Just Make Great Music? It Could Be the Worst Advice You’ll Ever Get…

In almost every discussion about how to be successful in the music industry, the same adage always pops up:

“just make great music.”

But what if that’s the worst advice for your particular career goals, either as an artist or executive at a label, publisher, or management firm?  For example, would that have been the best advice to give to pop success stories like LMFAO, Pitbull, Katy Perry, or Flo Rida?  Or, a manager like Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber), or someone like Jive founder Clive Calder (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync)?

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No way.  This is a complex industry with different specialties and audiences, many of whom care little for deeply complex and meaningful music.  Judge however you want, but the pop stars catering to this crowd are distinct animals with specific goals, and their m.o. is more about creating catchy, mass market connections than toiling over redeeming, ‘good’ music.

These artists aren’t challenging Mozart – or Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, deadmau5, Radiohead, or Bruce Springsteen.  It’s more about a hook, a feel-good moment.  Sure, you might be listening to one of their songs five years from now, but probably only for nostalgia or fun.  But right now, this is the furthest thing from a niche.

In fact, it’s the most-listened-to music in the world.  Here’s the latest BigChampagne Ultimate Chart, which is unfailingly stuffed with radio-friendly, pop-friendly stuff.  Perhaps one of these songs would survive the wilds of a Williamsburg playlist.

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And yes, pop-driven careers typically go ‘poof’ after a period of years – a phenomenon that major labels deeply understand.  But if the game is played right, that’s a period of that features cash, endorsements, paid appearances, and other pop-driven benefits.  And then, goes away (and gets documented by TMZ).

But not always: amazingly, this musical candy can sometimes spawn long-term success.  Dish on Kenny G as much as you want, but he’s one of the longest-spanning, wealthiest artists alive.  Barring that longevity, a short stint can generate a one-hit wonder that gets played decades from now – on the radio, in clubs, at stadia – and generates a royalty stream that lasts a lifetime.  Or, it can return in a freakishly-campy celebration (ie, Rick Astley), or get re-celebrated in a genuinely nostalgic way (ie, insert 80s band here).  And, even the Beastie Boys – responsible for some of the greatest music in modern history – were panned as a mere shock-driven gimmick after Licensed to Ill.

Perhaps most surprising is that ‘pop’ as we’ve defined it has managed to survive the modern, digitally-democratized era.  Just last week, we found that radio-driven, sugary pop is not only clogging charts like BigChampagne’s Ultimate 100 and Billboard’s Hot 100, but also permeating the top-ranked songs on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.  It’s the most popular stuff on all of these platforms, with little variation despite infinite choice and access.

It’s not ‘good,’ ‘great,’ or long-lasting material, but it’s still a meaningful and lucrative market in 2012.  No matter how despised by the rest of us.

Written while listening to Carly Rae Jepsen (as remixed/mashed-up by Kap Slap), Martin Solveig, and Rihanna.