You’re not satisfied with playing it small – you want mainstream success in music. Or, at the very least, you want to create music that appeals to mainstream music fans.
Does this sound ambitious? That’s because it is.
Writing catchy pop songs is not the hard part. Getting them out to the masses is. If you’ve been a musician for any length of time, then you already know how challenging it can be to cut through the noise and stand out from the crowd. Music is just one factor – your personality, branding, image, and a variety of other elements all play a part!
But if you want it bad, there is only one course of action to take – start making pop songs and market them like crazy. Here’s what you need to know about reaching fans who love top 40 music.
Ensure Your Lyrics Apply To A Wide Range Of People
As they sought to establish themselves as a creative force in the music industry, Canadian rock band Nickelback was said to have studied pop songs extensively. And as they dug deep, they realized something important – pop songs tend to have universally applicable messages.
Now, don’t get me wrong – not everyone has loved or lost. Not everyone has been lonely and depressed. Not everyone has suffered heartbreak or the death of a close one.
And yet, the basic underlying emotions are shared by all of humanity. We all understand what it’s like to love, to lose, to be happy, to be sad, and so on. And, to a large degree, we all have the same base instincts and desires. This is what you want to hit upon in your music.
When you refer to ideas that are too specific in your lyrics, it can make it harder for a broader audience to relate. Sometimes a well-placed reference can win over a portion of your audience or make your song novel (i.e. “Gangnam Style”), but it won’t necessarily be understood or appreciated by everyone hearing your songs.
True, people still love Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69”, even if they were born after 1969. People still sing along to “Sweet Caroline”, even if they don’t know anyone by that name! That’s because, at the core, these songs are both about something we can all appreciate – love.
They Might Be Giants is one of my favorite duos. They are one of the world’s most popular independent bands, and for good reason. But they don’t exactly scream mainstream success. This is partly because their lyrics are layered, complex, humorous, dark, obscure, and unique. This has helped them find their core audience, and it has brought them success, but they aren’t exactly household names. So, if you want to write for a mainstream audience, you should avoid following their example.
I hate to say it, but the way to the heart of the mainstream fan is paved with appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Keep The Beat Simple & Repetitive
You have very little if no time at all to grab the attention of your listening audience – 30 seconds at most. It’s a wonder that so many musicians insist on creating weird, overly ambitious, epic intros to their songs. There are fans for that type of music, but guaranteed it’s not what radio program directors (or mainstream music fans) are generally looking for. Save your long intros for music videos or live performances.
So, first and foremost, you need to start your track off with a BANG! Establish the mood, the beat, and the hook of the song. If the hook of the song appears later, then bring it to the front. The verse can wait.
Next, you won’t find too many pop songs that deviate from a familiar format. For example, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”. After a brief intro, the vocals come in right away. The verse builds into a pre-chorus section, which then leads into the chorus. Rinse, repeat. After the second chorus, there’s a bridge section of sorts. But it doesn’t digress too far from the established beat, and, unsurprisingly, returns to the chorus. So, you basically have:
Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
Now, I’m not a fan of the song. But it is a good example of a song that’s simple and repetitive. The chorus isn’t really singing per se, it’s more like chanting (anyone can chant along!). It’s repetitive, and it sticks in your head.
I know it kills the romance and emotion of music when you deconstruct it this way, but you must when you’re looking to create music for the masses. You must stand in the shoes of the listening audience and recognize what they’re looking for in a song.
Another great example that illustrates my point is KISS’ signature song, “Rock and Roll All Nite”. When you listen to this song – I mean really listen – you realize there isn’t much to it. Just a couple of verses and the chorus repeated over and over. How else do you think it got stuck in your head? Repetition is a key ingredient of making a song memorable (just beware of overdoing it). To be fair, the hook to the song is also great. There would be no point in repeating a chorus that wasn’t worth repeating.
There isn’t any need for complex backing tracks to appeal to today’s top 40 fans. A drum machine, a bass, and a couple of keyboard parts tend to do the trick. Sometimes, you will hear songs with other instruments and more complex arrangements. But for the most part, there isn’t much to it.
Develop Melodic Hooks For Your Songs
Let’s say you have all the ingredients necessary to create a hit song – broadly applicable lyrics, a simple and repetitive beat, a familiar length and structure, and so on. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a hook, it doesn’t matter how polished these other elements are.
What is a hook? It’s an “ear worm” – something that sticks in your brain, preferably with as few listens as possible.
I’m a fan of Marianas Trench. Their music is laden with melodic hooks. Just about any song in their catalog would serve as a good example, but for the intents and purposes of this guide, let’s look at “Haven’t Had Enough”.
You’ll notice that the backing track is familiar. To be perfectly honest, the chord progression a lot like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, just with a different rhythm.
The point is that the melodic hook is memorable and sticks in your head almost instantly. The right combination of lyrics and melody makes it near certain that you’ll remember the song and want to hear it again.
Now, it’s all good and well to have a melodic hook. But sometimes the hook of the song isn’t the vocal part. Sometimes, it’s the drums, the keyboards, the guitar, the bass, or something else. If you can create a song with multiple hooks, it will increase your chances of landing a hit.