It’s Good If You Know Some Musicology

Submitted by Peter Åstedt

Recently I have bumped into really enthusiastic people that want to work in the music industry. They claim to love music, and I think they really do. After getting to know them better you just feel that there is something wrong. They pick the wrong songs; a lot of the decisions are more in the vein that they like the artist and can’t hear that this song from this artist is not that much of a hit.

I know when I played football there is a word in Swedish called “bollkänsla” which translated means that you have a good ability to control a ball. Something I really don’t have. I loved to play football, but I was mainly just kicking the ball and was more like the average player in my age group. I got more and more of that feeling that it is the same in music, let’s take it under musicology.

This has nothing with whether you play an instrument. It has nothing to do with if you are good enough to come up with small melodies either. I have a good example. I worked on a record label in the A&R team years ago. We let our employees listen many times to demos that we got just to get a second opinion. After listening to demo tapes for three days you get a bit jaded. In the company, we had a guy that worked as an extra, helped out here and there. His day job was in a car factory on the assembly line. This guy was magical to find hit songs. He didn’t play any instruments, he didn’t write good songs, but boy was he accurate to pinpoint what was going to work for radio and be a smaller hit.

At the same time, we had another guy working there. He was a musician but when he wasn’t touring he was working with some of the computer stuff. He had been to music schools and could determine any errors in any recording. He was the worst to find a hit song. Every time you gave him a song that you thought might be a hit, he was the one that turned it down. When he liked a song it was usually very odd for the rest of the team. Of course, this guy also thought he had a better taste in music than the guy that worked in the car factory.

Over the years it developed in the way though that if we tested a song, we first went to the car factory guy. If he went crazy about the song, we then took it to the musician, and if he hated the song we put it on a premium track. After some years the musician started to notice that we always choose the songs he didn’t like. Just to get him in a better mode we let him for once pick what he liked. At the same time, we let the car guy pick whatever he liked from the big pool of demos that we had.

Sure enough the artist and album the car guy picked became the second most selling album in the company’s career. The album the musician took was the biggest disaster. Both albums had an equal budget and equal teams.

In the end, we figured out what was the difference between the two. The car guy had a natural feeling for musicology. He trained that way by listening to the radio in his headset all the time when he was working on the assembly line. With that he became good at picking up trends and what a great song should be all about. The musician mainly just listened to artists he already liked over and over again. He was looking for songs that were hard to play, not that the general audience liked.

To be a musicologist, you can listen to most genres and hear and can pick a good song from the rest. You can of course train to be that way, but some people are just good at that. You must set your personal taste aside which can be hard at times.

AS another example I had a boss that was not that good. Every time he played us a song and we should say if it was a hit, he always took songs that were number one in another country to be sure he had a hit. He missed a lot anyway since a hit can be local and attract people because of a story or something else, so he wasn’t a musicologist.

I had another boss that was obsessed with hit songs and had studied every aspect of his songs in the past four  years. Let’s say his house was filled with Gold Records from artists thanking him for picking the hit song for their album.

What I noticed is that people that played classical music, jazz, and niche music are generally not any musicology people. They know how to play the instrument perfectly but seldom can compose a hit. In the pop world, you can lack most and then pick the things that you need as a musicology person. Madonna is a good example of that. She is not good at playing any instrument or composing, but she knows a good tune and knows how to surround herself with talented people that provide her with the perfect songs and trends.

It’s like football some people just have the feeling, that can’t be explained. You have it or you don’t.

Editor’s Note: Peter Åstedt has been working in the music industry for over 35 years. He has started record labels, distribution systems, and publishing companies. Peter also runs several major showcase festivals and is an advisor for INES and co-founder of MusicHelp/Discover Sensation. He has worked with the Top Ten most streamed songs and had music on both the Olympics and Super Bowl. Peter has currently taken up the seat of Station Manager of Cashbox Radio, working with MD, PD and station owner, Sandy Graham. Peter is a Managing Partner and Editor of the newly launched Record World International. In 2021, he worked as the European Consultant for Heal the Earth – An Earth Day Celebration. His latest venture is a new Showcase Festival in Sweden, Future Echoes which just launched its first edition February 17 to 19, 2022. Dates and announcements for 2023 are forthcoming.