What are the ingredients of a hit single? In 1988 a book was published promising to reveal this mysterious musical alchemy. Entitled The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, it was written by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, a British duo who, as the KLF, ranked among the era’s most improbable pop successes.
They were Dadaist pranksters, notorious for illegally sampling other artists and pretending to machinegun a startled music industry audience at an awards ceremony. Their formula for writing a hit was at once cynical and affectionate about chart pop. “Firstly, it has to have a dance groove. it must be no longer than three minutes and 30 seconds. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some but not many,” they wrote. Yet their love of the charts wasn’t ironic: “Basically, a Number One is seen as the ultimate accolade in pop music. Winning the Gold Medal. The crowning glory.”
That’s not the case any more. Like an endangered species, the single has seen much of its traditional habitat disappear. Top of the Pops has followed Smash Hits magazine into oblivion. The top 40 countdown on Radio One, once the jewel in its schedule, no longer allows airtime to each chart entry. Sales of vinyl and CD singles in the UK have slumped from 70 million in the late 1990s to 14 million in 2006, a record low.
Is this the death of the single? Not quite - the singles market in the UK is staging a resurgence. Sales are up from 32 million in 2004 to more than 62 million last year. The reason? Downloads. While the proportion of CD and vinyl sales shrinks, sales of downloaded singles have soared.
The Official UK Charts Company is a regulatory body set up by the music industry. Eager to capitalise on the download boom, it has started 2007 by making the most radical changes to the singles chart since it began more than 50 years ago.
It’s all a bit bureaucratic but basically, until this month, a downloaded song was eligible for the charts only if it was also sold as a single in the shops. It also had to conform to an arcane set of restrictions about how many songs could be packaged together and how long they should last.
All this has been swept away. Now any downloaded song is eligible for the charts: a track downloaded from an album, a song used in a movie or an advert, any tune that catches the public’s attention. The single has been subjected to a sharp dose of free market economics.
“In this new world there are something like 2 million tracks available to download in the UK. So you’ve now got the possibility of hits arriving beyond the scheduling priorities of record companies,” explains Steve Redmond, director of the Official UK Charts Company. “A timely and sad example is James Brown’s death [on Christmas Day]. You’re going to see people responding to events like that and exploring back catalogues.”
Another example is the Beatles, he says. “When their music becomes available as a download, and there are at least hints that it’s going to be sometime this year, that could have a dramatic impact on the singles chart. If they were all made available at once, it’s entirely possible you could end up with a top 10 entirely of Beatles tracks.”
What makes the perfect single in an age when any song is eligible for the singles chart? “There’s no such thing as the perfect single,” pop producer Pete Waterman argues. “Marvin Gaye had long singles, The Beatles had short singles. It’s about how great the song is.”
Waterman was a member of the production trio Stock Aitken and Waterman, which assembled one of the most successful hit factories in pop music history, a production line modelled on Motown that churned out 1980s bubblegum pop stars such as Kylie Minogue and Bananarama. A no-nonsense populist who is sceptical about the music industry’s competence, he welcomes the single’s renaissance.
“The record industry gets overexcited about technological advances and forgets about music. They can’t resist buggering about with the charts,” he says. “But the single is getting stronger. For a long time the record industry has tried to get rid of it. They can’t make money on singles because you need to put out only hits. The album has always been their panacea. But what does this do? It kills the album, not the single. It kills the album because the public will buy the track they like, not the whole album.”
Singles are useful to record companies. Although they are not effective revenue generators, they are valuable promotional tools. But if the market continues to grow and songs start to rival albums as pop’s main unit of currency then the music industry will quickly learn to love the single. Would-be svengalis will need a new Manual to learn how to write a hit song. What will its advice be?
The authors of the original Manual’s thoughts on updating it are unknown. Cauty apparently isn’t giving interviews until November 5, 2011. Drummond, whose latest project is to establish a day a year when no music is played or made globally, appropriately met my request for an interview with silence.
Pete Waterman, who has reformed Stock Aitken and Waterman with his old colleagues and is heading into the studio this year in search of new hits, insists there’s no formula to writing a number one.
“It’s the oldest story I’ve heard in my life. All you need is five good-looking boys between 18 and 20 with a catchy song and you’ll sell a million. More people have lost their shirts doing that than anything else. The other one I’ve heard is that if you write a song with a girl’s name in it a million people will buy it because they’ve got the name Carol. Yeah, right! I’ve seen all these and the truth is it doesn’t work like that.”
Chart toppers: How to get to number one in the digital age
This is the modern version of what Stock Aitken and Waterman did. “We had to go and make pop stars,” Waterman says. “We went out on the road with Kylie and Jason [Donovan]. We couldn’t afford to advertise them.” Now it’s easier to create a buzz about an act online, as with Lily Allen, The Arctic Monkeys and Sandi Thom, all of whom had number one hits after building a fan base on the internet networking site MySpace.
Enter a talent show
Leona Lewis, last month’s X-Factor winner, scooped the Christmas number one with her debut single. Her predecessor, Shayne Ward, did the same in 2005. Even losers on talent shows can find chart success, as Pop Idol rejects Gareth Gates and Darius Danesh distressingly proved.
Concentrate on R&B and teen-pop
These supplied 18 of the 28 UK number ones last year. Teenagers are the keenest downloaders and these are their favourite genres, so future hit singles are most likely to continue in the same vein. It’s apparently not worth bothering with dance music (two number ones in 2006) or rock (three).
That pop songs should be catchy sounds obvious, but they’re getting even catchier in the age of the ringtone. From Franz Ferdinand to The Pussycat Dolls, this is the age of the killer chorus. This rule also obeys Pete Waterman’s hum test. “Can you hum it? Yes you can hum it: it’s a hit then. If you say to me Beethoven, I go `duh duh duh duurrh’ - what’s the difference between that and Crazy Frog? There’s no difference! It’s instantly recognisable.”