Insightful look at what makes hit songs in the digital age

If you’re a musician wondering how to make your music more marketable, or you’re a listener wondering how the industry markets to you, industry executive Jay Frank has some interesting insights to share. His central thesis is that changes in technology lead to changes in consumption patterns which necessitate changes in the way music with commercial intentions is created. He covers changes in music delivery (jukeboxes, radio, soundtracks, commercials, iPods, video games), creation technologies (live, recorded, multi-tracked, DIY studios), and the industry’s business models. He provides specific suggestions for making your music saleable amid the changing landscapes.

Frank doesn’t purport to make your music more artistic; instead, he suggests how to make your output catch and retain someone’s attention – be they radio or digital stream listeners, the CD/MP3-buying public, a radio station’s music director, or a television show’s music coordinator. In that sense, he’s a hit-song mercenary, but after reading his book you’ll understand that getting heard amid the fire hose of music passing through the Internet isn’t always a simple task of just making great music. His analysis of industry changes suggests the impact they’ve had on song construction. He explains the results of transitioning from 78s to 45s to LPs, describes how listening habits and hit selection were altered by the 45 changer, and why song intros grew longer as automated programming systems favored records that left more room for ads to be read live by DJs.

The need to make your songs catchy and sticky is underlined by the ease with which modern listeners can change channel (due to digital radio tuners) and instantly skip a song (due to the capacities of MP3 players and streaming music services). Frank points out that we now live in a “zero play” environment in which listeners are more likely to hear a song from the beginning, rather than a radio environment where a channel change is likely to drop you into the middle. The result, according to Frank, is a heavier emphasis on the first seven seconds of a song (the time during which a listener is most likely to hit the skip button) and the first 60 seconds (the time at which a play is counted towards chart position). The sheer volume of music being created and marketed directly from artists to listeners begs artists to think about how to get and hold someone’s attention.

Frank points out that hitting skip in the radio world – changing to another station – is a negative vote on the station and an indication of reduced loyalty; in the Internet world, however, skipping a song gives the provider a chance to tee up a song you will like, and thus increase your loyalty. At the same time, Internet services have instant access to your skip pattern, and can fine-tune their presentation; radio must guess, do phone research, or employ portable people meters. Digital delivery is inherently a real-time ratings box. Internet services also have the advantage of stretching the repetition of their programming across individual’s listening sessions that span days, weeks or months, rather than driving a line down the middle of an hourly broadcast audience.

Frank is a sophisticated, deep-thinker about the inner workings of the industry and its interplay with consumer psychology. The recommendations he offers here for improving your music’s chance with modern listeners are about mechanics, rather than art: use more chord changes and dynamic range, create more releases more often, record covers songs, increase repetition of hooks, produce alternate versions, dip your toe across genres, and so on. Frank suggests that direct licensing of songs to listeners is shifting to a multiplicity of licensing models, including streams, on-demand, film, television, commercials, and video games, and that taking advantage of these new channels, if that’s one of your goals, will likely require changes to your music.

Given Frank’s background as a gatekeeper rather than a producer – he served as head of music programming for Yahoo! and is currently the SVP of music strategy at CMT – his advice might sounds like Monday morning quarterbacking. But his years as a programmer placed him on the front lines of what worked and what didn’t, and led to this compelling analysis of how production mechanics interact with delivery channels and listener habits and trends. Whether you’re a musician looking to increase your music’s commercial potential, or a music fan wondering just how such commercial potential is created, this is an insightful look inside the music industry. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]



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