Courtesy of Jesse Sterling Harrison
What are those magic elements that all hit songs seem to have in common?
You’ve been working hard on your sound, composing music in the shower, practicing your arpeggios, and checking out your stage moves in the mirror. You’ve perfected your recordings, magnifying your tracks on your DAW to fix mistakes that only you can hear. And you’ve listened to your favorite artists a million times to figure out what makes their material so good.
With all that work, it can be disheartening to hear the same awful ballad played three times an hour on your local radio station. Isn’t your single a lot better than that one? That guy is playing halftime shows and making $10,000 a week in royalties, so why aren’t you?
#1). Hits connect with their audience (whoever that might be)
Musicians often complain about diversity on the radio, assuming that "their kind of music" doesn’t get airplay. It’s true that Top 40 stations have a really short playlist at any given time, and you’ll probably hate a good portion of that material – especially after you’ve heard it in every elevator, retail store, and coffee shop. But like it or not, there’s a reason those songs get airplay: they connect with their listeners. Music lovers vote with their wallets, page clicks, and downloads. The results are stylistically quite varied: big hits run the gamut from country to hard rock, rap to swing, rockabilly to rhythm and blues.
#2). Hits have vocals mixed out front
When local musicians play their demos for people, listeners often complain that the vocals are too quiet. Musicians tend to have an "artist’s complex" about mixing, feeling that every performer should have a fair shake in the mix. But popular music comes together around a strong vocal performance. That means that instrumental performances – however strong or critical to the composition – need to take a back seat to the vocal. A compelling vocal is the first thing that audiences click with.
#3). Hit singers enunciate
The second complaint that listeners have about DIY musicians? "I can’t understand the lyrics." Offering to email the lyric sheet is not a viable solution! To connect with a singer, listeners need to comprehend what the singer is going through. Here and there in pop music, you’ll find lyrics that seem completely meaningless, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Even very obscure lyrics, or fast-paced raps that are too busy to keep up with, will generally have a very accessible chorus with memorable lines that set the scene (or at least the theme and mood) or the song. If your vocals are mixed clearly and the words are still hard to grasp, your singer may want to consider working on enunciation. People can hear your passion; they want to know what you’re passionate about!
#4). Hit songs are a little bit unpredictable
Bob Dylan was such an amazing lyricist that people barely noticed how boring his song forms were. He relied on the simplest folk music structure: verse alternating with chorus over and over. But his hooks and poetry were so strong that it didn’t matter. Today’s songs offer a lot more variation in format, and our easily bored ears expect it. Your song structures should have a couple of left turns in them. If you have a repeated chorus, vary the lyrics a little to move the song along instead of repeating the same refrain. Throw in a change in rhythm or a change in key. To accentuate key lyrics, let some of the instruments sit out for a moment. Maybe vocals and drums are all you need!
#5). The "best" singers are not always the best singers
If you look at the history of popular music, the most famous singers are not the ones who possess the best technique. They are the ones who are the most distinctive. Mick Jagger. Busta Rhymes. Amy Winehouse. Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Courtney Love. These singers are instantly recognizable. They focused their efforts on creating a strong, unique style. Their personalities come to the forefront. Like actors in a movie, these performers make us feel like we know them. That means that we have a context for whatever they are going through in their songs. It gives us empathy. When it comes to a lead vocal, make sure you value charisma and inspiration more than a perfect take.
Derivative artists have short careers. It may sound trite, but being yourself is absolutely critical in music. Learn from your influences but don’t try to sound just like them. Furthermore, have lots of influences. There’s so much great music on this planet that it’s a shame to base your sound on two or three bands. Genius occurs at the intersection of two bright ideas. Keep being an active listener and seek new sounds continuously to increase your chances at brilliance. Your fans will thank you… and they’ll multiply.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.