The Clique Girlz (who?!?) made the front page of the NY Times Arts and Entertainment section, but probably not entirely in the way they or Interscope Records might have wished. This was not a “hottest new thing” story. This was a “hot new marketing concept” story. There’s a big difference.

“Sweet Deal to Promote Tweeny-Bop Girl Group” by Brooks Barnes

As the article explains, the Clique Girlz are a fairly typical teen pop act– typical in their structure (three teen-age girls from Egg Harbor Township, NJ who sing pop R&B), but also typical in professional history (millions of dollars spent, countless videos posted on YouTube, and a handful of failed singles) all adding up to a career “in danger of washing out of the entertainment industry before their first full CD comes to market”.

Yet lo and behold, the situation is not so dire after all. Inexplicably, it seems that Topps, the candy and collectibles company, has chosen the Clique Girlz as commercial spoke girls for Baby Bottle Pop, a nipple-shaped lollipop top. Oh. That can’t fail. Surely, fortune will quickly follow.

I’ve heard this one before. After five years at Zomba Music and Jive Records, the epicenter of teen pop for much of the late Nineties, and two years at Sony Music, I’ve heard it all — artists linked with toy dolls, songs in cereal boxes, CD giveaways at McDonalds, sneaker endorsements, singing action figures, and girl groups sponsored by Ragu, the pasta sauce maker (never did understand that one). The idea is invariably presented as a can’t miss proposition, by a very bright, statistic-spouting marketing whiz kid or ad agency hype-ster. It’s usually quite impressive, and inevitably greeted as a stroke of genius by desperate record label executives. And then, after months of build-up, it fails.

Here’s one truism that you can put on the wall of your studio or publishing company office:

Hit Singles break artists.

Toy dolls, product tie-ins, and nipple-shaped lollipop tops do not. If you have an act with a great first single, then all of these marketing gimmicks will just add fuel to the fire. They’re definitely a positive, but not entirely necessary. On the other hand, if you don’t have a strong first single, all of those marketing ploys are a vain effort to put a bright gloss on something that simply can’t be shined up.

Of course, the problem is finding that standout single. It’s always been easier to find a gullible corporation willing to throw their money away on a meaningless marketing stunt, than to find a genuine hit song that can break a new artist. Part of the problem is that many people in the industry don’t understand what a hit single is. Here are three key factors:

1. Singles Fit The Radio Format.
This means that they’re up-tempo; they fit a specific market and reach a clear demographic; they meet the standards of decency and length. If you can’t get it on the radio, it’s not a single.

2. Singles Define Artists.
Ultimately, singles don’t exist to sell songs. They exist to sell artists. To do that, singles have to give artists a musical identity, an attitude, a cause, or a point of view. If you’ve heard “Satisfaction”, then you understand the Rolling Stones– their musical style and their whole way of looking at the world. That’s a hit.

3. Singles Cut Through The Clutter.
It’s one thing to put thirty different videos of your act on YouTube. It’s a better idea to put up just one video of one song so outrageous, funny, catchy, or controversial that it cuts through the thirty other videos and grabs the attention of an audience. Think Soulja Boy. Think about titles that push people’s buttons, subjects that surprise people, or things that are just irresistibly fun.
The grand challenge for every songwriter, artist and A&R person is to cut through the clutter of the marketplace.

I thought about all this after I finished my first book, “Making Music Make Money”, which was, among other things, a treatise on how songwriters can effectively market their songs. Marketing is great, and I’m all for it. But it’s essential to realize that it can only take you so far. To break through to success as a publisher or songwriter, what you really need is a hit single.

That realization led to my new book,
“The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”

which is released this week and can be found at a bookstore near you. This book is all about how to craft that breakthrough song that will make doors open across the industry. It features interviews with superstar writers and producers like Stargate, Darrell Brown, and Midi Mafia, as well as A&R folks, radio programmers and record company presidents. It’s also got exercises to improve your hit writing, plenty of musical examples, and a peek at the key formulas for commercial success.

My suggestion is: before you start marketing, make sure you’ve got the goods. Check out “The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”. There’s a limit to marketing. There’s no limit to what a hit song can do.

    Eric,

    I agree with everything you say and deep down I know it’s all true. But.

    The hardest thing I think us songwriters face is the siren call of “art”. We all want to do something different, something great, something unexpected, and along the way, we, or at least, I, hope, most likely in vain, that we will somehow break with history and write a song that shatters all the rules yet catches on. Think Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”. It’s a tough temptation to resist.

    Also, as an ad guy, trust me (ha), I know the limits of marketing. The trouble is, in ad land, you’re often asked to come up with ideas for stuff you just know sucks. But you do it anyway because it’s your job.

    Jeff

    PS – Loving your new book, about half-way through.

    Eric -

    Good post. Seems like these guys have flooded their own niche market in total desperation… I can see the marketing guys now…”Ok guys, web 2.0 checklist, youtube, myspace, twitter… now!”.

    I think that as technology/knowledge goes forward we are target-marketing people to death. Corporations think that they know what people want by studying the data flow (and TRUST ME, they WANT to think the numbers are correct and throw out all ideas), but I think in alot of cases this just kills a product (although… I mean come on, Ragu, Pop stars… GENIUS! Give that guy a raise!). I don’t know if it was just me, or maybe my parents had good mainstream music taste, but when I was in 4th grade along with liking whatever the new cool thing was (milli vanilli anyone?) I also loved the stuff my parents were into from the 70′s & 80′s… I don’t feel that this is the case anymore (don’t have kids, so don’t have a case study…). I mean by god my first concert was steve miller and eric johnson when I was 13 (as much as I like rick springfield, I was 2 and don’t remember it…).

    Anyways, to much targetting equals less mass appeal (as ironic as this is…)

    Also enjoying the book Eric, between yours and the new David Foster Memoir, my book time is full

    - Brandon Keeley

    Eric -

    I appreciate you article. It pushes hard against the lottery ticket temptaion of hoping that a gimmick might fix all the things that aren’t right with the song. It washes away a lot of the ambiguity around the purpose of songwriting the artist who wants a hit.

    As I read it, I was wishing there was a sort of case study book. You say you have a lot of examples in your book. Maybe your next book could be a companion of 100 singles studied for how/why they cut through the noise.

    Good luck,

    Brent Tallent
    Green Room Productions
    http://greenroomprod.com

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