Studio Notes: What It Takes to Write a Pop Hit in 2018

Illustration: Jackie Ferrentino

The landscape of pop music is shifting beneath our feet; technology has radically changed the way we consume, and in turn, create music.

“We’re seeing people go from the birth of an idea to something that sounds like it’s ready to be uploaded in two hours,” producer Mr Hudson says. “And that’s thanks to tech.” Amid this new paradigm, we spoke to some of the industry’s top songwriters and producers to find out what it takes to write a pop hit in 2018.

1. Honest songwriting

Many of the artists we spoke to agree that authenticity is key. “A lot of honest music is cutting through right now,” Hook N Sling opines. “It’s a bit of a movement – and that’s a good thing.”

The Australian mega-producer goes on to explain: “We relate to people who don’t have many filters. If you think about the people who you love, your favorite pop artists, they just don’t give a f*ck. They don’t care. And that brutal honesty is what really cuts through.”

2. Get to the chorus

The streaming era has unequivocally changed the way we listen to music. Danish producer SLY candidly reflects: “People are cold-hearted. They will press play, then skip. This is a generation of skipping. You have to grab people quickly with something that interests them.”

For SLY, this means truncating song arrangements to highlight the most important parts. “Don’t bore us, skip to the chorus,” he says. “Especially because of Spotify, you need to interest people within the first few seconds. You need to create something that does not have too long of an intro.”

3. Focus on the raw emotion

Especially in today’s age, it’s easy for producers to get lost in sound design while overlooking the core idea of a song. “It’s really easy to get caught up in analyzing that stuff,” Steve Solomon states. “At the end of the day, it has to come back to that raw emotion. Let’s package it in a way that’s memorable, but let’s not chase the formula before we have the thing that’s real.”

It’s a trend which Solomon has observed in many of today’s largest hits: “The songs that I’ve seen that have been big big songs, there’s moments in the lyrics that hit people in such a real place,” he says. “If I’m always focusing on ‘let me write something that means something to me,’ even if I think it’s a strange lyric, it’s from a real place. People want to feel that. They want to connect with that emotion.”

4. Hold yourself to a higher standard

The pop world is more crowded than ever – standing out from the rest requires the very best of one’s abilities. “A lot of it comes down to how critical you are of your own work,” Hook N Sling says. “As a producer and a writer in the current streaming era, you have to be brutally honest with yourself.”

Raising one’s game often means revising until you get it right. Hook N Sling notes: “If you really ask yourself, ‘Is that a good chorus? Is that a really good lyric?’ You have to be really honest and be like, ‘No, I can actually do better.’”

5. Work with people better than you

Making something greater requires surrounding yourself with great people. “Try to be in a room with people who are smarter and better than you,” SLY says.

It’s not enough to just be in the room, however. Getting the best out of your collaborators requires positive momentum. “One important thing about collaborating is being able to say, ‘Oh that’s cool,’ even if it’s not great yet,” SLY says. “Cause it’s about always moving forward, always finding better ideas. It’s a scary moment starting a new session. You just have to open your mouth and sing some melodies.”

6. It’s a numbers game

Writing a hit doesn’t happen overnight. More often than not, it’s the result of talent, luck, and the sheer repetition of songwriting. For every hit, there may be 20 – 30 discarded ideas that don’t make the cut.

“Just write as much music as you can,” Hook N Sling says. “You’ve gotta be writing 50 tracks a year, 50 tracks every few months even.”

As Steve Solomon puts it, writing a hit is ultimately about writing a good song, not about the small details. “Don’t spend time tweaking noises anymore,” he says. “Put some great stuff together and write the song.”

June 8, 2018

Michael Sundius Michael Sundius is a producer and music journalist based in Los Angeles, recording music under the name Rinzen.