How Hits Made: Documenting the Quest For a Hit Song [Interview]

What goes into making a ‘hit song’? It really depends on who you ask; some members of the music industry will begin to talk about melodies, genres and repetition, while a cynic might simply point to financial and network advantages. But what about an artist or band?

Hit songs aren’t an everyday occurrence, despite however many times a radio station might play them in a given 24 hours. And while artists don’t always hit the studio in hopes of making a smash single but rather to get their thoughts and emotions out musically, not too many of them are going to shy away from the popularity and money that comes with this sort of release.

Aside from what we think of as a ‘hit song’, keep in mind that for most indie artists, that can simply mean a single that gains traction via a popular blog or playlist and leads to more opportunities. Chris Pizzolo and Sara Waber, the co-founders of Play Too Much – a site dedicated to curating unique experiences through features, podcasts,’original session series’, and events – decided to set out on a journey to document one band’s experience in releasing such a single.

They began documenting New York-based (and TuneCore Artists!) Great Caesar as they crafted their tune “Take Me To The River“, to be featured on an upcoming album, from conception to recording to release. The result is an excellent five-part podcast series called “How Hits Made” that follows the group’s trials and tribulations around the recording of their album Jackson’s Big Sky. Recommended for indie artists of any genre, the podcast does a great job of breaking down the creative process behind what so many go through.

We were able to interview Chris and Sara about the process of recording the podcast, what they learned during their time chronicling the release, and more:

1.) What was it about the subject band, Great Caesar, that caught your attention at first?

Sara: The opening monologue in Episode 1 of How Hits Made is a real depiction of the first time I saw Great Caesar. Chris had seen them perform stripped down so we were both in awe of their live full set. They had so much energy and passion behind every song. John Michael Parker is truly one of the best performers we’ve come across. I always say that he’s a great singer but he’s an even better storyteller because their music takes you a journey.

Chris: There was something about them that really moved me. I think it was the collaborative pool of talent, and charm behind the lyrics that got me excited about them. I kept them on my radar for a while before approaching them about the series.

2.) Did you sense a serious energy shift at a particular point during your documentation of/relationship with the band?

Sara: Well there is a huge band dynamic shift at the end of episode one. I don’t want to give away too much but I think when we first approached the band they were humbled by us even wanting to document them. I think they felt like it would just be a fun experience. But when their band dynamics changed and things got really emotional and serious for them, I think they then realized that all of that would be on display in this podcast. I admire them for being as honest and straightforward as they were throughout the entire production. But that was our main goal – to portray an honest depiction of a struggling band in NYC and Great Caesar took that to heart.

Chris: Totally, and I think you can hear it in the first two episodes in particular. There’s a real sense of urgency, and a real sense of purpose from the band, and I think at the end of episode 1 the shift became a lot more palpable.

3.) A publicist points out in Ep. 4 the trouble of going into the studio with a hit song in mind. Did this ever resonate during the writing/recording of “Take Me To the River”?

Chris: I think that resonated more after the recording. I think the band, and a lot of bands for that matter, really get caught up in trying to move as fast as they can that it’s hard to really assess in real-time. I agree with Nancy Lu’s perspective, and I think that the band truly believed that “Take Me To The River” was going to be a song that propelled them to another level.

Sara: Great Caesar needed to go into writing and recording with the intent to create a hit for the podcast’s purpose but also for themselves. Their success has plateaued and  knew they needed something different – a hit to propel their band to the next level. I think a lot of artists believe there’s a formula for earworms and catchy radio tracks so it’s easy to go into a studio or writing session and think that a hit song will come out of it. The pressure of doing so though it what gets in the way and could stifle that creativity.

4.) How do you feel this objective influenced the recording of “Jackson’s Big Sky” overall? Or was it just another consideration from an evolving band?

Sara: When we first started production, the song that came out of the show wasn’t suppose to land on their album. However, the band really fell in love with “Take Me To The River”  and so it made the cut for their album. That was a huge surprise to us and we were thrilled.  I don’t think How Hits Made directly influenced the album but I do think the themes of the show – wanting to take your band to the next level, figuring out how to make music a career, etc – were all aspects that inspired this album. I think they wanted to create music that could be enjoyed by a wider audience, music that resonated with fans, shorter songs that can translate to radio, etc.  

Chris: Well, I think the collection of songs on Jackson’s Big Sky was an honest and real reflection of the band at that time. I might be biased but I like to think that this objective might have ignited the pace at which they hit the studio and released the EP.  

5.) Explain what you consider to be some of the biggest struggles you witnessed during your time documenting this all. Similarly, what kind of positive realizations or opportunities arose?

Chris: I think Great Caesar was the perfect subject for the first series of this show. Their struggles were real. Dealing with major personnel issues, assessing how far you can push a creative career and trying to forecast how long you have to do that isn’t just a struggle that a musician has to deal with, it’s a struggle that most young entrepreneurs have.

I think the story of Great Caesar isn’t the story of a band that continues to struggle, but it’s more of a story about a collective of people who are using their unique resources and identities to create something larger than themselves.

6.) In your opinion, what can other indie artists writing with the ‘hit song’ in mind learn from Great Caesar’s experiences in 2016?

Sara: The guys in band say that having a band is like running a small business, if you want to make it a career you have to work at everyday like a 9-5 and not everyone has that privilege, so you need to prioritize playing and practicing after work or before class or in the morning before your significant other wakes up.

Chris: Personally I think the biggest takeaway from Great Caesar’s story is that you can’t step up to the plate swinging for the fences. You have to be realistic, and be the best you can be at what you do. If the negatives outweigh the positives, then you need to reassess why you do what you do.

7.) As curators of a music site like Play Too Much, what was the most profound lesson or realization you shared during this production, whether it’s in terms of the industry, songwriting or something else?

Sara: Making it in music is not easy. There is so many different formulas from pure luck to pure talent, to the people you work with to the studio you record at, to how you run your social media to how you perform live, etc. There’s endless opinions and that’s what I find most fascinating. Listening to different perspectives and being in awe that no one perspective is right or wrong.

Chris: The most profound lesson, and it’s probably an obvious one is that there isn’t a true formula for success. There are certain boxes you must tick in order to make progress, but to really be successful through art, it takes something much more spiritually ethereal.

8.) At the end of the day, without spoilers, how do you feel the documentation of this process influenced Great Caesar’s objectives or goals moving forward?

Sara: I definitely feel like every episode of How Hits Made was a mirror that was put in front of the band to make them take a good long look at themselves. That can’t be easy, especially if you’re already hard on yourselves. But ultimately I think that this series started out as an ode from two fans to a band that could have felt like their music didn’t mean anything to anyone and that the love this show received is a symbol that there’s a lot of people out there who believe in them and their music.

Chris: Imagine, someone put a spotlight on your life for a year analyzing the ins and outs of how you work – then crafted a compact, accessible story about it. That’s got to be incredibly insightful, no matter what your profession is. I think Great Caesar is only going to grow as they continue to create music together.

From Chris & Sara:

We are so grateful for everyone that has listened, subscribed and shared this podcast and are grateful for all of the musicians out there that continue to create and make art every day. This podcast was intended to be a testament to all of the truly wonderful people who create art. This podcast would not have been possible without Great Caesar, Billy Donahoe, Refuge Recording, and everyone who supported. Thank you.