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How To Break A #1 Hit Song On MP3.com

At the end of August 2000, I read some ad copy at CelticWays.com. In it John Wilmott, NMA Promoter, spoke of a new direction in the music market. He predicted CDs were going out of style to be replaced by MP3s and the new digital technology. And he awoke in me a desire to look into the new music model found in MP3.com.

Three months later, the Brobdingnagian Bards are nearly $4000 richer, and have been #1 on the World/Folk and Celtic charts, plus, a Top MP3.com artist for a over two weeks in January 2000.

So the question many of you are asking is how did we do it? Is there a particular formula that you used to achieve this success? At the risk of creating some dreadful competition, I'm going to give you my step-by-step formula for making a NUMBER ONE HIT on MP3.com.

First, let me tell you some basics about us. We perform regularly throughout Southwest. Yes, we have a mailing list with nearly 400 subscribers. But quite honestly, I don't believe that those were the chief factors in our success, because our success struck nearly two months after our last gig!

No, rather, it hinges on something else. And here it goes.

1. Pick a song. Any song. While I believe with enough promotion you can make any song a hit, it helps tremendously that it is your best. So make it the best recording, the best songwriting, the best at everything. If the production sucks! Redo it. Hell, record a live version professionally. You can make a good solid recording of one song for under $40. So do your best.

2. Name your song creatively. Quite honestly, you might need to rename it a few times to find one that captures the attention of MP3.com visitors. I found out through experience that "The Bridge" was no where as interesting as "Tolkien", or even better "Tolkien (The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings).

Now test it out. See if people are willing to click that name. How? Ask some friends. Post to newsgroups. Join mailing lists and ask them. Contact other musicians and see what name sticks out. Ask your mailing list.

Also, consider naming it something with which people can associate it. The entertainment industry is a good start. Political events can be hot if timed right.

Remember that on the MP3.com charts, it's not about what your song sounds like, it's all about the song title! Want some more great tips? Order a copy of "50+ Tips On How To Maximize Your Income on MP3.com."

3. Instrumental songs do better. So if you have an instrumental songs, consider using that as your main hit to break. Quite honestly, instrumentals do better on the charts because they can be anything to everyone. If you don't want to use an instrumental fine. But you will probably achieve greater success if you stick with an instrumental ballad. The cool thing is when your instrumental songs starts climbing the charts, you can use its success to pushing up your non-instrumental tunes. You see my whole goal was not to push "Tolkien" to the top, but rather get all of our tunes up the charts. The success of "Tolkien" brought us over twenty tunes in the Top 40 throughout MP3.com!

4. Post the song in the correct genre. From day one, "Tolkien" was in the Celtic genre. It could've gone in "mood music" or some other classical genre, but we picked one that fits the style of the song. It's named after a fantasy author. Most fantasy music could fit in that genre.

However, there is one important note here. The Celtic genre is not an easy one. While I say the correct genre, the correct genre is the one that gives you maximum exposure with minimum effort. Remember that it usually works best to start your song in a category as deep as possible. The reason is that once you get to the top of one chart, you will automatically be moved into the next highest chart.

For instance, "Tolkien" was posted in > World/Folk > Traditions > European > Celtic. As it climbed it moved to the #1 position in each of those categories before hitting #1 in World/Folk and finally #34 on all MP3.com.

5. Add song notes and lyrics. Though it is up for debate just how much clicking through to read the song notes and lyrics really increases your payback, it does provide interest. So add some notes about your song. Tell your listeners how your song came about. It makes the song more personal. Plus, many sites will use the liner notes for reviews. If you don't have any, you might get skimpy reviews.

6. Make the song available for download. Yes, you can fervently try to protect all your music from being pirated, or you can have a number one hit. It's your choice. I have yet to see a Top 40 hit that was not available for free downloading.

People want to take your music with them...so they can tell their friends. Plus, think of it in this terms. A visitor comes to your website, listens in HiFi. He likes your song. So he downloads your tune. You've just gained TWO listens from one listener! If that person listens and likes more of your tunes, you'll gain a lot more.

Now a quick tip. MP3.com does not properly tag MP3s. The only tag
that you have control over that they do properly tag is the lyrics. So, whether you have lyrics or not, include some contact information in the lyrics section. That way, when they start sharing your MP3 with their friends, their friends will know how to get back to your website to download more music, and buy your CDs!

A funny note about "Tolkien", our MP3.com top 40 hit in January."Tolkien" was originally spelled "Tolkein" because that name is one very commonly misspelled name by fans. But despite the mis-spelling it still was a major hit on the charts.

7. Your DAM CD. Just like in the world outside of MP3.com, CD sales command the charts. If you are selling well, your songs climb the charts. If not, they don't. For two months, "Tolkien" sat just outside the Celtic Top 40. Finally, in early January, I was talking to my friend Rimbo, he decided to go ahead and buy a copy of our new CD, the "Best of the Bards". The next day, we leapt in to the Celtic Top 40 and kept climbing! Honestly, I am forever grateful to Rimbo for his assistance, so please drop by his site and listen to some killer music (including another Tolkien tune).

8. Price Your CD Low. While we're talking about selling CDs, remember to price your CD LOW. That means $6.99. Why? Well there are many reasons. First and foremost is you will sell more CDs, especially overseas. All of our CD sales this month have been from outside of the United States. Basically, foreign shipping is expensive. If your CD prices are low, other countrys will consider buying your CD more.

Also, you can follow Ernesto Cortazar's example (and now our own) and setup regional distributors. Thus, you can encourage your fans to buy large quantities of your CDs and sell them in their regions. This way you sell more CDs and your songs continue to climb the charts. Check out our Bard Distribution program for an example.

9. Use Your Mailing List. While the mailing list did not get us going, it did propel us to the top. I had a good score of Nagians who were listening and downloading our music daily to give us an extra hand at pushing our music up the charts. Your fans are an invaluable resource so use them, but don't abuse them. Also, remember to offer incentives now and then. It'll make the the success all that morning.

11. Pay It Forward. Some of you may remember the article I wrote a few months back on effectively using the the "email a friend" function on MP3.com. Well after start the Pay It Forward plan, where we set up a web page with just email links and told people, if they enjoyed our songs to "Pay It Forward" and share the music with a friend, we started having 5-20 people emailing others with our music per day. That was up from zero before the program. So consider encouraging your fans to "pay it forward". 

12. Play live. Alright, this is of course the most obvious, and I suspect everyone's saying, "yeah, yeah, I know, and I read it elsewhere about a dozen times". Well of course it is worth mentioning because after "Tolkien" took off. We started having gigs a few weeks later. And at those gigs, people began requesting this song. It also gave us an opportunity to plug the song. "Yes, head over to MP3.com and you can download it free. Just visit mp3.com/thebards". It worked. When our stats started to sag, the live gigs kept the song at the top. So get out there and plug your music live! 

13. Custom HTML. This was one of my absolute favorite little tricks that really helped our music to soar. Head over to http://mp3.com/thebard and look at the custom HTML we put up there. There's quite a few links listed, right?

Well all of those links were essential to our success. You see, when I started adding links directly to our page, I had only a few. Immediately, I noticed that every song in that list was climbing the charts. Basically, people dropped by saw some links and downloaded or listened using our links. Well, while the MP3.com affiliate program was going I saw hundreds and then thousands of people clicking each of those links so I added more. 

Then I added direct links to the audio files on my other sites. If you go to the Brobdingnagian site and search for "(Princess Bride) Buttercup's Lament", or "Eleanor Plunkett" you won't find them. You see, both of those songs are listed on different sites (Marc Gunn, Bard & Classical Celtic, respectively). But anyone who came to the Bards site could listen to songs from these other sites and these other sites would get paid for the listens!

So now I have three sites making money. Next thing you know, you could've checked out our MP3.com earnings while we had a #1 hit, and you would've seen only $100 per day. But we were actually making about $130-150 thanks to those other two sites (and not including the affiliate income).

Then, I started the BardsCrier Network to help out some friends. So next thing I know all of my NMA artists like Rimbo and Carol Stober started making an extra buck or two from people at our site downloading like crazy! 

What it boiled down to was that having easy access links on your website is invaluable. People will use them and your songs will get more listens, than if they stay in the MP3.com format. And since all of those Custom linked songs were climbing the charts, it helped push and keep "Tolkien" at the top!

So what are you waiting for!? Start adding your Custom HTML!

14. Payola. Payola is variable auction advertising. You can bid your song for placement in one or several of the many genres on MP3.com. This placement goes on every page in the genre you win, so you're getting a lot of visibility.

Back in January. I bid for the top Payola positions in about four different genres, including genres in which "Tolkien" is not normally associated (such as Classical, Easy Listening, World/Folk, and Books/Spoken). I bid for the top position and usually won one of the top three in each of those genres. I 
received a good 15-40% of my hits from payola as a result.

But now, MP3.com has added several other forms of payola that are even more valuable including: Main Page Promotions, Greeting Cards, and Search Engine Promotions.

While none of these promotional tools are the end-all and be-all of getting your song to #1. Each can be an incredible tool for pushing you up the charts.

One Final Note About Payola. How do you bid with payola? Well if you go to the Bards Crier mp3 page you will find some "secrets" in audio form. But let me start by saying if you're not making money, it really is not wise to start bidding on payola. I used payola to push us over the edge, not as a crutch. Instead, start by making sure you're making a few dollars from free promotion. Once you master that and have earned a few bucks, then start using payola to push you over the edge.


Marc Gunn is an actual working Celtic Geek musician. He was nicknamed “The Celtfather” for his incredible support of indie Celtic music and his award-winning Irish and Celtic Music Podcast. He has helped 1000s of musicians make money with their musical groups through The Bards Crier Music Marketing Tips. Now you can get FREE “how-to” music marketing and promotion advice, plus tips on how to sell more CDs when you subscribe today. Subscribe at www.bardscrier.com!

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