Arts and Entertainment

What’s in a Hit?

The making, release, popularization, and results of a hit song.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Aishwarjya Barua

Hit songs are a driving force in modern popular culture. It seems like every week a new song comes out that rises to the top of the charts and dominates the public’s speakers and headphones for a while, and then fades back into relative obscurity to exist with the other pop leftovers of the last century. But how does a hit song even get made in the first place?

No single factor can be attributed to the popularization of a track, but rather a combination of reasons spanning from key, tempo, genre, artist, length, advertising, and promotion. We’ll delve into some of these factors in this article.

First of all, the actual composition of a song is vitally important to the popularity of that track. While of course, there are exceptions to the pop song formula rules, a hit song generally has a few key components that help propel it to the top. Perhaps the most basic of all of the considerations that will help take a song from a flop to a hit is the key. According to a Guardian article on the topic from 2011 (Behind the Music: How to Write a Hit Song), hit songs generally trend toward the major key. Take the top five songs on the Billboard Charts right now, including Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and Post Malone’s “Circles.” Four of the tracks are in a major key. Perhaps audiences just want more feel-good tunes over downers, or upbeat songs are just catchier in general.

But obviously having a major key doesn’t guarantee success. Other factors that can benefit the chances of a hit are a Beats Per Minute (BPM) number in the low to mid 100’s, a characteristic of mid-tempo pop songs. In addition, hip-hop was the genre that, since 2017, has been most prevalent on the Hot 100 charts.

However, even if your song checks all of these boxes, chances are, it will remain in obscurity forever. These days, everyone’s an artist, so to stand out is nearly impossible. That is, unless you’ve already notched a hit or two in the past. By being a popular artist, you have an exponentially higher chance of getting a hit than somebody who’s not. Most people who even have a chance of striking gold in the next few years have already been digging up hits for some time now. Seventeen of the artists of the top 20 Billboard Songs right now have charted hits on the Hot 100 in the past, and will most likely do so again.

So clearly, it is extremely difficult to achieve pop stardom through a hit, but what most people don’t know is that it isn’t exactly cheap either. According to NPR, it can cost up to $1 million to craft and release a smash hit. To ensure the song’s popularity, a label has to hire the best producers (instrumental and vocal), mixers, writers, and creative minds in the industry to work on that track. Then, once the song is done, the spending really begins. The label needs the song to be constantly playing on the radio; they need it to be on Spotify’s front page; they need posters lining the sidewalks, TV appearances, talk show musical guest spots, and pretty much every other means of promotion you can think of.

Hits take time, money, and effort. The next “Uptown Funk” won’t get written because the label executives just sat around and waited for somebody to notice. Songs like it need to be expertly crafted and relentlessly promoted to achieve the attention that it was able to gain.

After all is said and done though, how much does everybody involved come away with? Does all this spending on top-notch musicians and promotion translate to money in the artist’s pockets? The answer is yes, and no, and kind of. With good label deals, an artist can make millions from just a single track (think Mariah Carey making $60 million from “All I Want for Christmas”), but this often isn’t the case. Many rappers who rise to the top rapidly will get tangled up in exploitative contracts that will leave them with next to nothing once the hit has come and gone.

So how can you make a hit song? The short answer is: you can’t. The industry runs on big label promotion and bankable pop stars that churn out hits by the dozen, so striking gold is harder to do now than ever. However, nothing is truly impossible, and there are some things like key, tempo, and genre that can aid in your quest. Success stories can come from anywhere, and with enough self-promotion and talent, it is always possible to become a star.