Making Hit Records

Posted on July 22, 2013 by


By, Wendy Day

The most obvious secret for success in the music business is also the most difficult thing to achieve. If you want immediate awareness of you as an artist, and a song that will cost less to market and promote (this is not a free industry, so everything costs money to market and promote): make a hit record! Easier said than done, eh?

In my career, I’ve seen two ways that successful hit records occur:

1) Naturally: this is where the artist finds a great beat, makes a simple hook that resonates with fans across the country, and creates a song that’s great from beginning to end. It’s usually a subject the artist understands, knows intimately, and is comfortable rapping about– and the song almost always comes across as passionate and authentic. This method is mostly the artist accidentally stumbling onto a hit rather than sitting down with the intention of making a hit record. [side note: smart artists have split sheets with them in the studio and as soon as they make a song they write down who did what, who owns what percentage, and then everyone involved signs the split sheet. To go back and chase after everyone, especially while the song is blowing up, creates selective memory, unnecessary drama, and potential lawsuits and beat downs. Handle it properly out the gate! Here’s what a split sheet looks like: <a href=""&gt;]

2) Create A Hit Record: this is where the artist gets a beat from an established producer who has made numerous hit records and understands what that is. Then, a team of writers are brought in to write a hit record–a song that will resonate with the artist’s fan base, or potential fan base if the artist is new. This is what Rihanna does to make her albums, or Justin Bieber, etc. Many of your favorite rappers do this too, but I won’t expose them here. Almost always, there is someone orchestrating the hits, such as an A&R person at the label or someone with experience in making hit records. I’ve seen super producer Sean Garrett do this in the studio–create number one hits for artists by supplying all of the components including his platinum ear. [The lawyers negotiate the split sheets on manufactured records and you hope you have some ownership left!]

There is no “right way” to make a hit record; a hit is a hit! But I prefer the first way because the song usually sounds genuine and authentic as opposed to manufactured. Although, manufactured sells!!

The key to a hit record is that it’s universal. It appeals to mass amounts of people, all over the country and all over the world–meaning, it’s not local or regional. Most artists make regional music, especially newer artists because they haven’t been anywhere yet. Once an artist tours the country or the world and sees the different sounds and types of music that are out there, their music usually becomes less local and more international. When you’re making a song about what you know, you tend to use local slang, local ideas, and trends that affect your direct location. Sometimes the slang catches on (swag, Turnt up, Yolo, kush, a milli, sippin’ on syrup, etc) and spreads, but sometimes it stays regional and makes the music seem dated (going dumb, put it on the slab, off my square, riding spinners, fish scale, whuddup son, etc). When making a hit record, you learn to use words everyone understands instead of trying to introduce new phrases. The hook is usually short and to the point–often a phrase you can easily print on a t-shirt. And, because you know that hit records are spread fastest by radio, the hit record never has any cursing, no n-word, no references to drugs or overt sexual references. The song is as clean as possible to insure radio won’t reject it…and it’s usually three and a half minutes long and mixed and mastered professionally.

I have always found that the best way to tell if I have a hit record is to get feedback from key DJs, industry insiders, and program directors. This panel that I send music to for feedback consists of regional (not local) mixtape DJs, industry insiders with a good ear–they promote records for major labels or work in A&R at a label, and radio DJs around the country. I never ask a lot of people in just one region because I’m looking to grow my records nationally and I don’t want just regional hits. That’s the problem with The Bay Area in CA and some music coming out of Houston, for example. It’s too regional to spread across the whole US, not to mention spreading internationally (although, truth is, I rarely focus on international. I’ve never had a client with the budget to spread music and work it overseas). I send 3 or 4 songs to my key DJ panel (which changes regularly based on timing and how receptive they are to giving me an opinion) for feedback and to choose singles. I NEVER pick a single myself, even if I think it’s obvious. But I ask enough DJs to give me a good idea of which songs are hot.

Understand that when you ask a strip club DJ in Florida, for example, which song is hot, his ear will be drawn to the record that will work in strip clubs in FL. I want to go bigger than just gaining acceptance in strip clubs in Florida. So I make sure my panel has radio DJs from across the country, mainstream club DJs from NY, L.A., Dallas, Denver, Miami, etc. I ask well known DJs and the hot up and coming DJs who actually break records. I also ask independent radio promoters because they know what will work with a decent budget behind it. And lastly, I ask industry folks who make and work records because they’ve made and worked hit records before and know a hit when they hear it. All in all, I send the record out to about 15 people for feedback. This process can take 3 to 4 weeks, but it’s worth it. I almost always send mixed and mastered records because if the song is hot, the DJs will want to play it. Chasing after a record that hasn’t been mixed and mastered is a nightmare. Hit records spread like wild fire thanks to the ease of forwarding an mp3 via email. DJs share hot records with each other. It’s a nice problem to have though…a record that spreads too quickly. But NOT if it’s an unfinished version. That’s a nightmare to chase down.

The last thing I will mention about having a hit record is that you will lose all control of spreading the song naturally. It will grow legs and run and you will be chasing it to properly market, promote, and brand the new artist. How many times have you heard a great song, only to not know who the artist is who made it? And if you know his or her name, would you know them if they were standing next to you? Probably not, if the song got ahead of the branding. I remember when Rocko had the hit “Ima Do Me,” so few people knew the song was by Rocko that many of the radio stations and concert promoters had to announce him as ‘ Rocko, Mr-Ima-Do-Me!’. There was a huge disconnect between the hit record and fans knowing who made the song. Another disconnect can occur when an unknown artist features an established artist, especially on the hook. Many fans thought Lil Wayne made “Duffle Bag Boy” not Playaz Circle. When David Banner put out “Like A Pimp,” sales for Lil Flip increased because fans thought it was Flip’s song. And today, many fans think Future “woke up in a new Bugatti” not Ace Hood. That’s the price you pay for feeling like you need an established co-sign on your record and the song is a hit record.

The bottom line is that it costs a lot of money to market and promote music, even regionally (you have to go bigger than “locally” if you want a career as an artist). The best way to maximize your investment, or reduce the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are necessary to succeed, is to make a hit record. It will still cost money to work it, but it will spread faster and go deeper than a mediocre record. The problem is that most artists don’t know what a hit record is, how to make one, or what to do with it if they accidentally get one. Get feedback from professionals around the country about your music to help you choose your single (if you have a hit record, this is when you will find out by how quickly it spreads naturally). And lastly, put together a team ahead of time that can help you succeed without wasting money. Remember to check all references. Not every industry person who’s known is great at what they do–in fact, most are not. Know who you are doing business with, and become another success on that person’s resume. Don’t trust your career to folks who haven’t done this before successfully. You only get one shot at working a hit record before it’s over. Don’t blow it…hit records are too hard to find!

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