How Does A Song Become A Hit?

Written by: Korie Burton |Muscle Shoals Song Rooms Intern 2020

October 30, 2020

How does a song become a HIT? And how does a HIT get to #1 on the charts? Let me say this: it’s a difficult task, and one I’m sure we would all love to accomplish one day. In an article from Splinter News, Kelsey McKinney does a great job explaining the process a song takes to get to the #1 spot.

Her First Point: “The song has to be good & accessible”

McKinney makes a point in her article to say that a “good” song does not necessarily mean great lyrics or an amazing production. A “good” song is one that gets stuck in your head and you just have to keep playing. “What makes a song ‘good enough’ to be number one, then, isn’t it’s quality of performance, but it’s quality of repeat,” McKinney explains. It may not have the most original lyrics, or the fanciest melodies but it’s new and fresh and ear-catching, and that makes radio want to play it.

It’s funny to me just how common it is to have SO many people hate the song that sits at #1. Yes, sometimes the current number one can seem boring and familiar, but it is number one! I believe we can all learn from those songs we don’t really like. If you’re not a fan of that new song you’re always hearing on the radio, take a closer look at it. How do those songwriters say the same ole thing in a new way? What is that melody doing that makes it so dang hooky and stick in your head all day long? How can you take what they’ve done and make it better? (without copying it!)

So How is the #1 Song Decided if it’s not necessarily based on quality?

Sales, radio, and streaming…in that order! Billboard has a “special formula” they use to calculate exactly what song is doing the best in a particular week. Sales are the main factor in what decides a #1, and radio play follows. Oddly enough, even today, streaming is the least important element in the equation.

My main take away from McKinney’s writing was this next quote I want to share with you: “Getting into the Top 40 might take luck, but getting the number one song in America takes more than that—it takes a precise confluence of every form of viral behavior all at once. People have to buy the song, they have to hear it on the radio and watch the video on YouTube. It has to, simply, be a hit.”

All this being said, a #1 song and a great song are not mutually exclusive. McKinney points out in her writing that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the most played song of the 90s (Yes, the whole decade) and it never saw higher than #5 on the charts. It’s perfectly okay to want and strive for a Billboard #1, but just because you don’t have a hit, doesn’t mean you don’t have a great song! If you take away anything from reading this, I hope it’s that the charts don’t define your career. If you’re writing music you love and are passionate about and sharing it with people, then you are a successful songwriter.