By Piers Henwood
I have a theory that not all hit songs become hit songs.
This idea implies that a hit song – like a Platonic Form – has an essence and inherent value, regardless of the audience it reaches. I believe this can be a useful model to apply to creative pursuit in any field, and can also fuel long-term motivation for creators.
A hit typically means that a song has reached a significant mainstream audience, and the word “hit” colloquially describes the song’s chart (i.e., market) performance more than its inherent character. But what about songs whose inherent character is so compelling and timeless that the size of their audience is irrelevant?
The job of managers and A&R people historically has been to find hits, before they’re hits: a song that has melodic, lyrical, and rhythmic characteristics capable of making it resonate deeply. In my work as a manager, I‘ve been moved so deeply by clients’ songs that they’ve become “hits” in my own life experience, irrespective of their eventual popularity. There are songs whose DNA unlocks significant emotion for specific groups of people. Their form and essence are so remarkable that their mass popularity becomes secondary.
Perhaps this is more easily understood in the visual medium; for example, most people would likely agree that Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” embodied its greatness the moment the paint dried (in essence, it was a “hit” when completed), and not solely years later when the market caught up posthumously.
The internet gives us a second factor to consider when thinking philosophically about hits – it makes niche fame possible. As David Perell has observed, this is a category of fame distinct from celebrity fame. “People who are Niche Famous are well-known in a small circle of influence, but virtually unknown outside of it.” They’re deeply cherished by a smaller number of people, and typically the degree of emotional impact is significant.
Artists can build fanbases, powered by songs that become hits within a devoted community
Streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music make niche hits and niche fame possible – so we can still apply a market lens to great songs that don’t become mainstream chart hits. Artists can build fanbases, powered by songs that become hits within a devoted community. Those songs typically have a form and essence that create a significant degree of recurring emotional impact for a niche group of people. I believe that’s enough to justify using the word “hit,” regardless of chart position. We’ve seen this repeatedly with Tegan and Sara, and more recently with Luca Fogale (both of whom have been management clients of mine).
When we arrived with Tegan and Sara at the Santiago airport for their first-ever performance in Chile in 2017, there were about 100 screaming and crying fans waiting desperately at the airport gate. It wasn’t The Beatles landing at JFK Airport in 1964 in terms of numbers, but it was identical in terms of intensity. Emotions settled when Tegan and Sara started taking selfies and signing autographs, and the fans spontaneously started singing the Tegan and Sara song “Call It Off” – in essence, serenading their idols between screams and tears.
A melody and lyric had traveled the globe via streaming. “Call it Off” is a bona fide hit within the Tegan and Sara fanbase. Even though it never charted after its release in 2007, there are hundreds of thousands of people who’ve sung along to it, both in concert and at home.
I think these considerations can provide consistent fuel for creators over the course of a career. Just like a founder shouldn’t say to herself, “it’s not worth starting a business unless I can become Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos,” no one should use chart hits and celebrity fame as the only barometer of success and motivation in the arts.
We can’t ignore the market, but we can take pleasure in the Platonic Form of great songwriting and great artistic form. And in the process we can use those songs to build deep and meaningful connections with niche audiences of any size.
Now that’s a hit (even if it wasn’t a “hit.”)