The rise of the mega-tracks

Robin Thicke was moaning this week. He’s getting good at it. He’s had to moan about his video being empowering to women when it’s clearly sexist tripe. He’s had to moan about being sued by Funkadelic and Marvin Gaye’s estate who he claims not to have plagiarised. He’s had to moan about Blurred Lines being banned when it’s ‘not naughty it’s just sexy’. Sadly for him an incitement to non-consensual sex is considered rapey in most civilised societies.

Having complained about the song not being played in places he’s now having to complain that people are playing it too much. Behind every hit is a writ and, like it or loathe it, Blurred Lines is a big hit. This is the problem that Thicke has this week. Blurred Lines is so big that he can’t get DJs or radio stations to play his other songs. It should be a nice problem to have and it is strictly an ‘old school’ issue.

When you’re with a major record label and you record a bunch of songs – one of which is considered to be a sure-fire hit – the label gets out its big-guns and you have a release schedule. That schedule is fixed around the hit with the focus meant to be on the album that contains the hit. This is why it’s so old school, the album should follow the chart impact of the hit by around a month at which time a second prospective hit is planned.

When your hit won’t die it throws the schedule out. The label struggle to get play for the second single which is intended to show your diversity or the mass of possible hits that people might get if they buy the album, they struggle to get this play because so many people are still playing the first mega-hit. People keep claiming the album is dead but the artists and labels still love the album, their entire schedule is based around it and this pattern seems unlikely, certainly unwilling, to change.

In most other consumer-facing industries companies and products adapt to fit the needs of the consumer. There are many reasons why the music industry isn’t built that way but there is a dramatic need for it to become more fluid and adaptable.

The fact is that the age of the mega-track is upon us. The technology has changed the industry but the end-result is almost a reversal in time – the single is the important factor, get it right and that’s how your career can be built.

There are more tracks available and more places to hear them and buy them but the majority of people want what they’ve always wanted – to hear the hits. Yes, they may have broader tastes, they may not be so genre-obsessed but (as social media tells us) they still flock together like sheep. The biggest tracks on Spotify and YouTube are still those that dominate the chart worldwide – the Rihannas, Justins, GaGas, Avicii, Daft Punk, Bruno Mars, etc.

You want to get ahead on Spotify? It’s pretty hard as my friend Robin Valk points out, everyone’s just listening to what they already know they like. Spotify recommends stuff but it’s not as clever as it would like to think it is. I get two e-mails a week from them – one recommends stuff based on what I’ve listened to and isn’t too bad; the other just plugs the hits and what’s big in my area as if my location had any influence upon my taste. They do this for a reason though, it’s what people want.

Industry commentator Bob Lefsetz wrote a post on October 16th (it’s linked here but his website wasn’t working at time of writing) which is very sobering on the quantity of tracks available and selling or, rather, not selling. The upshot is essentially this – for some artists and songs there is money to be made in single tracks, they need not worry about albums (yet they still do). Others need to form relationships with their fans and concentrate on delivering what the fan-base wants.

Artists may hate the thought of marketing but to even get their music heard they have to be involved in it in some shape or form. You have to find your market and (cliché alert) ‘super-serve’ it. If the people want mega-tracks, worldwide hits then you either try to make those or you work within your niche.

For no other reason than it's great and his time is now (or soon), here's George Barnett hopping on the back of someone else's mega-track: