by Marti Jane Dodson
Mar 15, 2017
I can’t count the number of times I have had this question asked of me… What makes a hit song? Someone will play me a GREAT song and express their confusion over the lack of interest they are getting from the industry when they play it for people. So, I thought I would lay out some of the reasons not all great songs become hit songs.
1) Hit songs have mass appeal.
Not all great songs do. Hit songs become hits because massive numbers of people like them, buy them, request them, etc. Some great songs only appeal to a small number of people. Even though they are very well written, they just don’t appeal to enough people to be of interest to recording artists or record labels.
2) Hit songs are not usually controversial.
The Dixie Chicks were selling more than 10 million copies of each album they made until they ventured into politics. In an instant, their career was over. The lesson many artists learned from watching that play out was – “Don’t offend your fans”. So, most artists aren’t going to sing a song that risks offending or alienating part of their fan base, even if the song is amazing.
3) A great song might not fit current radio or musical trends.
A song can be amazing, but be ahead of its time or behind the times. For a song to be a hit right now, it has to fit what radio is doing right now.
4) A song might be awesome, but it makes the singer look bad.
If the subject of the song is cheating, drinking and driving, abusing someone, etc – most singers won’t touch it. They don’t want people thinking that they really ARE that kind of person.
5) A great song might not be saying the same old thing in a fresh way. That’s often what makes a hit song.
I have heard GREAT songs that were really well written, but they were basically just re-writes of older hits. Even if they weren’t close enough to be considered infringing on the older song, they just didn’t say anything in a fresh, new way. For the most part, hits are great songs that say something in a creative, different way. Song Building is great book to level-up this part of your writing.
Learning the difference in a great song and a great song that is a potential hit is an important step.
Early in my career, I wrote a song called “The Shadow Of A Man”. It was about the singer seeing his dad cheating on his mom and losing respect for the dad in the process. It was a really well written song. My publisher loved it. But, he told me that it would probably never get cut. Why? Not many singers want to portray their dad that way. People might believe that it was true and the dad would have to live with people saying things to him about the song. I didn’t think about those things and a great song remains uncut 20 years later.
So, if you are just writing for yourself, you can write whatever you choose. If you want commercial success, you need to learn what makes a hit song stand out from a great song..
Write on! MD
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