We’ve all been flummoxed by why certain artists, songs and albums aren’t as popular as we think they should be.
“This song is GREAT! Why isn’t it a hit? What’s stopping this band from becoming huge? There’s gotta be some kind of conspiracy keeping them from being stars.”
Well, no. The history of music is filled with stories of excellent musicians who never achieved the fame and recognition that they perhaps deserve.
Why? The short answer is that the music business is a vicious, vicious game where being a talented musician is just part of the story.
Let’s assume an artist is brilliant and has written a series of great songs. If music were a meritocracy, that would be enough. But there are so many other factors involved before a song can become a hit and an artist can be turned into a star. So many things have to go right and so many things cannot go wrong.
Music is very, very, VERY subjective
Your taste in music is exquisite. You have an innate ability to detect greatness. You listen better, smarter, with impeccable judgment. You know good music when you hear it.
The truth is, however, we’re all different. A song that sounds fantastically transcendent to you generates barely a “meh” in someone else — and vice versa. A song will either give you a dopamine jolt or it won’t.
Remember, too, that there are many different levels of music fan. While you may be deep into music like millions of others, there are billions of casual music fans, the kind that just like to sing along to a catchy melody and something to tap their fingers to on the steering wheel. When people were still buying CDs, these casual fans maybe bought one or two a year, probably as an impulse while shopping at Walmart. And remember when Starbucks used to sell CDs at the counter? Who do you think bought the majority of those discs?
Competition is fierce and getting fiercer
Back before the internet, labels acted as filters, releasing only so many records. Radio stations and record stores then acted as additional filters, meaning that just a fraction of the labels’ output reached the public. You had to be very good to make it that far, but if you did, the competition was relatively light compared to today.
In the golden era of record stores, the biggest outlet might stock 100,000 titles. And while you could still spend hours browsing through that inventory, you were still operating inside a very closed system. Radio stations maintained tight playlists, sticking only with songs that came with a chance of increasing and maintaining listenership.
With relatively few artists in the marketplace, it was easier to help music fans come to some kind of consensus over what constituted good (or at least popular) music.
But with today’s streaming platforms, everyone has instant access (and often free) to 60 million songs. Today’s artist is up against practically the entire musical output in the history of humanity — and it just keeps getting worse. Spotify, for example, adds nearly 40,000 new songs every single day. That’s over a quarter of a million songs a week, about 1.2 million a month and close to 15 million over the course of a year.
Good luck not getting lost, no matter how good you are.
Short attention spans
With so much music out there, audiences are more impatient for that dopamine hit. According to stats from 2014, 25 per cent of young Spotify users will skip an unfamiliar song in the first five seconds. Twenty-nine per cent are gone after 10 seconds while 35 per cent will bail before the song is 30 seconds old. On average, a Spotify user will skip a song every four minutes.
This ADHD makes it extremely difficult for anything new to gain traction. And woe to anyone who has a different or challenging approach to music. They don’t stand a chance.
I like to point to the glorious cinematic buildup of U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name. The Edge’s guitars don’t start fading in until 46 seconds have gone by. The bass and drums finally appear at 1:08 and Bono doesn’t sing a note until 1:46. Would a song like that have a chance in today’s environment?
Musicians cannot rise above all this noise alone. Word-of-mouth among fans can only do so much. Artists need managers, agents, promoters, bookers, publicists, promo people, radio pluggers, and social media moderators all working together to get the word out on an act. The greatest performer in the world doesn’t stand a chance unless they have the people and the infrastructure pushing them forward. And even if they do, those people have to be good, dedicated, and have an unwavering belief in the artist.
This is a tricky one. Because the music fire hose never turns off, artists only have a certain amount of time to make an impact before everyone moves on. For example, when it comes to labels shopping music to radio, there used to be a 13-week make-or-break window. If the song gained traction in radio during that period, the label would continue to work the record (i.e. put time and marketing dollars into the act) to make it as big a hit as possible. If not, too bad. Not enough music fans seem to care to make it worthwhile.
And it’s more than just radio. Was the act on the road in the right markets at the right time? Were they helped or hindered by other bands on the bill? Did they manage to land a sweet slot at a major music festival?
Even the best songs supported by the best people have to catch the breaks. Does everything about the song fit the zeitgeist of the moment? Did something go strangely viral on YouTube or TikTok? Was the song unexpectedly picked up for a TV commercial or a movie soundtrack? Did everyone in the band stay healthy or were there problems with substance abuse? Did the drummer punch out the lead singer because he was caught snogging his girl? Were there arguments about money? Did someone in the organization do something to burn bridges with a key member of the music industry? How did they perform in front of audiences?
That’s what makes the music business so risky: You can never predict with 100 per cent certainty that a song, no matter how good, is going to be a hit.
Next time you hear a new song, try this: Don’t judge by whether you like it or not. Instead, try to listen critically to objectively evaluate its chances of becoming a mainstream hit. And whatever you do, don’t expect great songs and artists to automatically rise to the top.
My advice? Respect all music, listen to what you like, and hope for the best for your favourites.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.