Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Reviewed by Annabel

I came to read this book immediately after devouring UK journalist and presenter Tim Harford’s recent Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, which I found informative and entertaining in equal measure. Hit Makers is structurally similar to Harford’s book with chapters ‘featuring [insert 2 or 3 famous names] …’, each illustrating a different aspect of their premise. Ironically, there is a little overlap too and some of the same examples come up in both, (including T****,  and OODA loops), but that’s where the similarities end as Harford has a wide-ranging remit, and Thompson a much tighter focus on the world of popular culture.

Thompson’s dissection of what makes a hit was fascinating. In his introduction, he uses Brahms’ lullaby as an example to explain how in pre-radio days a hit had to travel – being brought from Europe to America by immigrants in this case who played the song. The advent of printed sheet music meant that propagation need not be purely by performance any longer – and then radio changed everything. He also introduces the two inter-related but different questions that form the basis of the book:

1. What is the secret to making products that people like – in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landscape of culture?
2.Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

He begins by identifying the one thing that can make anything a hit – ‘the power of exposure’. It is this that makes an inferior song that gets the airplay a hit over a far better one that flops. But the first example he uses isn’t from the pop world – he looks at the impressionist painters. Gustave Caillebotte, himself a good painter, collected the works of his friends, the seven painters who came to embody Impressionism: Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Pisarro and Sisley. When he died in 1894, he left them in a bequest to the Musée du Luxembourg and it took Renoir, his executor three years to get them hung together in a new wing, ‘The public flooded the museum to see art they’d previously savaged or simply ignored.’ No other impressionist painters had such an effect on the art world. As he says of pop hits, ‘Above a certain level, catchiness doesn’t make a song a monster hit. Exposure does.’

The next rule is that audiences don’t like totally new stuff – they resonate better with familiar but tweaked product, new but not too new. This is known as the ‘MAYA’ principle. A term coined by Frenchman Raymond Loewy, who moved to New York where he became known as the father of modern design. MAYA stands for:

‘Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.’

Thompson moves on to discuss hooks, earworms, catchiness and the power of repetition, before moving off into discussing storytelling and laughter tracks – bringing in examples throughout such as ABBA and Star Wars.

All the hit-making criteria discussed so far have been related to perception and psychology; in the second half of the book Thompson moves on to his second question and takes the business view, first discussing how Rock around the Clock, which was recorded as a throwaway B-side at the end of a session, saved Bill Haley from obscurity when it was picked up for soundtrack of The Blackboard Jungle, and how:

rankings created superstars, even when they lied.

Some consumers buy products not because they are “better” in any way, but simply because they are popular. What they’re buying is not just a product, but also a piece of popularity itself.

The next chapter was fascinating – examining how things go (or rather don’t truly go) viral.  He demonstrates that it’s really a myth, illustrated by delving deep into how 50 Shades of Grey became the worldwide hit it was, but not in the way we imagine.  E.L. James already had millions of readers via her Fan Fiction writing and e-books before a print publisher picked her up. Another interesting section looked at different TV models – broadcast, cable and subscription – and how one ‘hit’ show like the sublime Mad Men made a real difference to the small channel that made it.

Thompson’s style of writing is breezy, making this an entertaining read. He recounts his interviews with the makers and shakers with humour and doesn’t bore with statistics. Most of his examples are well-chosen and familiar to us all because they are hits. I must admit that towards the middle I began to tire of the analysis of how hits are made, because many of the premises were so familiar already from other books I’ve read recently; however, that’s my problem. Part Two provided the breath of fresh air that I needed and the business of hits caught my attention again. I shall close my review with a quotation that made me chuckle out loud:

Repetition is the God particle of music.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Derek Thompson, Hit Makers – How things become popular (Allen Lane, 2017) 978-241216026, 352 pp., hardback.

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