Just as every known science can be broken down into a formula, so can the business of music, as sad as that is to say. Why is it sad? Well, music was once viewed as an art form, but sadly, it’s been so transformed into a money making machine that a person with no actual talent, but a knack for technology could become a multimillionaire overnight. That’s no shot at EDM artists or anyone else that is a whiz with computers. I’m talking about the people who can’t read music, who can’t sing (without autotune and pitch shifting/correcting software), who have no idea what they’re doing, but through the process of trial and error, create an ear worm that people can’t resist. Yes, the current state of the industry needs some reformation, but alas, I digress.
In this post, I’m talking about the formula that has become quite apparent in pop music when it comes to the relevancy of an artist, which therefore extends to their commercial success in most cases (there are a few exceptions). Now, there is a great bit of common sense in this, and you would think that if I, an unknown singer/songwriter/college student could see this trend so easily and figure out how to strategically work around this, why haven’t people currently in the industry been thinking this way? Well, when it boils down to it, common sense isn’t nearly as present in our society as blatant narcissism or corporate greed, but that’s a blog post for another time on another site. No, the truth is a lot of careers follow this method, but most of them that start out promising but seem to fade out into oblivion are actually the ones that don’t.
So, what is this formula? Who have used this to their advantages? Who are the exceptions to the rule?
Part One: Breaking Out & The Necessity of The First Singles
If you’re a new artist, your first single is the big chance to show people what you’ve got. For Meghan Trainor, it was “All About That Bass”. For Lady Gaga, it was “Just Dance”. For Bruno Mars, it was “Just The Way You Are”. Everyone has their first step into the industry and it has to be big in some way shape or form, whether it’s because it’s something new no one has heard or done, or because listeners can’t seem to get it out of their heads. Once that single catches and people start learning your name and wanting to know your brand, the window is open, the clock starts, and you’ve got to work your ass off and fast. Why? Because as technology advances, our attention spans become shorter and shorter, and just as quickly as you, this new artist with your catchy new #1 song, came along, another one is waiting in the wings to come and snatch it from you, and you want people to remember you for something more. So what’s next?
Well remember how all those artists I mentioned have a bunch of hit songs? Meghan Trainor: “All About That Bass”, but also “Lips Are Moving”, “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”, etc. Lady Gaga: “Just Dance”, but also “Poker Face”, “LoveGame”, “Papparazzi”. Bruno Mars: “Just The Way You Are”, but also “Grenade”, “Locked Out of Heaven”, and features on “Billionaire” and “Nothin’ on You”.
What did they all have in common? Another song prepped for release that was also ready to go big. And that’s where a ton of artists lose their momentum.
Take Daya for example. If you don’t know her by name, you might know her by her songs: “Hide Away” was a big hit earlier this year, followed by “Sit Still, Look Pretty” and her feature on The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” pretty much sealed the deal that you would be hearing her on every one of your radio channels no matter how much you turned the dial.
She was a new artist with only her first single under her belt, but she had a hit song with The Chainsmokers prepped, as well as “Sit Still, Look Pretty” as another hit ready to be fired at will. That is called good marketing, people. Not only did her second single do pretty well, it also ingrained in listener’s minds that this wasn’t the first time they had heard her voice, and it didn’t hurt that this is also the title of her debut album. She knew that one good song wasn’t going to be enough if she wanted to make a successful career past one song.
To contrast this point, take Carly Rae Jepsen. After “Call Me Maybe”, she followed a similar path, uniting with Owl City and releasing their song, “Good Time”.
She was reaping the rewards, but with an album that didn’t necessarily have another track like “Call Me Maybe” (though, side note, “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” is incredibly underrated) and a marketing team that really didn’t try to make any other song she had on her record pushed to a level that could even touch “Call Me Maybe”‘s popularity, she kind of disappeared.
Another great example of this being done well is Lady Gaga herself. I know, it’s hard to think of a time when Lady Gaga wasn’t the Lady Gaga we know today, but back in 2009, she was just breaking out into the pop music field. She had hit after hit penned and planned because the public needs to keep hearing your name, but it can’t be the same thing over and over again for too long, or they get bored and sick of you. She knew when to give people a new song so they would keep loving her into stardom and…BOOM. Here we are in 2016 and she’s Lady freaking Gaga, and by 2010, she had five #1 singles by the time she performed at her first Grammy awards with Elton John. Yeah, I know, let that sink in.
Meghan Trainor had “All About That Bass” taking the name of Song of the Summer, but she had “Lips Are Moving” and a #1 debut album with more songs to be released that would keep her on the radio and in people’s ears for a while, even after “Bass” was being stricken from playlists because people were just so sick of it.
Hell, even this summer’s chart toppers, The Chainsmokers, pulled through with hit after hit. They had “Roses”, they had “Don’t Let Me Down” and then they had “Closer” with Halsey that is STILL playing everywhere.
They know how to make their mark, even after that horrible “Selfie” song. People know their name, they are topping the Spotify streaming charts, and they’re getting award nominations. And this is without a freaking debut album.
It’s a tradition tried and true, and that is the first single just doesn’t cut it anymore. The bottom line is that as a musician, you have to be prepared with at least two songs that have serious potential before you can even think about having something lasting in your future. If you think single #1 is going to make you last a while in this industry, you’ll be out on your ass faster than you can start saying, “My first album will be titled…”. Plus, you should have more than one song that can kick some ass primed before you even put the first one out. I know, that’s easier said than done, but it’s been done and is therefore possible, so why not?
Part Two: Time…Ain’t It Fun?
So, let’s say you’ve found your niche. You’ve got multiple hit songs, and the public knows your name and your brand, and people are loving your first album. What’s next? How do you keep that up? Well, it’s not easy, and by this step, everything becomes individualized.
If you’re Meghan Trainor, for example, you go back to make album #2, but know that you’re not Lady Gaga or Beyoncé, or someone else that people will wait a while for (this would explain why her follow up, Thank You, came out a little over a year after Title).
Time is of the essence. Take your time to make that record something with a song that can continue your success, because it can still make or break you. In Meghan’s case? Well, she’s just lucky that ear worms appear to be her thing (because let’s just say “NO” and “Me Too” are not what I would have said was the right direction to go to follow up what a great debut album Title was). In contrast, Lady Gaga followed up with the biggest song of her career, “Bad Romance”, and then her Grammy winning album The Fame Monster.
The benefit that Gaga had on her side is that with the success of her previous singles and her first album, people were willing to wait and were more than happy with what they got. Not everyone has a fanbase that is willing to wait that long.
Adele, Frank Ocean and Beyoncé fans wait years for a record, because they are on a completely different level than most artists, but for a new artist, fans won’t wait that long before forgetting you if you go silent for years. Time is necessary to make something that is worth putting out, that’s not commercialized, soulless garbage that you just put out for the purpose of capitalizing on your debut success. But, Time can also be your worst enemy, because as much as you want to spend a couple of years “finding yourself” and making a new record that you love so much, all of those people with the short attention spans will begin to stop asking, “Where did (insert name here) go?” and start looking for another artist to listen to. So, depending on the level of your debut, time is either your friend or your greatest enemy.
Adele, as a great example, used time in the perfect way. In fact, she made time her bitch, for lack of a better term. Not only did she need it for her personal growth, writing time, and to raise her child, but with all of the time she kept people waiting, it only increased the demand for new music, thus explaining the multitude of records her album 25 shattered upon it’s debut.
So, like Mother Nature, Time, especially in the music industry, is fickle. It’s like a chess game, where you get to make the first move, and then have to play the rest of the game blindfolded, and no two players seem to be making the same first move.
Exception: Bruno freaking Mars. Buzzfeed just recently wrote on this, and I completely agreed. He, not unlike Adele, went away for four years to create his new record (and ironically, in that time, he wrote “All I Ask” on 25 with her), but still managed to stay relevant despite being silent musically. He’s quite the exception, because he’s really not hailed as much as Beyoncé and Adele are, which I don’t agree is right. People think about Adele and why she’s revered, and it’s definitely because of her voice and her emotional songwriting abilities. When you think Bruno Mars, you think just good music, and his rocking voice just comes with it. But people knew he was out there writing, and they’ve been patiently waiting for more, and that can be attributed to his appearances at the Super Bowl (his own show and his guest appearance with Coldplay and Beyoncé), and his mega-hit with Mark Ronson, “Uptown Funk” amidst his solo silence. He knew when he was away for too long, and then he knew when to fade away when “Uptown Funk” was being overplayed. And now, he’s on his way back, and people are as excited as ever. But he’s Bruno Mars. He can do that. Not a lot of people could pull that off.
Part Three: How The Mighty Fall
One of the biggest mistakes that some of our greatest musical icons have made in the past years is assuming that just because your name is on something means it’s going to sell. Well, despite the fact that our attention spans are lessening, and real talent in the industry is not always recognized to the degree it should, the public still can tell when something is straight up garbage, and they’re not going to waste money on it simply because it has an icon’s name attached to it anymore.
Think of Mariah Carey. She has the most #1 songs of any artist ever and had one of the most iconic voices ever. No one, since really Ariana Grande, has come close to her whistle tone register. So, for Miss Carey, she doesn’t really need to keep making music for her to be remembered and revered as an icon. However, she still wants to make music, which is fine by us as the music consuming public. Here’s the problem: she hasn’t released anything worthwhile in a long time, and due to improper singing technique during the earlier parts of her career, her vocal chords are not what they used to be. She hasn’t come anywhere NEAR the amount of commercial success she had back in the ’90s, and that’s not just because the younger generation isn’t into her music. She’s still making pop music, and with newer artists as well, that would keep her relevant…except that the material isn’t good.
The same problem arises with Christina Aguilera. Almost the exact same story. Amazing voice, though used with improper technique for a long time (it’s not as damaged as Mariah’s because no one can deny that Christina can still belt and riff like crazy), was a powerhouse in their time of great popularity, but hasn’t been able to match that. Her story is a pretty good example of this theory. Her 2008 album Bionic was disappointing to critics and fans alike for multiple reasons, though some have looked back to it and seen it as being slightly ahead of it’s time with it’s techno feel. Personally, it’s very scattered, with only one or two songs really being worth listening to, and it fails to find it’s point of focus, and it’s overly sexualized tracks get tiring to listen to.
The most basic problem with this record, no matter how you look at it, is that it’s lead single, “Not Myself Tonight”, failed to really drum up a lot of attention for it, and with the album not being up to par either, fans were disappointed, thus dubbing Aguilera, in the public’s eyes, in a slump. A slump she really hasn’t been able to get out of. Because, you see, when people lose faith in you, it’s not easy to get it back. Her return in 2012 with Lotus was a solid record, with her returning to her form.
But with a lack of real push from her marketing team, many of the songs on the album, like the minor radio hits (that should have been more) “Just A Fool” with Blake Shelton and lead single “Your Body”, a real pop jam, were ignored. And that was with the constant exposure to the public with being on The Voice. And once again, Christina is not completely irrelevant in this industry by any means, but when you compare her with her peers that came out in the business around the same time, like Britney and P!nk, she’s really fallen behind in trajectory. P!nk had a #1 album with her last record The Truth About Love, which was nominated for a Grammy along with a #1 song of “Just Give Me A Reason”, and got her 15th Billboard Top 10 single with “Just Like Fire” for the Alice: Through the Looking Glass soundtrack.
Britney, while being far less vocally gifted than Christina, released Glory this year and in most cases, it was a pretty decent comeback for her, and the marketing behind it was done quite well.
Christina has been silent for years, really, except with a song “Change” that she released recently, that really didn’t go very far.
Finally, we arrive at Demi Lovato. No one, sorry Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, but no even you, can match the vocal power behind Demi Lovato. Watch her live performance of “Stone Cold” on the Billboard’s Women in Music Awards and Concert from this past year. Her live vocals are unmatched, and she’s incredibly vocally gifted.
She’s had some pretty catchy songs that have done well: “Cool For The Summer” and “Confident” were decently successful this past year and “Stone Cold”, for those who have heard it, is a much loved track that should have been released as a single. But she hasn’t had nearly the same amount of success as Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, both of which she vocally knocks out of the park at least 100 times over. She’s in need of a great song that can do her vocals a justice that will bring her the success she deserves. But that will come, and lucky for her, she’s had enough music out and stellar performances that people know and care about her.
Essentially, what I’m trying to say is, your past success only gets you so far. You need to keep quality up in your music if you want people to continue to care about you. All it takes is one record that doesn’t sit as well as you want it to, and you find yourself in a “slump”, as they’ll call it in the media. It’s just how the industry works. And the Mighty fall much harder when their music doesn’t strike as well as expected. It’s happened time and time again, and eventually the question arises of knowing when to throw in the towel, and knowing how you want to go out: on top or on a flop.
Exception: I will not deny that Madonna is an icon from her time period as a performer, but can I just say, I really don’t think her music is all that great? At least her more recent releases. She’s one of the few artists still hanging around that have shown a great effort in coming off a lot younger than they are, but I’ve never understood the craze. Vocally, she’s not that impressive, and when people compare her to Gaga and she laughs, I find myself laughing at her that she’s laughing, because YES, Gaga is more talented than you. You may think she’s copying some of the things you did on the trail you blazed in your career, but vocally, she’s got so much more to offer than you, so sit down! My feelings and opinion aside, she’s actually been able to release some quite successful albums in the past decade, which is something not many artists from her time period have been able to do. Other artists from the same time period (’80s-’90s) have released albums that have managed to drum up success mostly with their fans, and haven’t crossed over to being incredibly popular with the general public. But Madge has somehow figured out how to cover all of the bases, and has really churned out quite impressive numbers from her tours. It’s beyond me.
So in conclusion, the music industry, or at least when it comes to the pop sector of the music industry, the process of having success has the groundwork laid out, with very clear paths to follow. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is going to follow them, and their degree of success as a result is also a very gray area. But the formula lives on…