Interview: Jay Frank of Futurehit.DNA & CMT (Pt. 1)


Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor  —  Read Part 2

Recently, I spoke with Jay Frank, who is the author of Futurehit.DNA: How the Digital Revolution Is Changing Top 10 Songs and currently the SVP of Music Strategy for CMT.  Jay shares his thoughts on the “new” rules that have emerged with the digital revolution, the ways in which our listening habits have altered during these times, and why artists may need to align their music with these changes.

It seems to me that today there are many mechanisms of making music that artists accept as the natural laws of the universe – when in reality, these “rules” were established at very specific moments in history, for reasons that had nothing to do with creativity or artistry, they were just technological adaptations.

Why do you think it’s important for artists to understand that “technology dictates creativity, not the other way around,” that many of the “rules” that are in place today weren’t actually made with them in mind anyways? 

Jay Frank_150Jay Frank: There are a lot of basics in songwriting that are considered natural laws.  These are your essential music theory rules such as chord structures, etc.  Plenty of other people cover those theories. The role technology has had in shaping music, however, has never gotten due credit.  Whether it was piano rolls a hundred years ago or MP3s today, the technical parameters of each have a profound impact on how people respond to the music contained on it.

Even sounds largely came about from technology. Metal music developed from new innovations at the time with amplification.  Rap music came from the development of the portable, cheap DJ mixer.  Then the creativity came with the technological tools.
The difference this time is that the technology is centered around distribution, not necessarily music creation.  So it feels like a time where artists don’t have to question these rules because the main music genres haven’t shifted significantly.  But in actuality they have.  The last ten years has seen tremendous shifts in the listening patterns of music fans.  An entire generation has now grown up knowing nothing but this method of music consumption.  To ignore that digital music is writing new rules for creation is at the artists’ own peril.

Finally, you add the fact that this new paradigm comes with dollars attached in the form of royalties for streaming and new formats such as ringtones.  Playing into the inherent strengths is crucial for both popularity and revenue streams.  The sooner the music creator embraces this, the sooner they can channel their creativity towards success.

What new “rules” emerged during the digital music revolution and in what ways has technology came around again to dictate creativity in ways that many of us are only now beginning to realize – that affect the ways artists create music? 
Jay Frank: The biggest new rule is keeping the intros as short as possible.  I say 7 seconds max mostly because that’s just slightly less time than most people give a track.  The key reason for focusing on the intro is also because the paradigm of discovery has changed.  People used to get hooks of songs thru flipping thru radio stations, stumbling upon MTV in the middle of the video, or just hearing a station in the background and not consciously recognizing a song until it’s at the hook.  Now, nearly every music discovery listen is coming from the same point: an active listen starting at the song’s beginning.  This includes legal and illegal downloads, streaming from most websites, video views.  Google’s new music search is only reinforcing this as it offers even more discovery opportunities from the zero second point.
What the technology has done is made music discovery a more unified, active pursuit.  The good news is that the artist or songwriter doesn’t have to second guess how the audience will first discover their music. If there is any doubt, all one has to do is see the average length of intros in #1 songs throughout the last decade.   It dropped dramatically, further reinforcing how much impact the intro length has on a song’s success.
Given that the history of recorded music, as we know it, only accounts for approximately the last 100 years, why is it significant that during the fifty of those years music has become the background to nearly every portion of our lives and  how did that change the ways in which people perceive music?    
Jay Frank: Music creators fashion their own music consumption as being typical of most people.  In actuality, that consumption pattern mirrors mostly hardcore fans.  Average music fans are content with music being a casual, mostly background activity.  This is significant because in the scope of history, this is a relatively new paradigm shift.  Prior to 125 years ago, you had to experience music live, either at a venue or in a home.  That’s not a background activity.  Then, the early records could only hold one song per side.  This meant that you actively had to be part of the process by changing songs every five minutes.  It’s only after World War II when car radios started popping up and DJs played records instead of live radio shows did you have a moment where music could be in the background.

Music in the background is only increasing.  The endless airplay of playlists, streaming radio and the like coupled with the listener’s targeting of only songs they like means that the user can pay less attention to what’s coming over their speakers.  This, along with the easy access to so much music, has helped create that vibe of disposability around music.  The fact that it’s more often a background activity, though, just reinforces that lack of permanence.

So for the artist, you can play into this by finding some ways to make music comfortable in the background.  This can help to insure those songs are not eliminated from playlists and the like.  But it’s also crucial because it can now become a moneymaker as well.  There used to be songs that played great on radio but never sold, commonly referred to as “turntable hits”.  Now, those songs that stream a lot but don’t sell well could be huge moneymakers for the artist. 
“Song-mapping” is a term I use to describe the psychology behind how people attempt to create playlists that align their environments and maximize the satisfaction they get out of each listening session.
How have recent technological developments in music enabled people to adopt drastically different listening habits and in what ways do these behaviors differ from how people consumed music previously?
Jay Frank:   One major shift as we’ve moved from an album based economy to a singles based one is that the artist is now rarely in control of setting the mood.  Because playlists are so much easier to create than mixtapes of old, more and more people want to only have music that is suitable for their moods or environment.  This can ultimately be a good thing.  However, this also requires the artist to recognize what moods are people going to create playlists for and make music for that.  I actually have a whole chapter on more songs with a walking beat will likely be created.  This is because as portable listening experiences dramatically increase, people want music that’s comfortable.  They will naturally gravitate to music that is at their heart rate, which usually matches a natural walking speed.

Background music will also become more popular and desirable.  This will likely take off drastically when more experiences end up in the cloud as these songs tend to be listened to, but not purchased.  But the signs are already there. Sean Ross, who writes the Ross On Radio column, described the biggest impacting songs of 2009 as “nu mellow”, specifically citing Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and Owl City.  These songs are all viable to teens, yet aren’t aggressive like other hits in past years.

Overall, this hasn’t differed from how people used to WANT to consumer music.  But the ease at which it can be done now has allowed the amount of perfectly situated environmental music experiences to increase exponentially.

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  1. In my opinion, Frank’s analysis has less to do with writing and more to do with presentation (e.g. production, arrangement, mix.) Technology doesn’t necessarily dictate creation, but it certainly creates parameters to consider in how the work is consumed.
    In that respect, there is nothing new here. It is simple marketing 101, where music is the product and the audience are the consumers. Figure out the best way to package the product to target your market demographic and you win. You may mix for the medium (e.g. dance clubs, terrestrial radio, computer speakers, earbuds, vinyl ) and arrange for the medium as well (e.g. long intro, no intro, breakdowns, beatmixes, commercials, video.)
    It is difficult to bridge the gap between causation and correlation. Which came first, the technological shifts or the cultural shifts? Technology need not dictate creativity, but it can certainly be a part of the process. As with most creative pursuits, it is often using the technology in a way it was never intended that produces a new musical genre (rap used the turntable became less a device for “playing music” and more a device for “making music.) But rap grew out of a culture (hip hop) and arguably may not have existed without the weltanschauung that provided for the experimentation with words, graphics, dance, beats and, yes, turntables.
    Even so, today’s artists will be driven by the same things that have always driven them: the need to tell a story, the desire to make a difference, the pursuit of wealth and fame…to name just a few. The marriage of art and commerce has itself had an impact on our cultural understanding of what we define as art. Frank’s observations aren’t science, but they do provide some suggested benchmarks to consider about how to manipulate market trends to your advantage. They may statistically increase your chances for success in the market, but they won’t necessarily help you produce better “art.”

  2. “They may statistically increase your chances for success in the market, but they won’t necessarily help you produce better “art.”
    In fact, chances are you’ll produce worse art.

  3. My comments weren’t meant to push the “is it art?” buttons. I certainly think that art and commercialism are not mutually exclusive, but nor do I think that everything that is commercially viable is a piece of “art.”
    My point, rather, is to suggest that I think Frank’s observations are really about production and not songwriting. Artists may not need to adapt their writing habits to produce hits, but they can certainly use the technology and trends to their advantage to give them an edge.
    That edge may not be about getting your music on a playlist. It may be about using the technology to engage the listener and create fans in a way that was previously not possible unless you were a part of the music business paradigm.
    And perhaps that’s the real message here: sustainability need not be about “hits” anymore.
    Unless, of course, it’s about hits to your website.
    FutureHit.DNA, indeed.

  4. @okthxgdby, while I agree with your premises and conclusions about songwriting (new forms/ideas often come from a given culture leveraging a technology in an unexpected way), I disagree with your interpretation of the article.
    When I was reading this, I didn’t hear Jay (nor Kyle, for that matter) saying that technology is the be-all end-all, dictator of creativity. In fact, I barely heard anything about technology directly influencing songwriters at all.
    I believe, like Jay seems to, that the “survival of the fittest” world of pop music has, throughout history, been dictated by the macro-level habits of the listeners more so than the micro-levels of listeners’ preferences, songwriters’ interests, or the influence of a given subculture.
    What excites me and intrigues me about the coming months (and couple of years) is how the relatively recently found stability of MP3s will continue to influence listeners, and how songwriters and cultures might use this “new” tech to break existing traditions (such as limited cross-pollenation of genres and the necessity of nearby bandmates). But hey, maybe that’s something I was looking to pull out anyway, since I’m working in that domain anyway. 😛
    Kyle, great piece. I hadn’t heard of Jay’s book yet, but it’s now on my “next-to-buy” list for Amazon. Thanks so much!

  5. Excellent book by the way. Jay Frank was showcasing his book FutureHit.DNA at the San Franscisco Music Tech Summit and I bought a signed copy of it. I recommend this book.
    Listening habits have changed and attention spans have gone downhill. Competition and alternatives to music have increased significantly (eg games, social networks) but on the other hand more music is being consumed today than ever before.
    What does this all mean to songwriters? What does this mean to the creative process? Technology makes it easier for everyone to record and overproduce. Overproduction and having many options to your disposal can be a blessing but on the other hand it can bring the opposite results. This is what technology brings us. Convenience and options. Does this mean you write better songs as a result of it?
    While the book offers some really good tips on how to write a hit song today (don’t expect platinum sales though), there is no formula out there and you can not teach how to become the next Beatles, Chris Cornell or Jimmy Page. Some musicians are outright gifted and talented, either with a unique voice or just the ability to compose like no other.
    Practice. Practice. Practice (10,001 hrs as Malcolm Gladwell would say). Diversify. Learn. Create. Combine. Take Chances.
    My simple formula to realizing you have a good song? When I hum it without realizing it or getting goose bumps when i hear the demo.
    Constantine Roussos

  6. True enough, Adian. Interpretation is definitely at play here, but not without context. Having read the book and heard Frank personally in presentation, part of his hypothesis appears to be that you should be “writing for the medium” and that, ipso facto, technology dictates how you write. i actually think this is a bit more obvious in the second part of the interview posted by Kyle today.
    But my argument isn’t with Frank’s observations, as much as with some of how heis interpreting his data. Again, I think the real take away here is much less about writing and much more about production: how you turn that song into a product for consumption.
    It’s basic Marketing 101: understand the trends, understand the demographic, then develop the package in such a way that it plays on familiar themes but still finds some way to differentiate itself from the other products competing for your market share. And if you’re going to play in the commercial world, you’re going to have to play by some of the rules the market dictates.
    In that regard, I applaud Frank for highlighting the elements that can empower today’s acts in their pursuit of the big hits. Technology has afforded us more opportunities than ever to go the DIY route and build sustainable music careers. But it also means that as artists we need to be just as savvy at strategic brand management as we are at laying down a beat.
    Perhaps we are all in agreement that, as you said, “the ‘survival of the fittest’ world of pop music has, throughout history, been dictated by the macro-level habits of the listeners more so than the micro-levels of listeners’ preferences, songwriters’ interests, or the influence of a given subculture.” As long as we don’t forget that the micro-level variables can be the strange attractors that introduce chaos into the system – and it’s that chaos that often pushes us to our creative best.

  7. Musical creativity doesn’t follow technology. People have been singing acapella since forever. Metal came about by people creatively messing with their boring old amps and guitars to get distortion. Pretty sure rap started with a few guys making vocal rhymes along with beatboxing or simple drumming. They modified their old record players to invent scratching. If anything, it’s creative people breaking old technology to make it do what they want. “The biggest new rule is keeping the intros as short as possible.” WTF? Who says? Oh yeah, and he thinks musicians should make background music, or exercise music, because that’s apparently where the money is. More of the same business dudes talking out their asses about music. I doubt this guy has had a creative moment in his life.

  8. I think the real take away here is much less about writing and much more about production: how you turn that song into a product for consumption. It’s basic Marketing 101: understand the trends, understand the demographic, then develop the package in such a way that it plays on familiar themes but still finds some way to differentiate itself from the other products competing for your market share. And if you’re going to play in the commercial world, you’re going to have to play by some of the rules the market dictates.
    When Marketing 101 is applied to music we get Britney Spears, Jonas Brothers, Nickleback, and Paris Hilton. Awful music that makes a lot of money. Does the world really need more of this?

  9. Thanks for all the comments! I hoped my book more than anything else inspired debate like what you’ve got in these comments. Having talent is the most important elements. My book won’t make up for lack of that. Also, I love and encourage those who pursue music solely for the art, and would certainly not suggest that they adopt my book’s philosophies.
    But or many, they want to make money on their music. For that, you do need to create with the medium that it’s heard in to be front and center. Even artists should do that. If Michelangelo said, “For my art to work, you need to increase the size of the Sistine chapel ceiling by 20 meters,” would they have redone the church?
    Also, regarding whether this is tips for songwriters or producers…I think that it’s both plus marketing. It’s not solely for either. For some people the tips will be useful in the production process. But for others, when they’re creating the song, they can keep these elements in mind to make something successful.
    I don’t expect everyone to adopt everything, but if it gets people to tweak things to make them more commercially successful, the entire industry wins and gets more dollars flowing to foster further creativity.

  10. Actually, Michelangelo originally turned down the commission and only accepted after the Pope told him he could paint whatever Biblical scenes he wanted. He thought of himself as a sculptor and saw the Sistine Chapel as a distraction. So he in fact did insist on his own rules.

  11. Jay:
    IMHO, you know nothing about the creative process. You don’t create. You administer and allot resources to achieve your goals. That has nothing to do with the creative process.
    To advocate any recommendations to the creative community regarding any form or process involved in music production from your position as a CMT ‘anything’ is an overstep.
    Until you’ve written your first hit or sung or produced your first hit record, PLEASE qualify your remarks with something like “I may not know what the f**k I’m talking about but…”
    That would help in the discourse….
    You are a bright guy but you have not been in the lion’s den and don’t deserve the pulpit for which you seem to strive.
    Your friend…
    J Fred

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