The Anatomy of 1989

 

1989

 

Never in my twenty-seven years on this earth have I witnessed an album create such a rift in the musical continuum that Taylor Swift’s 1989 did.  Her loud and proud “Adios!” to the country music world and immediate 180 into pop left peers, critics, and fans scratching their heads.  Fans and music columnists vilified Taylor, with some stating her departure was the best thing to happen to country music in the last decade and that she was never really “country” in the first place.  Longtime Swift fans were confused as to whether they should follow her into the fray or take cover behind the country bros and their jacked up trucks.  Even pop queen Katy Perry was rumored to have made comments directed towards Swift’s sudden switch.

Nevertheless 1989 debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, sold over 1 million copies in its first week, and became the best selling album of 2014.  Five of the six singles she released went to #1 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart, and three of the six hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

So, how did she make the transition so flawlessly?

 

Justin Robbins Piktochart

 

The six singles released off of 1989 were Shake It Off, Blank Space, Bad Blood, Style, Wildest Dreams, and Out of The Woods.  I have analyzed these songs to try and determine a pattern that may have contributed to the success of the album as a whole.  Forgoing the popular consensus that Swift has been writing pop songs since the beginning of her career, giving her ample experience in crafting hit songs, we can assume there were outside factors involved.

 

max_martin_shellback_taylor

 

Swift’s writing team consisted of Max Martin and Shellback, with Ali Payami appearing on Style and Fun guitarist Jack Antonoff co-writing Out of The Woods with Swift.  Ali Payami has written some successful songs for Ellie Goulding, Ariana Grande, and The Weeknd and Jack Antonoff has done well writing for his band and other artists, but Taylor brought out the big guns when she recruited Max Martin and Shellback to write and produce the album.  Max Martin has written or produced most U.S. pop songs since 1996, beginning with The Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games With My Heart.”  Shellback has also had an impressive career as a songwriter and producer for artists like Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Maroon 5.  Between them, Martin and Shellback have over 80 top ten songs.

 

 

 

 

Examining the construction of each song shows that Martin and Shellback have devised a musical formula for songwriting and production that results in commercially viable music.  Every aspect of the song is carefully calculated to give a finished product that is concise and audibly appealing.  The play time averages at 3:45 per song, ranging from the shortest, Wildest Dreams at 3:18, to the longest, Blank Space at 3:52.  Length may not seem like a big deal, but its the first step in creating continuity between songs.  If all the songs feel the same in terms of length it makes them seem familiar to the listener, similar to the packaging used by popular brand names.

Following the branding pattern for length, the songs are also internally structured to give listeners the same sense of familiarity.  Each single begins with a short musical intro that lasts less than 20 seconds with an average of 9.5 seconds, excluding Bad Blood which has no intro.  The chorus is introduced around the 45 second mark and comprises about half of the song’s total playing time, with Bad Blood again being the anomaly by beginning with a chorus.

 

 

The most obvious trademark of the Martin/Shellback duo is their use of tempo.  The average tempo was split between 90 beats per min (bpm) and 153 bpm.  The slower 90 bpm is closely associated with Hip Hop, while the faster 153 bpm is where most popular dance genre’s reside.  Having the singles fall within this realm of tempos ensures they have a beat that listeners recognize and can easily dance to.

I found the lyrical content to be the most interesting aspect of the singles.  Not because of the subject, but because the lyrics, when broken down into individual words and scanned for repeating words and phrases, were mainly comprised of lyrics used in the chorus, averaging around 70% of the total word count.  This is marketing in its most simple and efficient form.  By having the chorus appear throughout 70% of the song,  Martin and Shellback are statistically increasing the chances of hearing the “hook” or the meat of the song, which exponentially increases the chances of the listener remembering what they heard.  Taylor Swift and her music is literally being branded into the minds of listeners like a hot iron into cow hide.

 

branding_cow

 

A quick glance would give the illusion that Taylor Swift’s 1989 and its singles were just cleverly written pop songs, but it goes much deeper than that.  Martin and Shellback have taken songwriting to a completely different universe by incorporating basic marketing into the creation and production of the music they write and produce.  The continuity of the songs gives us a product that is easy to use (catchy and listenable) and places it in packaging that is familiar and welcoming (consistency in branding).  They also drive home their brand and ensure people remember their product by having the catchy part, the chorus, make up 70% of the total song.  If you’re a songwriter, take note.  Catchy is good, but incorporating marketing strategies into your songwriting can give your music, and potentially your career, the boost you’ve been looking for.

 

 

 

5 Overlooked Albums

High quality albums often fly under the radar and go unnoticed for years and even decades. For whatever reasons the music gods or the powers that be decide to withhold the greatness of such works, often resulting in audio explorers serendipitously stumbling upon them. Look no further! Here is a list of albums that were carefully crafted from front to back and have been waiting to be discovered.

 

1.  Pandemonium Shadow Show – Harry Nilsson

 

Pandemonium

 

Harry Nilsson is a man you’ve probably never heard of but know very well. His songs “One,” covered by Three Dog Night, and “Coconut” are pop culture classics, and his versions of Badfinger’s “Without You,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” were chart toppers. But long before the success, Nilsson’s second album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, was a commercial failure. The album featured several covers, including two Beatles songs, and a handful of incredible originals, but it failed to chart. However, Harry’s songwriting and arranging abilities paid off; The Monkees and Blood, Sweat, And Tears covered two of Nilsson’s originals, “Cuddly Toy” and “Without Her.” The Beatles publicist Derek Taylor heard “1941” on the radio and bought several copies of the album to give to the Fab Four, who endorsed Nilsson as their favorite artist and group and later invited him to Abbey Road studios. Pandemonium shows off Nilsson’s prowess as a vocalist and his forward thinking in the realm of layered vocal overdubs and unusual arrangements. It’s an album that presents something new with every listen and a greatly overlooked piece of art.

 

 

 

 

2.  Mutemath – MUTEMATH

 

Mutemath

 

This album is by far the most sonically interesting album on the list. Originally released on January 19th, 2006, Mutemath is the debut of New Orleans based indie alt-rock band Mutemath. The album was sold in jewel cases at concerts, but was quickly made available as a digital download and sold nearly 10,000 copies in the first month.  Mutemath is a gumbo of several styles of music, including electronica, rock, pop, experimental, jazz, and even contains some spiritual and religious motifs. The album broke the top 50 two years in a row on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers Chart, and their first single “Typical” reached 39 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart in 2007. In 2008 the album stalled out, but it built a successful following that has allowed the band to continue touring and put out great music.  Mutemath is a perfectly constructed electronic portrait that unabashedly uses every color on the palette. Each song flows into the next seamlessly, allowing the album to play through completely without weird pauses or interruptions.  Mutemath does not disappoint.

 

 

 

3.  Home Again – Michael Kiwanuka

 

Kiwanuka

 

Home Again is a fine example of how modern soul music could sound, but it was buried under the surge of Adele’s 21. Nothing against Adele, but this guy is the real deal; think Marvin Gaye meets Bill Withers meets James Taylor. It sounds like a weird combination, but Kiwanuka has hit the folk-soul nail on the head. The release of Home Again in 2012 saw the album climb to 4 on Billboard’s Folk chart, but it failed do much more than that in the states.  The album features some of the most incredible displays of songwriting heard in the last decade, as well as a collaboration with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Kiwanuka is currently working on a new album titled Love & Hatewith Jack White as producer of the first single.

 

 

 

4.  Learn & Burn – The Sheepdogs 

  Sheepdogs

 

Canadian rock band The Sheepdogs carry the torch on their third album Learn & Burn, citing several influences and genres including psychedelic, classic rock, and blues. From the first notes of the pulsing Fender Rhodes, to the Beatles-esque four-song medley outro, this album is on fire from beginning to end. Learn & Burn peaked at 14 on the Canadian charts and earned the band Rock Album of The Year at the 2012 Juno awards. But like the others on this list, it went over the heads of most Americans. Which is a shame because not only is this album listenable in its entirety, it is also an excellent study of American rock music, capturing many of the elements that defined the genre throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Listen, The Sheepdogs are so good they were the first unsigned band to make it onto the cover of Rolling Stone. So why not check them out? And then say “Thanks Canada!”

 

 

 

5.  The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend – Baby Huey

 

Baby Huey

 

One of the most tragic stories in music history is that of James “Baby Huey” Ramey. Baby Huey began performing professionally around Chicago during the early 1960’s as a lead singer for small club bands. Born with a glandular problem, he weighed 300 pounds, giving him a larger than life stage presence and severe health problems. In 1969, at the age of 25, Huey signed a contract with Curtom Records and recorded an album under the supervision of R&B giant Curtis Mayfield.  Huey died after its completion from a drug related heart attack at the age of 26.  The album was released shortly after to little attention and eventually drifted into obscurity.  Though Living Legend didn’t perform well initially, its contribution to music reached far beyond Huey’s life. Baby Huey’s rhymes and rhythmic patterns are considered to be the foundation that Hip Hop was built upon, and his songs have been sampled countless times, most notably “Hard Times.” All that aside, the album’s funky arrangements, powerhouse musicians, and Baby Huey’s soul-drenched voice is enough reason to give this album listen.

 

 

 

Beginning to end these albums are rock solid, carefully pieced together, wonderful works of art. Take a couple of hours and listen to these albums all the way through. Get to know them. Take them on dates; introduce them to your friends and family. Fall in love, and then add them to your record collection. It’ll be worth it, guaranteed.

 

The Brilliance Behind Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller”

Since the release of his first solo album Traveller in 2015 the world of music has become infatuated with Chris Stapleton. His strikingly honest songs and soulful voice have made him a household name, and even earned him several Grammy nominations and CMA Awards including one for New Artist of the Year. But Chris isn’t new to this game, and there’s more to him than just good songs and a great voice. The rise of Chris Stapleton has long been in the making, and the success of Traveller has more to do with good marketing than it does with great songs.

          Christ Stapleton is not a new artist, at least not in the traditional sense. Stapleton has been doing this whole music thing professionally for over fifteen years, so he’s no spring chicken. When he moved to Nashville around 2001, Chris signed on as a writer with Brad Paisley’s publishing house, Sea Gayle Music. There he honed his songwriting craft for the better part of a decade, having over 150 of his songs cut by other artists and turning out multiple top-ten country songs and at least four number ones.

Traveller

 

In 2008 he joined an already-established bluegrass band, The SteelDrivers, as their lead singer and contributing songwriter. During his stint with the band they released two albums, their self-titled debut album and Reckless, both of which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts and were nominated for several Grammy awards. In 2010 Stapleton announced he was leaving The SteelDrivers to focus on raising a family while he continued to work as a songwriter for Sea Gayle Music. Shortly after leaving he formed another band, The Jompson Brothers, which took a hiatus when Stapleton signed with Mercury Records as a solo artist in 2013.

As you can see, Stapleton is not new. He’s spent the better part of fifteen years songwriting, playing, and getting his name out there and making people aware of his presence. In short, he has been marketing his brand for a long, long time.

          Traveller is essentially a greatest hits album. I know what you’re thinking, “I’ve never heard any of these songs before. How can they be his greatest hits?” and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that. Stapleton was a professional songwriter for fifteen years, and he’s said in multiple interviews that the songs on Traveller span across that timeline. Chris handpicked each song that made its way onto Traveller for one reason or another, and knowing that he is an established chart-topping hit songwriter he probably had good reason for picking those particular songs.

 

 

The writing support he had on this album is incredible. He co-wrote most of Traveller with some huge songwriters and producers.   For instance, “Parachute” was co-written with Jim Beavers, former MTSU professor and Marketing Director for Capitol and Virgin Records. In 2002 Jim became a full time songwriter, and since 2008 has co-written nine #1 songs. “Nobody to Blame” was written with Ronnie Bowman, with whom Stapleton co-wrote Kenny Chesney’s #1 hit “Never Wanted Nothing More”, and Barry Bales who has been the bass player and a contributing writer for Alison Krauss’s band Union Station for around twenty-five years. Dan Wilson, former lead singer of SemiSonic, Grammy winning producer on Adele’s album 21 and co-writer of her hit “Someone Like You”, helped Stapleton write “When the Stars Come Out.”

From the list of hit songwriters that appear on this album it is evident that Chris Stapleton has some strong networking skills. Not only did he write some great songs with some well known and sought after songwriters, he also set Traveller up to be a huge success by doing so.   Not in the glaring obvious way, but in a more subtle and skillful manner.

When I moved to Nashville the first piece of advice that was given to me was, “If you want to have a #1 album, you need to write with hit songwriters.” The person giving this advice wasn’t saying, “Hit writers write hit songs which leads to a hit album.” He was making the point that writing with great songwriters exponentially increases your social network. Not only will your team be working to promote your album, those other songwriters and their teams will be working to promote it too, because now they are invested in what you’re doing. This is exactly what Chris Stapleton did. He spent fifteen years writing with the best songwriters he could find and saved the best songs for his own Greatest Hits album, knowing those songwriters would help him market it. Genius.

          Chris Stapleton transcends space and time. All jokes aside, Stapleton was able to successfully execute an out of the box marketing campaign and engage customers in outside markets through cross promotion. Because he comes from such an eclectic musical history Stapleton knew he would need an equally eclectic marketing strategy behind Traveller.

Working with UMG to promote the album led to a grassroots word-of-mouth campaign that relied heavily on the strength and honesty of the record to capture an audience and turn them into mini-marketers. And it worked. It worked so well that twenty-three radio stations began playing the debut single the first week after its release. Though it didn’t get much airplay due to the negative attitude towards non-mainstream artists that pervades radio, it did get some attention. After six long months of grassroots campaigning Traveller had sold 114,000 albums and made Chris Stapleton a growing name in country music. But what really put the album over the top was the knockout blow that came in November at the 2015 CMA Awards.

 

49th Annual CMA Awards - Show

 

With the help of pop star Justin Timberlake, Stapleton sang “Tennessee Whiskey,” a cover of a George Jones song, from the album Traveller. The performance went viral. Its presence was heavy across all social media platforms, the biggest news outlets in America were covering it, and people were heralding Chris as the savior of country music. Album sales increased by 6,000% practically overnight, and Traveller went from #9 on the Billboard charts to #1. By the end of the year the album had sold more than 520,000 copies in the U.S. alone. Chris Stapleton’s firm grasp on social media marketing, grassroots marketing, and cross promotion helped bring himself and Traveller to the pinnacle of success.

Chris Stapleton may be new to mainstream country fans, but his success didn’t happen overnight. It took many long, hardworking years of trial and error and learning the music industry to make Traveller a success. We could all learn a thing or two from him, like hard work and dedication will eventually pay off, and that having a solid, well-planned marketing campaign can mean the difference between putting out an album and putting out a #1 album.