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When it comes to hit songs, there is a formula for success. (Photo: Getty Images)
Last month, seemingly out of nowhere, Adele’s first single in three years dropped. “Hello” basically broke the Internet.
The song was an instant success in every way: On Vevo, the music video generated the highest number of views in a 24-hour span (27.7 million) and was the fastest video to reach 100 million views. The single entered the Billboard chart at No. 1, with 1,112,000 digital downloads — nearly double the previous record for digital downloads in one week, which was previously held by Flo Rida’s 2009 hit “Right Round.”
Bottom line: Since Adele released 21 four years ago, we’ve all been waiting to devour her music like starved piranhas. While she was still fighting through a case of writer’s block to conceive “Hello,” the undeveloped song was already destined to be a chart topper.
Musical artist Adele. (Photo: YouTube)
When 25 hits the market on Nov. 20, we can pretty much bet it’ll be a surefire success — just like Taylor Swift’s 1989 was a guaranteed smash, outselling every other album in 2014 despite spending just nine weeks on the market last year. When One Direction’s fifth album, Made in the A.M., is officially released on Friday (Nov. 13), the band will likely make history as the first to have five albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Why are we so invested in certain artists and their music? According to media expert Chris Ferguson, PhD, an associate professor and the chairman of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, it’s a complicated formula — but a formula nonetheless.
Why we like the music that we do
To a certain degree, our musical preferences may be genetic and rooted in our personalities, says Ferguson. Extroverts may use music to help themselves through monotonous tasks like cleaning, while those with a high degree of the Big Five trait of openness may be more inclined to like edgier music, such as heavy metal.
A 2007 study published by the British Psychological Society showed that factors like personality and IQ impact how people use music in their lives. In the study, men and women who were more intellectually engaged and had higher IQs tended to use music in a rational way, curbing their preferences to reflect something specific about their tastes to the outside world. Meanwhile, those who were more introverted and neurotic, or less conscientious, generally used music to regulate their moods.
Music is also deeply etched into our psyche, alongside the memories we accumulate throughout our lives. “Music is, to a large degree, a social event,” Ferguson tells Yahoo Health. “As we begin to associate certain types of music with certain things — typical ‘classical conditioning’ — we may show a preference for those types of music.” That’s why if you grew up in New England, there may be a special place in your heart for Phish. Or why if you have Southern roots, you may have an affinity for songs with a country sound.
But today, popular music is “incredibly fractured,” says Ferguson, meaning there are tons of genres — and subgenres — gaining popularity among niche groups. He considers this is a good thing: “Since there’s a wider variety of tastes, there are more opportunities for bands and artists to really tap into niche markets and make these work.”
That being said, certain artists seem to rise to the top (and stay there) in an alarmingly powerful fashion. To do just that, they have to hit all the right notes, explains Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif.
“Artists who achieve lasting success are extraordinarily talented at telling stories, taking us on an emotional journey — whether it’s fun or soul-searching,” she tells Yahoo Health. “We come back to them because we can re-experience the journey as a memory; it feels familiar, and that is psychologically satisfying.”
The elements of a successful song
The formula for gaining traction in the music industry is complex but fairly identifiable: Carve out your place within a trending genre and cultivate an image that has mass or widespread appeal. But at the same time, perpetuate melodic messages that feel personal in nature. Ultimately, an artist’s success hinges on his or her individuality, reliability, and potential bankability, says Ferguson.
“Those that rise to the top are able to tap into a particular trend in pop music, but do so in a unique way, so that they have a unique aspect that can evolve over time,” he explains. “Some of the mega-artists from the 1980s, such as Madonna or U2, were masters of this. Some of the resilient artists now, such as Swift, are also capitalizing on this technique.”
When we connect to an artist on multiple levels, we’re more likely to keep coming back. “We’re drawn by emotion — a story we can relate to, something that resonates,” says Rutledge. “It can be a single thing or a combination, like the story in the lyrics, the story told by the sound — perhaps the audio choices tell their own message — or the artist’s personal narrative.”
Take Swift, who resonates with audiences on both wide and personal levels. Not only do her lyrics predictably discuss the universal themes of romance and heartbreak, but her persona is that of the relatable girl next door — who millions of girls feel they are. And then there’s Beyoncé. In an era in which women are attempting to break through glass ceilings, Queen B is a symbol of female empowerment.
Meanwhile, Adele appeals to our quieter sides — and shows that it’s possible to still have loud emotions clanging inside, despite outside appearances. “She comes across as the soulful, introspective, intelligent narrative, often focused on loss and relationships,” says Ferguson. “I’d see her as appealing particularly to listeners who view themselves or their own struggles in the same light.”
The more musicians make the listening experience personal for their fans, the more likely they will stay at the front of the pack. “Artists who are able to transmit authenticity through their music and public personas make fans feel more connected,” says Rutledge. “Fans feel ‘seen’ by the stories in the music, and then appreciated as part of the fan community through social media. This reinforces the personal experience with a sense of affiliation.”
And yet, while each of these artists taps into a common cultural narrative, when you break it down, no one else does music like they do. When there’s only one Beyoncé, only one Justin Timberlake, only one Tay Tay, audiences latch on to their sounds and their stories, says psychologist and media expert Nancy Mramor Kajuth, PhD, the CEO of Transformedia.
“They offer role models for [those] who may be looking for a cultural icon to help them develop their own sense of identity,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Adele, for instance, has a universal appeal. All extremely successful artists tend to have it all: star quality, a good look, talent, and a timeliness that matches the industry trends.”
And the more people who get hooked, the more likely we are to be hooked too. “When we know others like someone, it provides a validation of its worth, so we are likely to pay attention — particularly if it’s people we perceive as being like us,” says Rutledge.
The importance of branding
Success is about more than just the music. It can be sustained, it can taper off over time, or it can settle into a very particular niche and grow in popularity among smaller audiences.
But the truth is, a huge piece of an artist’s long-term success has to do with his or her “branding.” Swift is the girl next door to Beyoncé’s reigning queen of female empowerment. U2’s image as rockers who campaign for world issues has been a key factor in the group’s longtime allure.
Artists who have less direction, a less well-defined psychological pocket in our minds, are more likely to fizzle out. These are the one-hit wonders. “Fame is risky when an artist gains popularity not for being an artist, but for a particular song only,” Ferguson says. “You never want most people asking, ‘Oh, who does that song? Eh, I don’t care.’ You want to be known as an all-around artist.”
Psychologically speaking, we tend to enjoy what we find familiar. “As creatures of habit, once you like a familiar sound, you can be fairly confident that you will like the next album,” says Mramor Kajuth. “It’s like ordering from a menu. You can order something familiar that you already know you’ll like, or take a risk.”
Odds are, when we put our hard-earned money down on albums, we bank on things we already know we enjoy — and music executives do too, which is why you see careful branding of emerging artists to help us stay “tuned in and listening,” says Mramor Kajuth.
The more we buy into an artist’s sound, the more we are buying into his or her familiar story — and all the elements that come along with the artist’s unique brand. “Trends in music are both chaotic and managed,” Ferguson says. “The music industry definitely tries its best to shape what’s popular. All industries like predictability and tend to gravitate toward artists that reliably fall within a trend — but with music fracturing so much, there’s a lot more room for unexpected hits to change things and shake them up.”
Ferguson says “branding” for music is akin to branding for beer. “We have to remember that there’s room for both the big brands as well as the microbrews that will appeal to smaller, specific audiences,” he explains. “So some genres can stick around endlessly — like metal and goth, but also jazz — because they keep steady, niche followings.”
Ever heard of the Finnish goth-metal band Nightwish? “This group appeals to a very loyal group of followers,” Ferguson says. “They’ve been around almost 20 years, and while they’ll probably never be on the MTV [Video Music Awards], they’ve made a great run of it and are very well-respected in the goth-metal community.”
Evolving with the times to stay on top
Music fades in and out of popularity. Some genres and subgenres, like upbeat ‘80s-style pop, go out of fashion but “retain a fierce retro impact,” according to Ferguson. Artists like Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen have been able to tap into that sound and sustain a new wave of interest with their recent releases, 1989 and Emotion, respectively.
Artists’ ability to take evolving musical trends and evolve their brands with it can keep their sounds (and images) consistently fresh through the years. Some branding has more potential to go the distance. Swift, for instance, has been able to evolve with her fans as they age and have similar life experiences.
However, artists always have to be careful about how their decisions may impact their sustainability, says Ferguson. “In the case of Swift, some of the press about her iron-clad control over her posse could haunt her,” he notes, “although there’s no sign it’s hurting her sales yet.”
For this reason, One Direction’s Zayn Malik may have issues with album sales and staying power after straying to go solo. The 22-year-old’s Twitter comments about leaving the band that made him famous to make “real music” with RCA may have turned off some potential fans who enjoy the appeal of the generally wholesome, likable-boy-band niche One Direction currently occupies.
Evolving is inevitable and necessary, though. Coming-of-age boy bands (think NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s) have a shelf life of about five years. One Direction has already announced a “hiatus” after Made in the A.M., following the similar trajectory of groups like Destiny’s Child and NSYNC. The X-Factor product has enjoyed five years of giant success, capitalizing on every waking moment of their dwindling adolescent angst. If history is an indicator, this album will likely be their last.
However, there’s still room for individual evolution. With a clever spin in a slightly new direction, Harry Styles or Liam Payne might be able to capitalize on their cultural coming-of-age stories, adjust their sounds, and create some staying power of their own — much like Beyoncé or Timberlake.
In the case of JT, we’ve watched him rise from Mickey Mouse Club member to NSYNC phenom to the global megastar we know today. He’s adapted the formulaic boy band pop sound to include elements of R&B, blues, rock, and soul. And today, Timberlake’s albums are events in themselves, like his latest, The 20/20 Experience, which was released in two parts in 2013. Part 1 sold 968,000 copies in its first week, and both parts together have sold several million copies. We’ve followed his story, bought into his narrative, and now, nearly 20 years after NSYNC’s formation, 34-year-old Timberlake’s success is cemented in music history.
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