You Want a Hit? Then Give It Away

Stories we tell about songs we find (Part II)

This is not another article about Daft Punk. It’s about George Gershwin, player pianos, and carefully managed hype, and about free music and the roots of hit making. To get to Gershwin and popular music a century ago, however, it helps to recount where we are today, which is, at this very moment, Daft Punk.

The French duo has made a deeply strange and sometimes catchy album called Random Access Memories. RAM is the number-one album in America. “Get Lucky,” the album’s lead single, is in the top ten in at least a dozen countries. The band is as big as it ever has been, and from an album that contains two tracks over eight minutes long, sung (or in one case, spoken) by guys who were kind of a big deal forty years ago. Some have pointed to electronic dance music (EDM) and its ascent into the mainstream, and Daft Punk’s importance in the EDM canon as a reason for their success. Or maybe it is the fact that Daft Punk has been around for a few decades now, made enough excellent tracks, and the group is secretive and slow enough in its output for this to be their moment. But consider how much they readied us for this moment, how well they managed the hype, calibrating it and drawing it out until it reached a fever pitch just as the album dropped. Think about how they, masters of sampling, let us sample their product just enough so that we might buy it.

The first bite came as a fifteen-second commercial spot during Saturday Night Live. It was just a little nibble of that new single — “Get Lucky” — and boy, did it sound shiny. But a TV spot? It’s rather old-fashioned for a pair of robots from the future. They knew what they were up to, though, because the next week, at the same time, thirty seconds of it aired. Fifteen seconds was the same as before, but fifteen glorious new seconds followed. Of course, each clip, each week, appeared online and promptly was looped, remixed, and scrutinized. My friends and I studied those drips and drabs of guitar riffs like Talmudic scholars.

A few weeks later, in another bit of old-school showmanship, a video of “Get Lucky” appeared on a screen on the main stage at Coachella in front of fifty thousand concertgoers. This time, the crowd (and the rest of us, on YouTube) saw a singer — Pharrell — and a good bit more of the song, along with the robots, playing bass and drums, and the old guitarist from the band Chic, Nile Rodgers, playing with them. Not the full song, mind you — not yet. There also was a documentary series onVice’s Web site, featuring interviews with several of the album’s collaborators. And then, finally, a radio edit of that first single.

A week and a day before the album was to drop, I found myself in Amsterdam with two friends, fellow students of RAM’s slow-burning mega launch. One friend wondered aloud if the album had leaked. By the time we got back to our apartment, not thirty minutes later, another friend had e-mailed us a link to download the album. He had found it on Reddit, where someone had ripped RAM from iTunes, where it had been streaming for free. We sat down and got quiet and started listening. But in our rush to play the files while they were still downloading, I managed to put track two on first, thinking it was track one. A disappointment: We were so into the second track being the first and had already begun mapping out the mood of the whole LP from this starting point. In retrospect, it all feels perfect. I mean, the album is titled Random Access Memories; the order of the tracks is not important, the band has said as much. RAM is a throwback, mostly to the 1970s. The marketing of it — its approach to manufactured buzz and hit making — is older still.

Before the MP3 player and the tape deck, the 8-track and the gramophone, pop music came on sheets of paper, printed to be played in house parlors. Hundreds of songwriters, sitting at hundreds of cheap upright pianos, plinking away in Tin Pan Alley, the epicenter of American pop at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote those sounds. They were company men (and women, but mostly men), working for big publishing houses. It was here, on Manhattan’s West Twenty-Eighth Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, that George Gershwin got his start.

One hiccup of listening to music before the recorded era: You needed someone to play the tune or to lead the group in song. Gershwin’s job, at first, was just that. He sat at a piano in the sheet-music store of his employer, Jerome H. Remick, and played what Remick’s company deemed particularly salable. He was what they called a song plugger. If you happened in to one of these Manhattan stores circa 1913, you too could listen in as a fifteen-year-old Gershwin played the popular tunes of the day, and you wouldn’t have to pay a penny to do so. Maybe you’d pick up a sheet of music and buy it. But maybe you wouldn’t.

Pop music has always been free. That’s why it’s popular. Part of the trick, early on, was just getting a lot of people to hear the same song. Once they had, they could all sing and dance along. It isn’t so different today.

Gershwin’s next big job in Tin Pan Alley was recording and arranging piano rolls for player pianos, which were even better than live players for quickly spreading a melody and making it a hit. A piano roll is a sheet of paper that fits inside a specially outfitted upright piano. As it unspools, the holes in the roll direct a machine inside the piano that strikes the hammers and presses the keys. A human need only pump the pedals of the player piano to unspool the roll and power the hammers and keys — no hands necessary. It looks spooky. The publishing houses gave away rolls with certain songs to the popular dance halls that had player pianos. That’s how hits were made before radio and records were much of anything.

Player pianos gave way to farther-reaching forms of mass media: radio, film, and television. But even as the means of distribution shifted, the publishing houses held onto a position of tremendous power over their artists and the hits. After all, they controlled the means of distribution: bribing the disc jockeys to play certain songs, paying for TV and radio spots, cutting deals with movie studios to cross-promote artists. If they wanted to make a hit, they generally could — after all, getting a lot of people to hear the same song just kept getting easier as the means of distribution proliferated.

The Internet is the greatest tool in history for the cheap distribution of media. Never before has there been a better means of rapidly sharing creativity, or of controlling it. The traditional publishers — the gatekeepers — may have diminished in power, and we as consumers have more choice in what we listen to, and how we listen to it, than ever before. But the cost of most of what we listen to hasn’t changed since the time of Gershwin: It’s free. Daft Punk manufactured a hit by giving just enough of it away, like young George plugging songs along Tin Pan Alley. Only after pulling in the public with free samples did both stand to turn a tidy profit. It’s the same for so much content today: Draw a crowd, then monetize.

Part I in this series, “The Airdropped Album: What Digital Can Learn from Vinyl,” explores flexi disks.

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