Great Expectations

Jun 22 2010

It seems almost cruel to kick a company when they’re down and gasping for a final breath, but the news from EMI Music just keeps getting more and more bizarre. Only 10 weeks after naming Charles Allen the executive chairman of EMI Music (he replaced Elio Leoni-Scelti, who himself lasted only 18 months), Terra Firma announced that the head of EMI Music Publishing, Roger Faxon, would be replacing Allen, taking over the helm at EMI Music (the record division) as well. Even by music industry standards, that’s an amazing bit of turnover– Allen has gone from executive chairman to a vaguely defined “adviser” role in less than one financial quarter. It’s like watching a bit of time-lapse photography, where a process of destruction that usually takes a year and a half has been condensed into 10 weeks.

And all of this is meant to reassure the investors.

Roger Faxon, Chief Executive EMI Group

The real irony is that after three years of completely inept decision-making, Terra Firma is actually making a pretty good call on this one. At least Faxon has a genuine understanding of the business. While he didn’t build EMI into an industry-leading publisher (that was the work of Marty Bandier, who is now at Sony ATV), he has maintained the company’s status despite the ever-present rumors of the corporate parent’s financial demise. EMI Music Publishing still has one of the strongest executive teams in the business, a catalog full of classic songs, and a current writer roster that made it the Publisher of the Year once again at this year’s ASCAP Pop Awards. The obvious strategy here is to try to use the strength of the publishing company to shore up the weakness of the recorded music division. It makes pretty good sense… on paper.

For reasons that are fathomable only to the executives that run major media companies like Universal, Warner, Sony and EMI, none of the major music companies have ever managed to create any relationship between their record companies and their associated publishing companies. There are remarkably few acts that are signed both to Warner Bros. Records and Warner Chappell, or to Sony ATV and Columbia Records. In fact, the relationship between many of these publishing companies and their affiliated labels is downright hostile. At Sony ATV, I was well-aware that many top-level A&R people at Columbia and Epic were steering their new acts to EMI Music Publishing, convinced that the artist would get more money and promotional support at that company than at Sony ATV. Likewise, EMI Music Publishing has made no secret over the years of their disdain for the hapless label that shares their name.

Some of the hostility can be attributed to executive envy, political gamesmanship, and the general corporate tendency to put one’s personal bonus ahead of the interest of the company itself. Some of it comes from the fact that many of the publishing companies and their associated labels have very different histories, areas of specialization, and financial means. To call the relationships “dysfunctional” would be something of an understatement.

Not too surprisingly, in the world of independent music companies, the idea of having a label and publishing company cooperate for the greater good has been far less elusive. In fact, many of the great success stories among independent labels have been built around the idea of record company and publishing company working together– from Motown Records and Jobete Music, to A&M Records and Almo-Irving Music, to Jive Records and Zomba Music, to Disney Records and publishing. It’s not terribly tricky. It simply means that the record label either strongly encourages or demands that their artists make a publishing deal with the related company, and likewise, the publishing company tries to keep any new talent they discover or hit songs generated by their writers “in house”, by bringing them to the associated record company.

So the idea now being put forward by Roger Faxon and the string-pullers at Terra Firma, to use EMI Music Publishing to bolster the fortunes of EMI Records, is not a crazy one, even if it’s relatively untried at a major music company level. I can almost understand how the non-music business weasels within Terra Firma could see this as the last best hope– and could have great expectations for the power of the two companies when finally brought together. It certainly won’t be the first time during their grand experiment in the music industry that Terra Firma has had their hopes dashed, though it may be the last time.

As obvious as the idea to unite the two companies sounds, it’s about ten or fifteen years too late. At this point, with EMI in such precarious condition, it’s almost impossible to see how this plays out. Most top artists with any other options would be understandably hesitant to sign to EMI Records right now, and quite frankly, it is probably not the first place that anyone from EMI Music Publishing would recommend for their artists. The publishing company needs its top writers, artists and producers to focus on creating the biggest hits possible, regardless of which label they happen to be released on.

Even if EMI Music Publishing were to encourage their top new artists to consider going to EMI Records, many are under contract with other labels for years to come, or are signed to production companies with ties to other companies, or have managers with relationships at other organizations. To create any real synergy between the two divisions is probably a five-year program, even in a best-case scenario.

Best-case scenarios have not served Terra Firma well. Indeed, the real problem with its buyout of EMI and the subsequent meltdown that followed has been a simple case of unrealistic expectations, which when unrealized, only increased the need for greater miracles in the next financial quarter. The ultimate result of this is the kind of ridiculous game of CEO musical chairs that we see now, where each new person is brought in with high hopes and a touted “turn-around” plan, only to find themselves doing a disappearing act as soon as the “turn-around” doesn’t turn out as planned. Every business should challenge its leaders to do the very best they can do. But if you challenge people to do the impossible, you will inevitably be disappointed. If you bet on them doing the impossible, you will not only be disappointed– you’ll be broke.

Terra Firma CEO Guy Hands

From the moment that Terra Firma purchased EMI in 2007 for the wildly inflated price of $4.7 billion dollars, they put themselves in a corner from which they can never escape. The loans that made that purchase possible were made on earnings expectations that were unrealistic for any music company in the present business climate, especially a company that was hardly a market leader even three years ago. In order to make the interest payments on those loans, Terra Firma now needs EMI to generate income at a level that is simply not possible for a music company in this environment.

If you try to drive a Volkswagen in the Indy 500, it won’t win the race– even if you press the gas pedal to the floor and keep it there. It’s not that it’s a bad car. It was never built to run that way. Further, if you insist on trying to do it, you’ll eventually ruin the engine– all because your expectations were not remotely in keeping with what the automobile was designed to do. EMI has plenty of talented, dedicated people in its offices around the world. It’s not inherently a bad organization. But music companies are not investment banks or oil companies. They don’t generate that level of cash. If you try to force them to do it, you’ll wind up cutting the creative experimentation you need, taking dangerous chances on high-priced “sure things”, demoralizing your staff, and draining your most productive assets to pay for your least-productive ones.

As remote as the problems of EMI might seem, the lesson of unrealistic expectations is one worth keeping in mind, even for individual songwriters and entrepreneurs entering the publishing game. As Andre de Raaff, the CEO of Imagem Music once sagely pointed out to me in a discussion about the disappointment of many investment firms who recently acquired publishing catalogs– music publishing is indeed a relatively steady business, but only over the course of about ten years.

When looked at over a decade, most established music publishing catalogs tend to hold their value and provide a relatively predictable rate of return. But within that ten year period, there can be wild swings in income from one year to the next. Currency fluctuations, copyright lawsuits, split disputes, hit songs or big flops can cause unexpected spikes or dips in the financial picture. Should you happen to buy into a catalog during the wrong three or four year period, you could easily panic when you don’t see the results you expected. If you can’t afford to wait it out for ten years, at which point the good and bad times will probably even each other out, you risk taking a sizable loss on your investment.

For those starting up a company, that means that you need to have a clear, level-headed understanding of the risks involved, the potential profits, and the time-frame in which you expect to see some action. Here are three rules to keep in mind that should help you avoid the dangers of great expectations:

1. Don’t buy anything based on what it could be.

The music business is built on dreams of endless potential. Every catalog you will ever be offered for purchase will be “full of undiscovered hits that have never been recorded!”. Every songwriter you consider signing will be on the verge of becoming the next big thing. Every cut you get will be under consideration to be the next single. None of it means anything.

Of course, all of it is possible–and hopefully one of the acts or songs you sign will turn out to be wildly successful. But you don’t do the deal based on that expectation. You negotiate the price based on what something is earning now (if it’s an established artist or catalog) or on a very conservative estimate of what it could do (for new artists or songs). You don’t plan for success. Plan for slow and steady growth, and make your financial decisions based on those plans. Then be surprised by success.

2. Don’t look for a quick money.

There isn’t any. All money in music publishing comes through the proverbial pipeline– a CD is sold at a retailer, who pays the distribution company which then pays the label which then pays Harry Fox or the equivalent which then pays the music publisher. Most of the time, that process takes somewhere between a year and a year and a half– longer than that for international royalties. Performance money is somewhat quicker, but still at least 9 months from when a song is on the radio. This is why songwriters want advances from publishers– because it’s very easy to find yourself starving, even while you’re hearing your song on the Top Forty countdown.

If you sign a new writer with an advance, no matter how minimal, it’s very unlikely that you will recoup that advance within the first year. Even if the songwriter is able to write a song in the first week of the deal, and you’re able to get the song picked up by an A&R person in the first month, it will still take three to six months for the artist to record it and release it, and another month and a half before it starts to impact at radio. It’s almost impossible that the money for that airplay or sales will show up in your coffers before the end of the first contract period. When it comes to signing and developing songwriters, you have to be willing to stay in the deal for at least a couple of years in order to get your money back.

3. Desperation is dangerous.

Decisions only get harder when you’re desperate. If you need to show results quickly, you will take foolish chances, be too aggressive, overpay for deals, or put too much pressure on the songwriters signed to you.
If you’re trying to stave off financial disaster, you’ll make budget cuts that will impair your ability to find new acts, drop unrecouped songwriters too soon, and sell off songs or catalogs at a fraction of their real value.

The music biz is a risk-taking business– but in order to take risks intelligently, you need a solid, supportive environment in which to work. That means enough capital in the business to survive while you’re waiting for your pipeline to come in, low overheads that can be covered by slow and steady growth, and enough patience and belief from your partners or investors that you are able to follow your instincts, and even make a few mistakes along the way.

A little more than a month ago, when Terra Firma was desperately trying to raise funds from its investors to stave off a Citibank takeover of EMI, they trotted out the new CEO at the time, Charles Allen, and announced that Allen would be unveiling “the new plan” to turn EMI from investment bust to boom. It was hard not to feel badly for the new leader, who was essentially being asked to create a fantasy picture in which everyone’s expectations would eventually be met, even as everyone knew that this was a completely unlikely scenario. As it turns out, he didn’t stick around long enough to even initiate the plan. And now there’s a new dream on the table.

As my father in law likes to say, you can’t teach a pig to fly. Trying will only frustrate you, and annoy the pig. Keep your expectations in line with reality, and you’ll have a far greater chance at not only meeting them, but maybe even exceeding them.

The New Big

May 16 2010

A good friend of mine, one of the best “songpluggers” left in the music industry, has his own company through which he consults for a number of publishing companies and songwriters, pitching songs throughout the world. His company slogan, emblazoned on every email is:

Small is the new big.

He’s right– in more ways than one. Clearly, small companies with low overheads and fluid business plans are better suited to manage the challenges of the “new” music industry than the massive conglomerates that have been the dominating forces over the past several decades. In fact, even many large, well-established companies have realized that small profit ventures like low-percentage administration deals, music library businesses, gratis sync licenses that yield only performance income, and no-advance sub-publishing arrangements have replaced the big-money pay-offs on co-publishing, life of copyright deals and six-figure sync fees. Small money is not only the new big money. It seems to be the only money there is.

But “small is the new big” in another sense as well–perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “small is tomorrow’s big”, and it always has been. The music industry is full of niche markets, many of which are deemed too small or specialized to interest the major record labels, or their colleagues at the major publishers. These little pockets of activity probably don’t show up on the Billboard charts. The music may not even be sold through conventional music outlets (whatever those are anymore). The markets are too obscure to interest the big industry players, not nearly sexy or cutting-edge enough to bring up at an A&R meeting, and too limited in their earnings to attract the attention of the investment community or the financial guys at the major music corporations. And yet, if you look at some of these markets twenty years later, you’ll usually find that at some point, a smart, wily, unconventional entrepreneur came in and quietly made a killing, while all the rest of the industry slept. Out of nowhere, the small business person becomes the new big one.

Happened to read an article today about one such example– a very dramatic one at that. Check out an article called “The Influencer”, by Connie Bruck, in the New Yorker magazine.

New Yorker articles being what they are, this is a long and fascinating story of entertainment mogul and political powerbroker Haim Saban, full of complex political and ethical implications. But for music business weasels like myself, the primary point of interest was this one:

Saban made his initial fortune as a music publisher. He’s now estimated to be worth more than $3 billion dollars. Do I have your attention now?

In 1986, Saban sold his first music publishing catalog to Warner Communications for about $6 million dollars, which he then used to expand his empire, buying additional catalogs, and then expanding his media holdings to eventually include Fox’s Family Channel and now, Univision. Still, I feel fairly confident that most in the music business would hardly recognize his name, except for having seen it on the outside of office buildings or theaters in LA. For all his years in the music industry, Saban doesn’t seem to have any big hits or legendary acts to his credit. He probably didn’t often hang around the schmooze circuit of awards shows and music conferences. I can’t see him checking out bands at Stubbs at SXSW.

So how did he manage to make a fortune in the music business, anyway? The answer:


Not exactly the mainstream of the industry. Indeed, it was even less so when Saban got into it, in the late 1970′s. At the time, Saban was managing a young French singer from Israel named Noam Kaniel. The manager brought Kaniel to Paris, taught him French, secured a recording contract and had a minor hit with the artist when he sang the theme to “Goldarak”, a Japanese cartoon series broadcast in France. You can’t get much further from the mainstream music business than that. Yet for Saban, it became the opportunity of a lifetime.

The exposure to the cartoon business allowed Saban to see that a huge amount of music publishing income could be generated by TV cartoons, which are licensed to television stations around the world and played countless times. If you’re wondering what the word “perennial” means, think about Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, and how many times you’ve seen certain classic episodes– and how many times your kids have seen, or will see them as well. Now, imagine what those generate in performance income from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and the other societies around the world.

Quickly, Saban seized the moment and began signing writers to create music as “works for hire”, which he then provided to the cartoon production companies for free– Saban registered the works and took the publisher share (and often the writer share as well). In less than ten years, he was selling the company for seven figures. Small got big and was getting bigger.

It’s a remarkable story, but not an entirely unique one. There are similar tales throughout the music and entertainment industry of people who found a spot in the shadows where they could quietly mint money, while others grabbed the headlines. Actually, the story of Saban reminded me of Clive Calder, the founder of Jive Records and Zomba Music, who I had the good fortune to work for in the late 90′s, before he sold his company for more than 3 billion dollars. Like Saban, Calder found his initial opportunity in niche markets like heavy metal and hip-hop, snapping up the publishing on early hip-hop artists and producers when the general consensus was that hip-hop was unlikely to yield any enduring copyrights. Rap was too small a business to matter much, and even many of the other entrepreneurs that were pivotal in the expansion of the genre failed to see the value of the publishing rights, and focused only on starting record labels.

All of this came to mind when I met this week with Chrisie Santoni, a talented songwriter, performer and publisher. In our discussion about her band and the success she’s had in creating a self-sustaining business around her music, she happened to mention that there was another element to her company which focused on children’s music. As it turns out, she has constructed an exciting new business, Dancing Bears Music, built around her work as a performer and music educator for children– playing shows and selling CDs. Still, I could tell that she was a little hesitant to mention it, knowing that music for children was something that rarely registered on the radar of most music business weasels.

That’s their loss. The fact that most of the major labels have entirely abandoned the children’s market is incredible, especially since it’s one of the few genres that can still move physical product. People who balk at paying a dollar to download a song for themselves will happily buy a fifteen dollar CD for their kids (especially if it keeps the kids quiet in the car!). Why label A&R’s and music publishers would rather wager money on a buzz band from Brooklyn, instead of a children’s project that could be sold to all the people wheeling strollers around Park Slope is utterly beyond me. But I know that it spells opportunity.

It’s not the only such opportunity out there. Niche markets like world music, foreign language releases, theater music, modern classical, jam bands, soca, dancehall and many others all have the potential to generate big money, and yet fall outside the purview of most major label and publishing A&R people, who are segregated into pop, rock, country, urban, and (maybe) Latin departments.

Of course, there are no guarantees. Many small niche markets never grow much, and others quickly become over-saturated to the point where no one can make any money. Niche markets probably won’t get you a profile in Billboard, or generate a major label bidding war. At worst, a niche market provides a small but steady income with a minimum of risk. At best, it could be tomorrow’s hot new thing, and you’ll be there before anyone else. So never be embarrassed or hesitant to focus your company in areas that the mainstream industry dismisses as marginal. There’s a lot of money to be made on the margins. For small publishers who want to get big– this is where you start.

A quick note in closing:

I want to be sure to let all of you who follow this blog know about my new business: Ask The Music Business Weasel! This is an hourly consulting service aimed at songwriters, artists, and publishers looking for information, feedback, or advice on confronting challenges in their business. The consultation can happen in person, over the phone, through skype, or whatever suits you– but it’s a chance to chat and try to brainstorm about opportunities and strategies for your music career. If you’re interested check out my brand new website:

If you go to the section marked: consulting, you’ll find more information about the service. Just drop me an email at, and I’ll be in touch to set something up.

Hands Off

Mar 25 2009

In case, you haven’t heard, the grand new era of Guy Hands at EMI officially ended this week– not simply with the British financier bowing out of EMI, which he’d already done some time ago, but by Hands actually resigning the CEO position at Terra Firma Capital Partners, the firm he created. It doesn’t take a great deal of investigative reporting to get to the real story behind the press release It’s pretty clear that (a) no one gives up control of their own firm happily (b) despite the numerous problems for any financial firm these days, the EMI acquisition was clearly the straw that broke the backers’ back, and knocked Mr. Hands off his feet. And all this after only 2 years…

It’s hard to believe that it was only two years ago that Hands engineered the $2.5 billion dollar purchase of EMI, promising a new era of re-invention, cost-cutting, prudent, financially-savvy management, and a mission to bring a more mature, sensible approach to this business we call show. Of course, paying 2.5 billion for something worth probably half that amount was not a great start. Hands later acknowledged that Terra Firma was shocked upon acquiring EMI to learn how little of the company’s income came from current artists, as opposed to the old catalog. It seems that a financial capital firm’s due diligence does not include asking a couple of random music execs at the Soho House about the company’s prospects. After all, virtually any music weasel could have easily explained that aside from Coldplay, Radiohead and
Robbie Williams (he’s quite big in the UK)

, EMI hadn’t been able to buy a hit record since the Beatles. It was not a well-kept secret.

Nevertheless, Hands took over the teetering ship, made a number of oft-quoted and lofty announcements, took a rather quixotic approach to hiring (putting a UK A&R man in charge of the US, and a former Procter and Gamble exec in charge of him) and promptly began to feel the water rising up around his nose. Artists started lambasting him, Radiohead went off to release its album through the Internet for nothing, Robbie Williams bid adieu, and recorded music sales dropped like a brick. Earlier this year, Terra Firma disclosed a $1.78 billion dollar write-down on its investments, thanks largely to Guys’ foray into the world of rock ‘n’ roll. And now, we begin the wind-down, as second-level execs assume their positions, bow their heads, and prepare to submerge. The whole thing lasted just about as long as the equally ill-fated Sony-BMG merger. Come to think of it, that AOL-Time Warner thing didn’t do much better either.

There’s a pattern here. Show business, whether it’s the movie business or the record business, has a long and hallowed history of fleecing the money guys. Inevitably, a wealthy financier blows into town, trailing money, and expounding on his determination to “re-make” the industry, or perhaps more precisely, to hang out with rock stars, their model girlfriends, and aspiring young actresses, while re-making the industry. Of course, this impulse is understandable (not necessarily the hanging out with rockstars and actresses part, although that’s understandable too) since the world of show business is one of the most illogical, inexplicable, nonsensical, and utterly insane business environments in existence. Inevitably, people from the financial world (or even anyone who can do high-school math) take one look at a business like music and conclude that all of the current executives are idiots, and that anyone with actual business acumen could easily better their dismal performance. To be fair, a lot of musicians and songwriters look at most music executives and think pretty much the same thing.

Remember that recent movie Grizzly Man, about the guy who lived with grizzlies in the wilderness? He thought they were his friends. In fact, he was so confident of his kinship with the grizzlies that he started filming his own experiences with them. And then one day, that ate him for lunch. It’s not all that different from a night at Spago in Hollywood.

The problem with real “business” people in the music business is that they’re inevitably sure that the secret to success lies in somehow eliminating risk, cutting costs, improving marketing, reigning in the artists, and making the whole thing more like other more predictable industries. It’s a nice thought. But all of history points to the fact that show business is reliant not on efficiency or prudence or common sense, but rather the completely unpredictable science of finding hits, based on open ears, a little luck, a lot of gut instinct, and plenty of chutzpah.

Most major players in the music industry are very limited in their executive skills. Most have almost no ability to contain costs, plan for the future, or create an efficient operation. However, the ones that survive generally do know how to accomplish one all-important thing: they know how to recognize a hit song or a hit artist. Most MBA-toting, professional CEO’s can’t do it. So far, none of the “too cool for school”, zeitgeist-reading advertising gurus or new media guys have figured out how to do it. Many artists can’t do it, which is why so many artists’ label ventures fail completely. One thing you have to say about the music biz sharks– when they hear a splash, they recognize the sound of opportunity calling. And they know how to take advantage of it.

There is no greater skill than the ability to recognize a hit song. It will cover up a multitude of sins. It will sustain you despite market meltdowns and marketing mishaps. A real, genuine hit song can’t be stopped– even by all the stupidity of the record and radio industry– it has a life of its own. The ability to create, or at least to understand the principles that go into creating a hit song, is what my new book,
The Billboard Guide To Writing And Producing Songs That Sell

is all about. If you understand what makes a hit record, you’re better positioned for success than 90 percent of the people with more money, more business connections, more artistry, or more book knowledge of how to run a company. It may not be fair or just, but it’s just how show biz works.

So now that the latest savior of the music business has tossed in the towel, where do we turn? If not Hands, then who? Certainly, there’s no denying that the music business needs fixing. Here’s my idea:

Rather than turning to an outsider, whose claim to fame is turning around a gas station chain, why not look to the survivors of the industry, those who have been on the inside, and have managed to find success over and over again? On this score, my vote goes to
Barry Weiss

the President and CEO of the Zomba/RCA label group within the Sony Music hierarchy. Barry will probably never be the head of a multi-billion dollar financial capital company. I can’t see him buying gas-station chains or running Procter and Gamble. He’s not even likely to become a high-profile personality revered by the record-buying public, like Clive Davis or Simon Cowell.

But having grown up in the record business, Barry understands what actually matters. He knows the fundamentals of getting records out into the market place. He knows how to make his numbers, both on the cost side, the calendar side, and the sales side. Most of all, he knows that a company survives in this business by making hits, pure and simple. He’s not always eloquent, or politic, and he doesn’t specialize in finesse. Nevertheless, Jive Records continues to turn out hits, year after profitable year. Call me crazy, but that might be a guy we could learn from. I say, with Hands down, this year let’s Weiss-up, and look at the people that have proven they can get it right.

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.