How to Have a Number One Song on Spotify, the Easy Way
It's been 29 years since the KLF released 'The Manual.' Some things never change.
Photo from Wikipedia
Be ready to ride the lightning of virality. Prepare to dip your hands into the lucky bag of clicks, gather the storm clouds of hype, and anoint yourself a Really Dope Producer to Watch. For half a century, the record industry was a powerful and well-oiled machine, powered by things like labels and Billboard charts and vinyl pressing plants and Simon Cowell and record studios. Scaling the ranks to stardom involved following a specific formula, one which inspired sample-slinging pranksters the KLF to write The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a tongue-in-cheek guide to achieving a #1 hit in the UK (which the group in fact did, with their 1989 hit "3 A.M Eternal"). The Manual gave readers step-by-step instructions on everything from booking recording studios to hiring publicists. It laid down "the Golden Rules of pop," instructing prospective hitmakers to keep songs to "no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds," and to follow the same formula every time: "an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro."
They also made the case that any hit song must be a Frankenstein-esque compilation of previous hits. "Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits from other songs," they wrote. "There is no lost chord. No changes untried. No extra notes to the scale or hidden beats to the bar. There is no point in searching for originality."
Of course, the music industry has changed a lot since 1988, the year The Manual was published; much of the KLF's specific advice is no longer relevant in the age of RBMA, musical.ly, and the Sour Patch House. But while all-powerful major labels and expensive gear no longer represent the barriers they once did, new power structures have emerged, ones with their own set of rules and expectations. The KLF recently announced they have a new book—the enigmatically titled 2023: A Trilogy—coming out this summer, and we thought we'd honor their return with an updated list of guidelines for navigating the seemingly impenetrable modern world of streaming services and energy drink sponsors. We promise that if you faithfully the instructions below you will score a spot on the Spotify Viral 50 chart. A certain kind of fame is just a few clicks away. We can't say the same about fortune, but it's possible you'll make enough money to afford a few down payments on a midsize sedan. See you on the other side.
You're a marginally employed millennial with nothing but free time. Should you go to coding boot camp? Learn a language? Check your "other" inbox for suitors from foreign countries? Maybe...but how about becoming a famous musician? The perks are endless—Raya membership, free trips to Coachella, the Soho House—and the start-up costs are very low. As we will demonstrate here, all you'll need to start is a computer, a cracked copy of Ableton, and $20 a month of discretionary income.
First, spend that $20 on paid subscriptions to Spotify and Apple Music, which will run you about $10 a month each. Start taking at least two hours out of your day to observe the viral charts and curated new music playlists, and keeping a running log of the artists you see recurring over and over again. After a week of doing this, pick three of the most successful. Go on YouTube and find tutorials for making music in their style, and practice each for at least a week. Forget singing, rapping, or playing an instrument—you're going to focus entirely on electronic music, which relies on programmatic techniques that can be learned from widely available and free tutorials.
Before we go any further, we must grapple with the golden rule of success in today's attention economy: always synthesize. Everyone who is currently successful has either dedicated tens of thousands of hours of their life to mastering a craft, like jazz piano or writing raps—or, they're a brash synthesist who combines existing genres into something that feels newish. The first way is not for you—it requires an insane amount of practice, which can be boring and time-consuming. But the second way can be taught, learned, and implemented. That is the KLF's Golden Rule, and it's still applicable. There is nothing new under the sun; every note has been written, every vibe drained to death. But combining sounds that are already market-tested—known to feel pleasing and familiar—can be a shortcut to novelty.
After a few days of familiarizing yourself with other artists' production styles on Ableton, start combining notable motifs from at least two or three of these artists—for example, a "Flume Drop" over a trop-house groove, or Major Lazer digi-dancehall with Metro Boomin drums. The elements you choose to combine don't really matter. It just needs to fit within an A+B=C influence formula that you could explain easily in a press release or a brand pitch meeting.
Aim for two or three really solid songs, and don't bother releasing anything until you have enough tracks to make up an EP. The EP is the perfect format for what you are trying to do—substantial enough to feel like a statement loaded with identity, without overwhelming your listeners with the gross self-indulgence of a debut album.
DEFINE YOUR PERSONAL BRAND
Now that you have a handful of tunes, you have to work on your brand strategy. Warning: this stage of the process requires a level of thirst that may feel caustic to your sensitive artistic soul.
Before you release any music, you'll need a name. If you make uptempo vocal dance music try opening a book, picking a random word, and removing the vowels. If you make greyscale moody R&B, consider using a common phrase written in all lowercase letters. If you make bright Scandinavian-ish synth pop, use a made-up word with two vowels in a row. Those are the only genres you should bother making.
Remember—you are authentic, aimless, a dreamer. And you will need to cultivate a visual aesthetic that reflects your identity. This can be anything, really: think pink and blue fluorescent light tubes, minimal typography, grainy film effects, indoor plants, athleisure, vehicles as props, Southwestern desert imagery, maybe a wet look hairstyle. You just have to keep it consistent. Just as you did with your music, combine a few eye-catching cliches into a striking yet familiar brand. If you're hot, get several professional photo-shoots before going public. If not, consider wearing a tasteful mask.
Next, form your narrative. The press needs something to grab hold of—and the best hook is always some kind of personal dilemma that you've resolved by making music and expressing your "authentic" self. You might feel weird about monetizing your life story, but if so, consider a new line of work. Whether or not the brand you develop truthfully represents you, it should be consistent. This is a good time to remember the warning of the Mast Brothers. In the late 00s, they took the world of boutique chocolate by storm. They opened up a factory in Brooklyn and started selling $10 bars made of high quality chocolate they'd manufactured "bean to bar," while charming their customers with their matching lumberjack beards and aprons. Then, one day, it all came crashing down. Photos surfaced of the Brothers looking extremely different, only a year before their rebrand—and what's worse, their chocolate turned out to be made of repackaged mass market beans. The lesson here isn't that you shouldn't fake your brand identity—it's that if you do, you had better not get caught.
While building your public-facing brand, you also need to develop your private analytics strategy. For this, look to the Chainsmokers, who have spoken in interviews about treating their music like a tech product. They used HypeMachine stats to gauge how the different styles of music they were making performed, essentially market-testing a product through aggressive R&D until they found something successful. They found a way to quantify trends, and then doubled down on the most effective formulas. Last year, they capitalized on the public's trend for trap-lite festival anthems; this year, they've tacked towards Carly Rae Jepsen and the 1975-esque synth-pop. Trend-chasing used to be the province of early adopters making educated guesses—now it's something that can be directly quantified and observed on streaming services.
RELEASING YOUR FIRST TRACK
So you've got a brand identity, an artist name, and a few tracks under your belt. It's time for your first release. Before throwing your first material online, try rounding up some kind of co-sign or collaborator. Either try your best to convince a singer with some blog attention to write a topline melody for it, or find another more established to provide a remix. These demonstrate your excellent taste and connections, and provide another crucial hook for the press. Remember that in today's media economy, a journalist's success depends on their ability to write articles people will click on, and having a guest on your song they know people already want to read about can be an added incentive for them to feature you.
DEALING WITH PRESS
You will, at some point, need a publicist. Don't approach them—the only ones worth having are the ones who will approach you. This will happen after your song is picked up by a few blogs or curated streaming service playlists, demonstrating your market potential. When the publicist pitches your music, they should emphasize your elusivity. The information economy operates on the same principle of supply and demand as the real economy—demand has to be greater than the supply. You should never hit up journalists directly, or seem remotely interested in getting press. Let them come to you, and make yourself scarce enough to create the impression that you're either too busy making music to bother too much with press, or simply way too booked up with other industry opportunities. Refuse a few interviews, and fail to show up at some of the ones you do confirm. When you go to shows and rub shoulders with industry people casually let people know you have a lot of "projects" in the works but you can't fully talk about them yet.
When you do release that EP you've been working on, do it with little fanfare, on your SoundCloud—preferably late at night, so that it seems like you just exported the files and clicked publish. Let people experience the thrill of feeling like they are discovering you. Of course, the chance of you actually being organically discovered is slim to none, but if pitched correctly by a talented publicist, your clever branding and synthesized new sound will serve as a hook for a blog post about your first EP.
Learn from one of the most successful press manipulators, Frank Ocean. From the jump, Ocean masterfully employed synthesis to his advantage. His first mixtape featured his honeyed R&B hooks over songs by Coldplay and MGMT; that piqued the interest of the press, and gave him an easily digestible hook: R&B + alt-rock = novelty. Meanwhile, he cultivated an air of mystery, giving few interviews and releasing a vague note about his sexuality. He mastered the art of the co-sign on his debut—guest appearances by Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000 aligned him with other artists that the press was paying attention to, while emphasizing his connection to the underground. Then, just when it seemed he couldn't generate any more excitement, he disappeared for several years, leaving fans and critics outspokenly pining for his return on social media—a surge of market demand he finally, dutifully satisfied by releasing not one but two albums this year. Chances are that you won't be able to replicate every aspect of this perfect buzz storm—and it probably wasn't a fully intentional strategy on his part—but there are still lessons to be drawn from the example. Start with synthesis, accessorize with tasteful co-signs, and add in an element of elusiveness.
If following the above steps doesn't work out, don't despair—in the wild west of the attention economy, there are other back door methods to finding success. Chief among these are the algorithms that streaming services use to help their users discover new music. They are technically complex—in an interview with Quartz, Edward Newett, the lead engineer for Spotify's Discover Weekly playlists, explained how the service uses "deep learning and neural nets"—but functionally simple. Their purpose is to provide you with readymade playlists of songs that sound like songs you already listen to. People don't want unexpected sounds interrupting the smooth flow of their listening experience while they make dinner or ride the subway.
You can take advantage of this. A friend of mine spent months cranking out dance remixes of songs that were already charting on Spotify. Eventually, one of those songs caught some kind of algorithmic eddy and found itself rocketed into the Viral 50 Chart. His play counts ballooned into the millions within a week, and he earned thousands of dollars, all without an agent, a manager, a single blog post, or even any real fans to speak of. Traditional human gatekeepers of music industry success have been replaced by artificial intelligence algorithms. The field is more level than ever—you just need to be willing to play the right game.
Once you've released a song on a reputable blog—or, barring that, cultivated a grassroots following by scheming your way onto various Spotify playlists—the booking offers will come rolling in. Ignore them for now. Don't play a show until you are regularly getting press coverage and have racked up a sizeable number of followers on SoundCloud—and when you do, overbook a small room in a big coastal city and fill it up with as many comped journalists as you can, so that your first show sells out. After you've successfully sold out shows in New York and Los Angeles, make sure that you play each major market no more than once every six months—it's called artificial scarcity. Don't take any opening slots; becoming a perpetual opening act in half-full rooms is like starving an orchid of sunlight.
If you can't pull off the headlining thing, become friends with a larger artist you want to align with and try to get booked as an opener on their tour. You can pay it forward later, when you're an established star and you need to co-sign the next buzzy young thing to keep your brand relevant.
Major labels used to spend serious sums giving their stars everything from new wardrobes to plastic surgery in order to create the popstars the public wanted. They can't afford to do that anymore (in the US at least), so you're going to have to do it to yourself. For better or worse, musicians used to be treated like contract employees of the labels that represented them—now, musicians are more like freelancers. You build a strong brand and cobble together a variety of complementary income streams. It's an extension of the same economic structure that leads millennials to take on "side-hustles" like driving Ubers or rent out their homes on AirBnB. There are more ways than ever to make money, but less of it to go around.
There are only three real ways to make money in today's music industry: playing live, licensing your music, and taking money from corporations. The latter will be one of the more fraught aspects of your journey; you need to thread the needle of accepting corporate money while maintaining the impression that you're only in it for the music. Streaming services can help raise your profile, but they often generate meager royalties. Partnering with large brands may seem antithetical to your attempts to position yourself as a soulful artist, but don't worry—while "punk" once meant refusing to work with corporations, it's now agreed that it's in fact more punk to work with corporations and take their money. Keep telling yourself this.
Just like working a 9-5 job, scaling the ranks to internet stardom requires climbing the corporate ladder—you'll just need to make sure you never let anyone in on the fact that you're doing so. Thankfully, there is an entire industry of managers and middle-men who are adept at working within the music power structures, so that you can profit from them without ever tainting your brand. These people will handle sync deals and licensing and branded content and event sponsorships and general negotiations with the benevolent energy drink and jeans companies that keep artists fed and working in 2017.
Always maintain one foot in the underground and one in the corporate world. If you lose grip on either you're in trouble—corporations are an essential source of funding, but only a perceived opposition to their values can give you the brand value they need to support you. Go too far in either direction, and you'll find yourself DJing in a cafeteria at a team-building retreat for Silicon Valley employees, or playing acoustic guitar in a muddy protest camp after Kimya Dawson.
One way to toe the line is to be performatively woke on social media about social causes that gesture at the problems of corporate culture in the abstract, without offending the sensibilities of any particular brands you'll need to work with. Think: Standing Rock, or the environment. You should pick one social media outlet per cause—say, go on rants about gender issues on Twitter, but national political topics on Instagram. This contrast between political outspokenness and participation in the system creates a whiplash effect of sorts for your fans—you get to demonstrate your noble progressive values, while simultaneously dazzling people with the power that comes from being endorsed by an established brand.
Spend a few months following the steps we've outlined—releasing music that uses genre synthesis to game streaming service algorithms, creating a powerful narrative for the press, surrounding yourself with the right handlers, and tactfully playing the corporate branding game—and chances are that a high chart position on the Spotify and all of its attendant rewards will be yours. You can look forward to fawning profiles, lucrative sync deals, and sold out crowds. Alternative cred is a currency—if you're patient, and spend several years building up enough of it, you can spend it lavishly. And if you don't succeed, just rip it up and start again—scrub all traces of your past brand identity from the web, craft a new hybrid sound, a new look, a new inspirational backstory, and follow the above steps from the top.
Consider acts like the xx and Disclosure, artists that carefully built up rock-solid brand identities and now receive both fawning magazine profiles and lucrative arena tour dates. Does the process we've described above revolve entirely around pure artistic expression? Nope, but neither did the one outlined by the KLF's Manual. There always has been and always will be a surefire path to success for those willing to bend their art to the demands of the market—you just need to know the what your product is. In this case, it's not just music; it's you.