For some reason we have this idea that ‘good’ music is enough to be able to forge yourself a successful career, if it was ever true in our recent history, I confidently doubt it is now.
What do popular faces in the music industry like Katy Perry, The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Pink, Avril Lavigne, and Taylor Swift all have in common?
They all know this guy: Max Martin.
So what’s the link between Martin (here’s what he looks like), and these chart-topping pop stars? He’s the one who writes some of their most successful songs.
Martin is living the ‘Teenage Dream’. He said ‘I Want It That Way’ and when he had another success on his hands, ‘Oops.. I Did It Again’.
‘Raise Your Glass’, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, ‘What The Hell?’, ‘Whataya Want From Me?’; Martin had his little mits on all of these.
The more you find out about the Swedish producer and songwriter, the more you start to realise that this man is responsible for the successful careers of many artists.
The problem with this situation is no one would like, let alone actually listen to ‘California Gurls’, if a 40-odd year old Swede sang it.“No one would like, let alone actually listen to ‘California Gurls’, if a 40-odd year old Swede sang it.”
On the other hand, though some might find Katy Perry pleasing to look at, take her songwriters away and you’re left with is just that, a girl that’s pleasing to look at.
Now, Martin was in a band and he’s clearly talented at crafting charttopping hits. So why didn’t he use his talent to further his own musical venture in the spotlight? What did he lack that others had? What were audiences wanting to buy that he couldn’t sell them?
Why was having ‘good’ music not enough for the now internationally successful producer and songwriter?
Now take Martin and imagine there’s an army of Martins entrenched within the popular music industry writing the songs so many people love and enjoy.
Sorry teenyboppers, but the reality is ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ was written by a room full of 40-something males, bald or on the way to being so. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the truth, huh?
What might surprise you is that this ‘ghost’ penmanship and cowriting doesn’t only exist in the ‘super commercialised’ pop music industry. I use the word commercialised ironically because the traditional safe grounds of rock ‘n’ roll is too being infiltrated increasingly by these ‘faceless’ writers.
Why you might be asking?
Simply put – the people controlling the money in the recording industry, across the board, are unwilling to take risks, wanting to protect their investments they’re doing what they can to ensure their return.
How did this happen?
Without a doubt, we cannot skimp the influence and the role of MTV in all of this, in shaping consumer expectations of what an artist should be and look like.
I’m not suggesting hints of these cultural preferences weren’t present before MTV, just that it had a role solidifying these preferences in mainstream media.
The music television broadcaster had the role of cultural gatekeeper, they only aired what they deemed to be cool, and by doing so, created an image of what was fashionable and what was successful.
Creating a notion that by emulating these stars, you too could be successful, this is what you need to aspire to be like if you want to make it anywhere in the industry. It became about the image. The brand.
You will be hard pressed to find a charting artist without design, photography, some sort of social media strategy and an interest-provoking music video or maybe one that’s going to ruffle a few tail feathers.
Classic example: Miley Cyrus’ – ‘Wrecking Ball’.
You have to wonder whether people are watching her video because the song is ‘good’ or because she’s flying around naked in a spectacle that wouldn’t be out of place at some sort of circus/strip club crossover.
Would her video have as many views as it does and generate as much ad revenue as it has if she was wearing clothing?
This is when having ‘good’ music isn’t enough.
Take away the nudity, the novelty of seeing someone riding a giant ball, the media frenzy that followed suit and you’re left with the song, but does the tune – the music by itself, stand on its own ground? Probably not.
Reality is, most often, it takes more than the song to sell a song. In other words, it takes more than music to sell music. The ‘Wrecking Ball’ video is about Miley Cyrus’ image, her brand, and reveals her strategy.
The modern artist needs to have content that’s both attractive – literally, an attraction – and sharable. People have to have a reason to go to it in the first place and they have to have a reason to send it out. This is how successful social media works.
You have to uncover what are the consumer motivations in choosing to go to the artist’s content and what are their incentives in sharing what they’ve just consumed?
‘Wrecking Ball’ doesn’t currently have 222 million views because people really wanted to hear her new song, neither did the people who watched it tell their friends ‘you really have to listen to Miley Cyrus’ new song.’
There were definitely other motivations behind the mass consumption of the video, other than the song itself.
Besides, technology has become a major enabler and platform for international success as much as a well-written hit. Take Bieber and Gotye.
Although one has much more cred than the other (I’ll let you discern which is which) they have something in common. I’m proposing they are both where they are now because of a certain videosharing site named YouTube that has been a recent and very influential addition to artist discovery in both a consumer and corporate sense.
It was Bieber’s big break. No YouTube, no Bieber.
And though Gotye maintained a small following it wasn’t until he too stripped off with New Zealand native Kimbra for the ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ video that he was launched into the international spotlight.
Psy? Yet again, YouTube hit. I doubt it is the most watched YouTube video of all time because ‘Gangnam Style’ is the best song ever written.
Modern technology has leveraged power from traditional gatekeepers and put it in the hands of audiences across the world.
Everyone is a critic and everyone wants a say.
Where people with money could once buy their way through the necessary channels to influence gatekeepers like MTV. It’s not as easy to persuade a generation that think their own voice should be heard over all others.
Then there’s the matter of image; best presented by one Elizabeth Woolridge Grant.
Who? You know – she wrote ‘Video Games’ and ‘Born To Die’ with yet another faceless writer?
Oh, you mean Lana Del Rey? The story of transformation as Elizabeth Grant became Lana Del Rey is a somewhat interesting one.
She performed and released music under the name Lizzy Grant, a green tshirt and blue jeanswearing New Yorker.
Imagine Lana Del Rey wearing a green tshirt and blue jeans… All of a sudden she isn’t that indie heroine that she is to so many people.
We’ve been conditioned to associate a certain music with a certain image. When she’s not wearing designer threads and that iconic lipstick singing ‘Video Games’, there’s something that just doesn’t make sense about it. We want to say this isn’t right. She changed her outward appearance under the influence of a label to sell an image and a sound.
Never mind the fact that ‘sex sells’, but another factor that helps beyond what an artist composes or sings, is their story.
I see Lorde as the modern example of when we simply believe that having ‘good’ music is enough. But is that really true?
When you think of Lorde, my money is on two things, you think ’16 years old’ and you think ‘Kiwi’ and then you think, ‘what the heck’. This leads to you being obligated to check her out.
It’s a story against the odds, it’s genuinely interesting and the music is ‘good’ too. I just wonder whether it would be as genuinely interesting if she was ‘25’ and ‘American’.“We’re uncomfortable with music being something in and solely of itself.”
Signed to Universal at the tender age of 13, there’s something about the relative smallness of the New Zealand music industry that allows artists to chart in their native country, then being recognised internationally from that position comes with an ease unfamiliar to those fighting in larger, more developed industries.
Essentially, being a Kiwi is a fantastic tag to have. I doubt that if she got her start in the American industry, there would be any way she would have found herself rushed to the top of the international pile as quickly as she has.
The Naked and Famous and Kids Of 88 are other examples of this being worked out, charting well in New Zealand leads onto charting well in other developed industries.
Despite the context in which she finds herself in, how much of the sharable and marketable element of Lorde accounts for her story of success?
It would also be interesting to mention at this point that the songstress isn’t wholly responsible for her hit song, ‘Royals’, nor her Love Club EP, nor her debut album, Pure Heroine.
Would it surprise you if, again, there’s a not-so-public writer behind another ever-popular image?
Joel Little cowrote the majority of Lorde’s tracks. And who is he?
The same Joel Little that was the lead vocalist of New Zealand’s Goodnight Nurse, which never really amounted to anything particularly notable. Also, the same Joel Little that cowrote Kids Of 88’s debut, ‘Sugarpills’.
The Joel Little that has found much more success outside of his own projects than in his own. What did he lack that someone else had? Clearly, he needed a little bit of Lorde and Lorde needed a bit of Little.
So where do we land? If you could ever rely solely on ‘good’ music to bring you fame and success, now is not that time.
We love the concept of only focusing on ‘the music’ and walking some sort of puritanical line of authenticity as we do so, but even that is an image that’s designed to appeal to some people, while others can be completely indifferent about it.
We cannot separate the sound and the image to the extent where if we take away the ‘image’, it leaves behind only that constructed image.
Having ‘good’ music is not enough, without even thinking about it, we subconsciously bundle our music with everything else.
We’re uncomfortable with music being something in and solely of itself. We’ve been conditioned to think that way.
We want to know who sings it, what they look like, their story, what they represent, and even who their fans are.
And we want to know if we fit into that picture.