’s reality. Hopefully it won’t be tomorrow’s, but only time will tell.

Beethoven vs who?

As I said, formula-written songs have been the standard in popular (as in what the general population listens to) music for centuries at least.

There was a band from Ontario in the seventies who took old French songs dating back all the way to the 12th and 13th centuries and played them with a nice rock edge. But even these songs were formula-written. Generally speaking, though, these songs don’t survive their creators.

Back in the early 1800’s if you’d stepped into a tavern in Vienna and asked people what they thought of Ludwig van Beethoven, nine out of ten people would have told you they had no idea of who he was. Even if the tavern would have been in front of a concert hall. The tenth person would have recommended you don’t waste your time going to listen to his music.

They would have mentioned this or that band or singer who were much better and playing in many cities throughout Europe.

Beethoven didn’t make money out of his music. Those bands and singers did. Two hundred years later, though, nobody remembers those singers while Beethoven is the biggest record seller in the world.

Two hundred years from now, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Phil Collins will be curiosities in history books. But beside Phil Collins, there will be an asterisk. At the bottom of the page there will be a footnote saying: “Played with Genesis”. The reader will smile, knowing Genesis, as that music will still be played. Up to Wind and Wuthering, that is.

As a creator, it makes more sense to want to be Beethoven than to want to be Celine Dion. The reality of today’s market is that the only way to do this is to compromise until you’re successful enough not to comprise. At the start of your career, you should be very creative. But you should also have a few formula-written songs.

These are the ones that will take you to the recording contract. Your REAL songs are the ones that will take you where you want to go.

A lot more needs to be said and will be over the next months.