This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

One of the biggest mistakes cynics make when discussing what succeeds on the pop charts is the belief that those producing the music are optimizing it for what “the public wants to hear.” I've yet to meet anyone among the producers and songwriters I've spent time with that knows what the public wants to hear. While many buffoons claim they can hear it ― even the world’s biggest hitmakers like Dr. Luke admit they can’t tell. Instead, they try to make the best version of a song to their own ears. When we talk about commercial music being optimized to appeal to the masses, it’s actually an evolution of musical development that has lead to concise pop formats that appeal to the majority of people.

Cynics frown on pop stars since they claim to be "artists" yet they monetize this art in the most ridiculous ways. The common misconception is producers like Pharrell, Max Martin and Dr. Luke have these labs where they do market research on how to make masses swallow fluffy pop songs whole. These producers are just artists making songs that feel emotionally resonant to them. Read any account of working with them and it's far less evil than imagined in the deep dark corners of the internet discussions of pop-hating underground music nerds. I love a good conspiracy, but you need to go to the major label boardroom where these songs get played for the real evil of the business: the ego-filled executives who push artistic compromise to appease focus groups since they believe they have formulas for mass success. Note that this evil happens after the artists are done with the song. To make matters worse, songs can rarely be tweaked to make algorithms or focus groups happy. Instead, the executives abandon the song, moving on to one of the hundreds of others vying for their marketing budget. These discarded songs are the ultimate proof that these producers aren’t crafting to a focus group, since otherwise there wouldn’t be thousands of them never released by the major labels each year.

Music is an evolving art where we continually discover new ways to make songs more resonant to the changing world we live in. As we observe adaptations that make songs more resonant, we adapt our creations to the resonances we've observed in others’ work we enjoy. It’s commonly thought a focus group study brought about the advent of a hook appearing in a pop song within seven seconds, when really, pop producers are just trusting their instincts and that’s what appeals to those instincts. Trust me, if you ever hang out with most pop producers, their attention span wouldn't get through a three-page study.

Those who’re successful at making pop are successful since they make the music they want to hear and have tastes that align with the public. This is why careers in pop are rarely sustained. These hitmakers often evolve too far ahead of the public's taste, becoming too advanced for mass consumption. This is why you'll also see the demise of some artists as they get too progressive for pop tastes or fail to evolve with the public by continuously releasing an emotional expression the public is no longer interested in, after moving on to more resonant emotional expressions. Tastes evolve fast in the mainstream. If you chase them, you end up failing – unless you happen to evolve simultaneously and enjoy the direction they’re headed. Songwriters don't predict trends and put them in their songs. Their musical fluency is inspired by those making cutting-edge work, which inspires them to apply their own spin on genres that will be tomorrow’s trends.

The misunderstood art of pop has always been that it's a format that has rules you have to work within but can still have progressive tendencies. Kanye West put it this way: "The concept of commercialism in the fashion and art world is looked down upon. You know, just to think, 'What amount of creativity does it take to make something that masses of people like?’” Many poptimists would argue that despite the vacuous message of most pop today, it's the most difficult genre to create great work in since it's the most competitive and needs to include an overlapping intersection of both fresh and familiar. For pop music to work, it needs to have a freshness to the masses that's both innovative and somewhat new, while not being too adventurous. This balance needs to be struck while crafting concise hooks that are effective in a format optimized for what the majority of listeners like.

When a song from left field enters the top 40 charts, many ignorant blowhards say it's from "the right palms being greased." While it's factually true that some palms need to be greased to get songs on top 40 radio, there're hundreds of songs that get the same grease as the hits that never make the top 200 since the public doesn't take to them. The public needs to respond to the song once it's played; if they don't, the palm-greasing is money down the drain as the stations stop playing it. This is evidenced every time the top 40 charts get a leftfield hit like Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know," Fun's "We Are Young" or any of the countless other songs that sound like nothing else in the mainstream at the moment.

Hipster Music Is Pretentious, Contrived, Blah, Blah, Blah

Now that I'm done apologizing for pop, I'll shower and go back to listening to my favorite punk records. Speaking of those punk records, on the other side of the argument is the ridicule that indie hipster acts get for their overly wrought concepts of making old-timey, sea chanty-filled music or whatever other ridiculously exaggerated micro-genre you can think of that hipsters are worshipping. While on the surface their music can seem pretentious, when you look closer it’s formed by being intensely interested in a micro-genre of music where they’ve become fluent in how to craft a unique emotion that appeals to others interested in this niche emotion. Just the same as any other genre, only their fashion choices are more ripe for ridicule from being more nerdy, weird or cringe-worthy.

Trust me, I’ve mocked Mumford & all of his sons as well as whatever seapunk ridiculousness we're laughing at on Twitter each day. But I've also lived in the same neighborhood as the hipster musicians for long enough to have discussed their work over beers and they're simply fulfilling the emotion they want to hear. It's argued that they've contrived a weird image to get attention, but usually it's simply an interest they've pursued long enough to become good at embodying it. How they got to that interest may have been highly suspect, but by exploring their influences thoroughly and authentically expressing them, they've crafted a sound others enjoy.

That's Nice, But I Need To Make Some Money

Now that I’ve talked about how all of your friends’ get-rich-in-music schemes are bound to fail, as you probably guessed by now, this book isn't about "getting rich in music quickly." Inevitably, right after I finish explaining that, I get accused of hating the monetization of music. I believe in making money off music! I've made my sole living off of monetizing music since I was a teenager. In fact, I've never had a job that wasn't music-related since I left high school. I even like money, so I spent years writing this book to get more of it. If you enjoy this book or my last one, I've applied the same philosophies to these endeavors. I made what I'd want to read first and it hopefully connects with you. So let's get this out of the way: I don't blame you for wanting to make money off your music. There's no conflict in monetizing your music unless you put money before your music being emotionally resonant to you, but you need to be guided by what you feel in order to make music that will make you any money.

Wanting Validation And Writing For Yourself Aren’t A Contradiction

Usually, after someone argues with me about the entanglement of money & creativity, the next argument I hear is that humans want validation for what they create, so doing this all for yourself isn't realistic. Craving validation is embedded in most of us and, if anything, it’s more common than in most other creative fields with attention-seeking musicians who are peacocking around town in eye-catching outfits. It's human nature that our brains enjoy being appreciated, and it’s also completely valid that humans feel beaten down when we're underappreciated.

Validation occurs after the fact for artists who make what they love. When I make music or books, I do it to keep myself entertained, along with a feeling that my work needs to be in the world. But I won't be upset if you tweet how great this book is ― in fact, it'll probably make my day. It isn't mutually exclusive to want praise for what you do and to create for yourself, but there's a sequence ― you need to be happy with your work first so then others can be happy with it after the fact. 

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.