Book review: ‘Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction’

In a few short days, the world will be awash in media hype to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released on June 1, 1967. Frequently cited as the greatest album ever made , Sgt. Pepper’s is a pop culture touchstone that has influenced countless musicians over the past half century. The record’s golden anniversary has spawned several new books, a “super deluxe” album reissue, a new documentary about the Fab Four andeven  a pretty hilarious mashup of the album with another pop culture icon, Star Wars.

Why did this album, the Beatles’ eighth studio release, become such a resounding success? How did the Beatles manage to create an album that was both popular and critically acclaimed? Then there’s that question of the ages for music geeks of a certain age: Why is Sgt. Pepper’s more celebrated than the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds, which preceded the Beatles classic and is no slouch, ranking No. 2 — right behind Sgt. Pepper’s — on Rolling Stone‘s list of the best albums of all time?

I’ve been pondering those questions since I finished reading Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Even though Sgt. Pepper’s was released long before our present age of distraction, the fact that it has endured and remains the band’s master work may offer some hints for modern-day bands and brands, musicians and marketers who want to create works that endure.

In Hit Makers, Thompson suggests several “rules” that help determine what makes one record (or book, or movie, or work of art, ad campaign, etc.) a success while another flops. While some blockbuster movies,music and memes “seem to come out of nowhere, this cultural chaos is governed by certain rules,” Thompson writes in his introduction. These rules have been around as long as we’ve told stories, performed music or recited poetry, and they apply to hits as historic as Johannes Brahms’ now-ubiquitous lullaby, “Wiegenlied,” to the Star Wars franchise, Fifty Shades of Grey and Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies.

In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s, a few of Thompson’s ideas come into play.

Why this…
… but not this?

For example, the album was built on earlier Beatles albums that pushed the boundaries of pop music. While some may describe Sgt. Pepper’s as revolutionary, it was in fact more evolutionary than revolutionary. The Beatles started out as a garage rock band that covered Chuck Berry and wrote some pop songs that zoomed up the charts. Having experienced great success with those singles, the band was able to experiment a bit with their sound.

That experimentation began with Rubber Soul, then Revolver, both of which came out before Sgt. Pepper’s. By the time ’67 rolled around, the fan base was ready for this album.

It was, in a phrase that crops up frequently in Thompson’s book, the “most advanced yet acceptable” album of its time. This is the “MAYA rule,” coined by industrial designer Raymond Loewy and discussed at length by Thompson in an entire chapter devoted to the concept.

Under the MAYA rule (most advanced yet acceptable), Sgt. Pepper’s was not too avant garde for the public, but also not too more of the same. It hit that Goldilocks sweet spot of newness and familiarity — another of Thompson’s ingredients for success. It seems most people possess a mix of the neophilic, a love of newness, as well as the neophobic, or fear of newness.

(This attraction to the familiar combined with just a touch of the new is why so many hit songs follow a certain chord progression, as identified by this Axis of Awesome video. Bonus points to Thompson for referencing this popular YouTube meme in his book.)

Of course, the Beatles were also, well, the Beatles, and that accounts for much of the album’s success. They were already the greatest rock band of their era and renowned hit makers in their own right, so perhaps it’s unfair to use Sgt. Pepper’s as an example of a hit that made the big time. And Thompson doesn’t even talk about the album in Hit Makers. So let’s consider a tune he does talk about: Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.”

If Sgt. Pepper’s is considered the greatest rock album of all time, “Rock Around the Clock” is commonly hailed as the first rock’n’roll hit song. But it almost didn’t happen. When first released as a single, the song was largely ignored. But, thanks to a chance encounter in Beverly Hills between a movie director and actor Glenn Ford’s son, “Rock Around the Clock” ended up playing at the beginning of the movie Blackboard Jungle, which Ford was working on at the time. At his son’s recommendation, that song made it into the movie. I guess you could say it succeeded with a little help from its fans (if not its friends).

The network — formal and informal — also plays a big role in making hits, according to Thompson. “Content may be king,” he writes, “but distribution is the kingdom.”

But it isn’t necessarily the social network that makes the hits today.

In fact, if you’re on a quest for that silver bullet to make your next video or social media campaign go viral, then Hit Makers is not the book for you. It does, however, offer some interesting insights into some communications and marketing principles that seem to work well much of the time, but it goes beyond marketing ideas and practice to discuss the importance of data and networks in turning potential powerhouse ideas into blockbuster movies, memes or music.

Hit Makers author Derek Thompson (@dkthomp on Twitter) is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, the media and related topics. That background prepared him well for this, his first book, as it touches on those topics and more.

Thompson writes in an engaging, journalistic fashion, weaving his talent for storytelling with research into the history of hit making and the science of it all. He also presents a balanced view, noting that hit making has a dark side — the rules can be used for evil.

Hit Makers is an enjoyable read for anyone who is interested in learning more about what makes a hit. For marketers, the ideas here could help inform decisions. For those being marketed to — ergo, all of us — it offers some insights into the machinery behind the marketing curtain. “There is a way to engineer hits,” he writes, “and, equally important, a way for other people to know when popularity is being engineered.”

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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