People often ask me if I KNOW that I’ve written a hit song when I finish it. The answer to that is a resounding “NO”. I generally know when I finish a song whether it is great or just good. Beyond that, so much goes into making a song a hit that is out of my control. So, all I can do is try to write a great song everyday and then get it into the right hands. After that, it’s up to other forces to make it a hit.
In my experience, here is what makes a song a hit:
- The songwriter writes a song that is catchy, compelling and commercial. That means the song is well crafted, it connects to a broad audience and it causes action on the part of the listener. It may make them cry, laugh, dance, tap their feet, or go purchase the song. In any case, it causes them to react. It also has to be commercial in the sense that an artist would want to sing it and an audience would want to hear it.
- The song gets into the right hands. A great song that no one ever hears will not become a hit. It’s much harder to write a “hit-worthy” song than it is to get that song into the right hands. Clay and I often pitch great songs to publishers and artists for SongTown members. And they are always open to hearing a potential hit. GREAT songs open doors. You won’t have to use a battering ram to get your songs heard if they are truly great. Once a great song gets into the right hands, whether they are heard by an artist, a producer, a record label A&R person, a publisher or a manager, the game is on. This is when things start to happen.
- The right artist is matched with the song. When I wrote “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”, a plugger at my company instantly thought it would fit Billy Currington. She played it for his A&R person and the rest is history. The song was only pitched once. It was such a perfect fit for Billy that everyone involved was on board.
- A great recording is made of the song. If the recording of the song doesn’t turn out great – great vocal, right tempo, right instrumentation for the genre, and an awesome mix – the song will likely die in the studio. I’ve had a number of song that went into the studio and never came out because something was botched in the recording process.
- The record label promotion team gets behind the song. If the promotion team is forced or coerced into promoting the song, it’s not likely to become a hit. They have to be fully on board to get a song to the top of the charts. If they are crazy about the song, it’s got a great chance of being a hit!
- The timing has to be right. If your song is flying up the charts and gets stuck behind the song of the year that is just camping out at the top, you might be denied a #1 when you would have had one otherwise. Or, the artist could have a personal or legal issue happen while your song is rising up the charts and radio could refuse to play it. The stars have to align to get a song to the top of the chart.
Moral of the story? It takes a lot of luck and a lot of good things happening to make a song a hit. AND, the songwriter can only control #1 and can only impact #2 to some degree. So, the smart songwriter invests the VAST majority of his or her time in writing better songs. Writing a better song each day than you wrote the day before is the best way (the only way I know of) to really have a hit song someday. If you don’t have that, none of the other matters. And, if you do have a truly great song, you’ve got a shot!