How Songs Become Popular
by Alex Cosper (2/16/2014)

Songs become popular for multiple reasons, which is makes the study of pop music difficult for people who want to gain a deeper understanding of the process. Throughout the history of the recording industry, the manner in which music has sold has relied on the technology of the time that delivers music. Before records were even invented, songs became popular because people learned to play and sing them at home by playing sheet music on a piano.

Political and cultural forces such as government and church controlled musical consciousness for centuries until the recording industry was born in the late 19th century. The music industry's first boom came in the early 1900s with the development of ragtime, marching bands, dixieland, jazz and blues. Folk and opera were also part of the national mainstream. By the 1920s commercial radio was born and records had a place to be promoted to mass audiences. At the same time, much of the music on radio at the time was controlled by big band leaders.

When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s the music industry prevailed because of the introduction of jukeboxes in bars and other public places. Following the end of World War II the music industry went through a recession with the fading of big band music. Then by the end of the 1940s, Columbia introduced the long playing record that became known as the album while RCA introduced the seven inch 45 rpm record, which came to be known as single.

Rock and roll music infiltrated radio in the 1950s as the portable pocket transistor radio became the vehicle for teens to flock to radio while adults and families were becoming absorbed by the advent of television. Music sales escalated in the 1960s after the Beatles set albums as the industry benchmark instead of singles. Their creative exploration into concept albums was part of the excitement that shifted to albums. Prior to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album in 1967, hit singles were the break and butter of record labels. But with this amazing masterpiece, music fans became interested in music beyond the hits. The reward for buying an album was exponentially more than buying a single.

From then on the music industry used singles much like commercials to promote albums. In the process of this industry shift, the definition and process of hitmaking changed. As a result, album sales climbed throughout the 70s while singles sales faded. By the end of the seventies the structure of the music industry had become radically different than in the past. The singles market because largely began to skew longer in age while the album market was fueled by "album-oriented rock" radio stations.

Due to the huge success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in the 1977 and 1978, the six major labels at the time decided to put all their eggs in one basket and started flooding the singles market with disco music to try to ride the trend. It led to a huge music industry recession in album sales, which is why the charts between 1979 and 1980 abruptly shifted to a more adult contemporary sound until Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1982 helped revive the music industry.

At the same time of the "disco backlash" era, punk and new wave music were being issued on independent labels while electronic, r&b and hip hop music also became to grow an underground music beneath the radar. It showed that a significant number of people had become tired of top 40 radio. By the late 80s pop stations began to gravitate mostly to teen audiences who embraced electronic dance music and rap-flavored dance records. At that point in order to fit the pop scene, a band had to start sounding like the industry sound that had taken over the mainstream in order to make the singles charts.

So even though album sales were the big ball game and singles were just catalysts to get music on the radio to promote albums, the music industry maintained a strict focus on teen records for the singles market. In the 1990s radicall changes affected the way music is promoted. The success of the alternative rock radio format took the industry by surprise for awhile, as did the popularity of mega-selling country artists such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. But when everything was said and done by the end of the nineties, the singles chart was still dominated by hip hop, boy bands and female pop singers.

Independent artists who may be confused about the pop scene may understand the industry better by knowing that radio stations are not in the business of helping musicians. They are in the business of using popular music to attract big audiences, which attracts big advertisers. Without the advertisers, radio stations aren't able to make payments on the huge debts they ran up from corporate consolidation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The end result of all that consolidation was that about a dozen radio companies controlled nearly half of all stations in America.

At one time you could get local airplay by sending your music to a radio station program director and music director. If they liked the song it got played. Then by the late 1990s after all the mergers, VPs and other high ranking corporate executives began to influence what the music added at radio chains. As long as the radio and music industries remain controlled by big corporations, there's a chance that regional music will become even more rare on local radio. The exceptions are public stations and indepedendently owned stations that do not have to conform to industry standards.

To get a general understanding how a song becomes a hit on the radio, the song is first sent to the station by a label promo representative. The promo rep will call up the radio exec to find out if the record has been "tested" on the air or not. In the conversation the promo rep will try to tell a story that's happening with the record at other stations. Eventually if a handful of stations play the record, that airplay information becomes part of the story of how the record is performing around the country.

Radio stations, which are not necessarily looking for "the next big thing," are more interested in playing hits, especially by familiar artists, since familiarity is what keeps people coming back to radio, not so much new music. You'll notice that even the hippest current top 40 stations do not play much new music, despite their marketing slogans about playing new music. A station that poses as top 40 in a huge market may only be playing 15 current hits and maybe 10 fairly new songs. The rest of the list is filled with proven hits from the past few months. Since pop stations don't add much new music, it's more advantageous to approach stations with specialty formats. Pop stations usually aren't that interested in promoting local talent, whereas rock and alternative stations offer a better show for regional talent.

Once your record gets put into a "rotation" in which it gets played several times a day, from there it will either move up to a higher rotation if the audience is responding with requests or it may drop to a lower rotation if there's no reponse. Eventually radio stations dump songs after about 12 weeks if the listeners haven't responded. There is no doubt that radio airplay is still the key to big album sales, but there have also been less and less big selling albums in the first decade and a half of the new century.

Since it is so challenging to get radio airplay, especially if you're an independent artist, it may be more advantageous for indie artists to pursue popular internet outlets that promote music. YouTube is also opening the door for songs to become popular as in the 2013 Baauer hit "Harlem Shake," which caused Billboard to begin factoring in YouTube hits as part of the charts.

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