In February, 1967, The Beatles, who had just released their double A-side “Strawberry Fields”and “Penny Lane,” were kept from the number 1 spot on Billboard by Englebert Humperdinck’s adult pop hit, “Release Me.” It’s funny to think that those songs were even vying for top spot in the same chart. That’s a little like discovering that more people like vanilla ice cream than Epson printers (I know of no such fact, but it’s probably true).
The issue of which songs rise to the top of the charts is important if you’re a songwriter, performer, or anyone else directly involved in the music industry. Being at the top means that more people want to hear your song at that particular moment than other songs. It also means that it’s more likely that whatever you’re doing in that song is going to influence the new direction of music, even if ever-so-slightly. And by “whatever you’re doing in that song”, we’re probably talking more about production than songwriting style.
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James Hall of The Telegraph wrote an article in 2015 in which he describes 10 epic “battles that changed music.” He describes that chart battle between Humperdinck and The Beatles, as well as lesser-known ones: Al Martino vs Jo Stafford (1952), The Human League vs Cliff Richard (1981), and Rage Against the Machine vs Joe McElderry (2009).
Perhaps Hall is right, and each of those battles represented a number 2 group that missed the boat. (Perhaps that’s why we still sing Humperdinck songs, but those Beatles never amounted to anything.)
For songwriters and performers, I believe that chart performance is a good indicator of success, but it’s something that can be obsessed over to an unhealthy degree. It comes down to what can be called a songwriter’s ego.
The Healthy Songwriter’s Ego
We have a tendency to think that someone else’s success means that our own music must take a hit. The more someone likes someone else, the less they must like me.
Charts have a way of accentuating that notion far beyond the truth. While it’s obvious that only one group can occupy top spot on a chart, it doesn’t mean that the top group makes people like the number 2 group less, or that the song in number 2 is now somehow worse.
An analogy can clarify this point. The fact that you’ve recently decided your favourite book might be Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” doesn’t mean that your previous favourite, “Watership Down” is now a lesser book.
In fact, how much you like or don’t like “The Grapes of Wrath” has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of “Watership Down.”
We don’t have an ability to only like one thing in an art form. Our brains can accommodate many songs, and though we often find ourselves having new favourites, it doesn’t diminish our love for our old ones. And more importantly, it doesn’t diminish the quality of your previous favourite.
I’m bringing this up because I think there is such a thing as a healthy songwriter’s ego. Always feeling that you need to change the direction of what you’re doing simply because you think someone else is “winning” is the sign of an unhealthy ego.
The Unhealthy Songwriter’s Ego
As a songwriter, you’re not doing your job if you’re not listening to other songs, and getting constantly updated with what the new direction of music is in your chosen genre.
But that new direction in music almost always relates to production issues, not songwriting issues. You can take a song from the 50s, put it in the hands of a good producer, and that person can make that old song sound new, fresh and innovative.
But because we’re human, it’s possible to react with disdain and even fear at the success of others. We think, as we see them winning awards, getting important gigs and making great sales, that their success is adversely affecting our own.
But it isn’t; it’s mostly and usually an illusion. If the song in the top spot suddenly disappeared, the previous number 2 would now be number 1. But it would be the same song, and the existence or not of the previous number 1 wouldn’t change that at all.
For songwriters, you have a job to do, which doesn’t change no matter who is at the top of the charts: Write excellent music, and do that with some consistency.
Chart success (which is measured using entirely different metrics than songwriting success) is fleeting, and can be distracting. “Muskrat Love” was in the top 10 of Billboard in 1973, but thankfully didn’t change the direction of music.
If you find yourself stressing to an unhealthy degree over the success of others, and feel that it’s diminishing your own view of yourself, remember:
- Someone else’s success doesn’t diminish the quality of your own music.
- Being proud of your music isn’t bragging. It’s a necessary part of the confidence required to be a good songwriter.
- Don’t think of music as a competition. Chart success accentuates this notion to an unhealthy degree.
- Know the difference between good production and good songwriting.