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Writing hit songs

Only 310 pages left on your journey to becoming a rock star!

Okay, so you finally made it to the subchapter that teaches you how to write hit songs. This is what you have been waiting for all along, right? But first I would like to start with a warning again:

If you have not yet read chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4, as well as the previous pages of the current chapter 5, then you will not fully understand what has to be done here, and you probably won’t get the message.

In this case you may of course continue reading, but I strongly recommend to read the previous chapters afterwards then, as you’ll need the information in there in order to make it. Let’s start with the good news first:

ANYONE can write a hit song.

Sounds unbelievable, right? Other musicians and music experts will tell you that only the most talented artists are able to write hits, but that’s pure bullshit of course. If only great artists are able to write hits, then how do you explain all of those freaks and clowns in the Top 40? Okay, usually they’re not writing their own songs, but anyway, you should get the point.

Writing hit songs can be LEARNED, as hits are based on RULES.

Once you know the rules, writing a hit and even making it into the charts may become quite easy, as everything is just about following the rules, at least as long as you don’t worry about your music’s quality. If you don’t believe this, then you should read The KLF’s The Manual, which clearly demonstrated that making it into the charts requires no musical skills and no talent at all. Then the bad news:

Writing a GREAT song with hit potential will be a bit more difficult.

Writing a great hit song (think of Smoke On the Water, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Like A Rolling Stone, Respect, or Smells Like Teen Spirit for example), one that can be considered to be great music and great art instead of cheap plastic teen pop, will require a minimum of talent, knowledge, and experience. But then again, don’t give up yet as there’s some hope:

As said before, writing hit songs can be learned, and all of the required knowledge and information can be found in this manual. The basic rules remain the same, no matter if you will be doing good or bad music.

They only have to be applied in a different way. You even don’t have to be overly talented, and this is even true if you want to make it to number one in the charts. It’s quite the opposite in fact, as too much talent as well as an overly artistic approach will probably prevent you from ever having a real hit. But the plan isn’t to make it into the Top 40 singles charts anyway, so you will not have to worry about this at all. In order to write a great hit, you will need to do exactly two things:

  1. You will have to find the sweet spot between art and entertainment (as seen in chapter 4.2).
  2. You will need to follow a few rules, and we’ll call those the Golden Rules Of Pop (as described in the KLF’s The Manual).

The reason why most artists will never become successful is that…

  • they either don’t know the rules,
  • or they’re simply not following them.

But why won’t people follow those rules if it’s so easy? Well, we discussed this in previous chapters already – if you think that you’re a real artist, then you will also believe…

  • that you won’t have to follow the rules,
  • that you’ll only have to follow them to a certain degree, or
  • that you shouldn’t follow them at all, as following rules has nothing to do with art.

99% of all artists simply refuse to write songs with hit potential, as they believe that a hit song can’t be real art.

They don’t even give it a try, they refuse to even think about writing a hit. At the same time, they often secretly wish to make it just by chance. Quite stupid, if you ask me.

And if you check out the Greatest Songs Of All Times, then you will clearly see that most of the greatest songs of all time have been massive hits, and most of them followed rules too.

In the end you will have to fulfill at least 80% of the required criteria, and most amateur artists don’t even manage to reach 20% of what’s necessary in order to kick things off. That said, let’s move on and get back to what you know already:

  1. You need at least one hit or signature song if you want to succeed.
  2. Hit songs don’t have to be bad music.
  3. Writing hit songs can be learned.

As seen before, some musicians may seem to be more talented than others when it comes to writing hits (think of Lennon / McCartney, or Leiber / Stoller for example), but it’s still important to know that the ability to write hit songs is not something you’re just born with. Writing hits can be learned – if you apply everything you learned so far, and if you’re a creative person, then you should become much better at writing songs with hit potential quite soon. As seen before, a great hit usually is born out of the combination of art and entertainment:

  1. A song has to be commercial and entertaining to a certain degree in order to become a hit song.
  2. It must be real art if you want it to be great music, and not just some short-lived chart pop bullshit.

Most of those bad songs you’ll find in the charts easily fulfill the first requirement, while they completely fail at the second one. That was different in the Golden Age by the way, at least to a certain degree.

So you will need to excel in both areas.

Which means that you will have to be able to think like an artist, a producer, and a businessperson at the same time (many producers are great businessmen anyway).

As following the Golden Rules Of Pop easily leads to the creation of really bad mass compatible Top 40 crap, it’s important to take a look at what you’ve learned about making good music once more.

Let’s start by a short recap and explain why music quality has dropped that much since the 1960s. In the Golden Age you had tons of insanely great hits that have become evergreens, songs that really had an impact and that will still be remembered in a hundred years. This changed over time, and so it may be a good idea to shortly review what went wrong.

The music of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s was not only better from a point of view of quality, but it is also known for its “warm” sound. In the 1980s this changed a lot, songs started to sound cheaper and “colder” in general. This was due to the “sound of the 1980s”, in sync with the technological advances mentioned in chapter 3, notably the wider use of bad synth sounds, electronic drums, and the way engineers used mixing consoles such as the Solid State Logic SL4000 to create a clean and sterile sound.

In the early 1990s a rougher sound became popular again, partly due to the success of grunge and alternative rock. But the trend didn’t last very long, and soon cheap chart pop and hip hop, dance music, and trashy electronic music started to dominate, mostly as the 1980s trend to produce music in a more factory-like manner continued, with producer / puppet duos (think of Max Martin / Britney Spears) allowing the music industry to flood the charts with cheap pop mostly targeted at kids.

In the 2000s this trend was amplified by new technologies – DAWs, digital recorders, programmable and virtual instruments, looping and copy-pasting, and finally Auto-Tune. Songwriting became a craft, music production became a pure service, songs and sounds became more and more similar, and anything outstanding or revolutionary vanished. The most striking differences between today’s music and the music from the Golden Age have been analyzed in detail in the previous chapters, so I won’t dig too much into that again. Make sure you have read the first four chapters so that you understand the differences, and that you know what has to be done. The most important thing to remember is that music quality has dropped by a factor of almost 10 since the 1960s, and that’s the biggest problem we now have.

The first thing you should have learned is that your entire sound and style must be unique and that you must stand out of the masses. I called this Emerging From The Noise – you’ve learned about this in chapters 1, 2 and 3, and here’s the image that once again shows what your current situation should look like:

In order to make good (or even great) music, you will have to bring back some of the quality of the Golden Age Of Popular Music, and that means that you need to get as far away as possible from today's over-simplistic chart pop, by bringing back all of the ingredients that made the music of the past so great:

The Golden Rules Of Pop will finally help you to create music that's located within the Sweet Spot, which is the intersection of great art and entertainment. It's the very small but important spot that almost all of the greatest songs of the past managed to hit:

Which finally takes us to the enigmatic rules I talked about, which are also known as the Golden Rules Of Pop.

The Golden Rules Of Pop

After having their first number one hit in the UK with Doctorin’ The Tardis, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (aka The KLF, The JAMS, or The Timelords) wrote The Manual in 1988, a book offering step by step instructions on how to get a UK number one hit without any musical skills and without any talent. Sounds crazy, but it actually works. As mentioned in chapter 3 already, the methods described in their book are at least partly responsible for all of the utter crap you find in today’s charts. Even if today’s producers probably don’t use the book itself anymore, it’s still the Golden Rules Of Pop that rule today’s world of music. The Golden Rules existed well before 1988 of course, and you’ll notice that most successful music has always been following those rules, even back in the glory days of the 1960s. Today they’re mostly used to intentionally and efficiently produce cheap music for the masses.

Like any tool, the Golden Rules Of Pop can be used to create both really good stuff as well as really bad stuff, and they also have been used – sometimes unintentionally and without even knowing – to create some of the greatest songs of all times. We are going to use the Golden Rules to produce good music, which means that we’ll follow an approach that’s quite different from The KLF’s Manual. But let’s first see what Drummond and Cauty had to say. They start by making clear that writing a hit has nothing to do with luck, and that writing hits can be learned:

Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Berry Gordy, Chinn and Chapman and Peter Waterman have all understood the Golden Rules thoroughly. The reason why Waterman will not continue churning out Number Ones from now until the end of the century and the others had only limited reigns, was not because lady luck’s hand strayed elsewhere or that fashion moved on, it is because after you have had a run of success and your coffers are full, keeping strictly to the G.R.’s is boring. It all becomes empty and meaningless. (…) Leiber and Stoller could walk into a studio tomorrow and have a worldwide Number One in three months if they were so motivated.*

Drummond and Cauty then give us two basic recommendations:

  1. Do not attempt the impossible by trying to work the whole thing out before you go into the studio.
  2. Do not try and sit down and write a complete song. Songs that have been written in such a way and reached Number One can only be done by the true song writing genius and be delivered by artists with such forceful convincing passion that the world HAS TO listen.*

Then they tell us about the four basic rules that make up a hit single (note that I changed the order):

  1. It must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro.
  2. It must be no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds (…). If they are any longer Radio One daytime DJs will start fading early or talking over the end, when the chorus is finally being hammered home - the most important part of any record.
  3. It has to have a dance groove that will run all the way through the record and that the current 7” buying generation will find irresistible. 
  4. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some, but not many.*

Well, that’s it. Of course they elaborate all of this in their book, and by reading it you will quickly understand how purely commercial the entire hit writing process has become. I will not offer any more details at this point, but you will soon learn what has to be done in order to produce songs that will really kick ass.

You may turn any kind of bullshit into a worldwide number one hit, as long as you follow the rules listed above. And the least artistic your approach will be, the more successful your song will be. Which explains the music you’ll find in today’s charts.

Sounds crazy, but that’s how it is. Think of Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake for example – topping the charts with any kind of bullshit is always possible, and with today’s social media this has become even easier than ever before. You may not believe all of this yet, but you’ll soon understand how those rules need to be applied, and how we’ll use them to produce great art instead of cheap crap.

A number of artists who had hits in the past admitted that they had been using The Manual to create them, and some actually made it to number one by just applying the Golden Rules to any kind of crap – including The KLF themselves of course (Drummond and Cauty had a bunch of worldwide number ones), German dance / trance group Scooter, Austrian Eurotrash band Edelweiss, British girl group The Pipettes, British alternative music band Chumbawamba, and English band Klaxons.

Many more used it, but never admitted it. It was also translated into German, and a German audiobook read by Die Ärzte’s Bela B. was available too. There are only very few exceptions of really crazy songs that became very successful while not exactly following those rules, such as Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Zager and Evans’ In The Year 2525, or Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for example. You may try something like this of course, but in this case make sure to have at least one standard hit song on your album as a backup plan.

*) Text passages cited from The KLF’s The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), 1988.

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Chapter 5.2   •   Page 1 of 20

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