15 Things Pop Songs Can Teach Entrepreneurs

Oct 2, 2017 | Ian S. Port

Perhaps at first glance the worlds of pop music and small business couldn’t seem more different. In fact, the Billboard charts offer a host of lessons for the hungry entrepreneur, many of them about what it takes to get (and stay) noticed in an age of overstimulation.

Here are 15 lessons that pop stars and their songs can teach the entrepreneur, and a handy Spotify playlist you can take with you.

1) You Gotta Have a Good Hook

Hook ‘em early, and hook ‘em hard: The best pop songwriters know they don’t have time for a long setup, so they put the most appealing and catchy elements right up front. As a small business owner, don’t expect your customers to wait around to see what’s so great about your product or service. Find the right way to announce it from the very start.

“Rich” — Maren Morris

2) Make ‘Em Laugh or Make ‘Em Cry, But Don’t Make ‘Em Mildly Smirk

What are pop songs about? Love and loss. There are always exceptions, but it’s hard to create deep feelings in your listeners without dealing in big subjects: romance, loneliness, loss, triumph. The lesson here for entrepreneurs is not to muddle around with small problems. You don’t have to tackle the most sprawling crises facing humanity, but you should offer something of real importance to your potential client base, even if it’s a small one. Be the only vegan Thai restaurant in town, or the only international logistics consultant for geological engineers. Ponder pain points! But maybe think real hard before starting the next convenience-focused lifestyle app.

“Tennessee Whiskey” — Chris Stapleton

3) Novelty Wears Off. Revolutions Stick Around.

There’s a big difference between a neat gimmick and a genuinely radical approach. The former might win you a couple of weeks (or years) on the charts, but only the latter will fuel long-term success for a pop star or a business. Don’t confuse superficial novelties (a strange sound or a fresh store layout) for a true shift in the paradigm. Both Lady Gaga and Prince made their names with mind-blowing outfits. Both MySpace and Facebook offered new ways to interact online. But (so far), only the latter of each example have truly remade the world as we know it.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” — Nirvana

4) If Others Copy You, You’re Onto Something

Call it Billboard’s Law: Any cool new element in a successful pop song — like the unique triplet phrases beloved by rappers Migos — will immediately be copied by lesser artists within a month, max. The old cliche about imitation has it exactly right for both music and business. If you find competitors aping your designs or approach — the way Instagram Stories aped Snapchat — keep innovating, hold tight to your clients, and never lower your prices. But also take a moment to smile: The world knows who’s out in front.

“T-shirt” — Migos

5) Technical Success Doesn’t Equal Commercial Success

“If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli,” Jay-Z raps on “Moment of Clarity,” underscoring a truth that all jazz musicians know well: Sheer ability means nothing in the marketplace. And a great product alone will not bring your firm success. Product is incredibly important, and you should be proud to have a great one. But you also need to package it, market it, and support it with ruthless dedication. Jay-Z became ubiquitous through image and reach — by building a celebrity persona and a company outside of music. Talib Kweli just stayed a great rapper.

“Get By” — Talib Kweli

6) Yes, It Is All About That Bottom (or Bass) Line

Pop music is largely about the beat. Make a good one and you rule the charts almost by default. The metaphor here for business is the bottom line. There are many reasons to go into business, and many worthy goals that arise along the path of entrepreneurship. Maybe you want to be a fresh and casual company, not a stuffy one. Maybe you want to provide lunch to your employees. Maybe you want to donate some of your profits to a cause. But just as with the beat in a pop song, you’ve got to have a good bottom line in order for any other element to work. The number at the end of the balance sheet is what makes every other goal possible.

“Pony” — Ginuwine

7) Live at a Fast Tempo

The vast majority of pop songs move at 100 beats per minute or more. Somewhere around a heartbeat and a half is the speed at which you want your small business to move, too — at least at first. Even if you’re putting off the hook, so to speak (see No. 1), customers will respond to the fact that you’re moving quickly at all. In the early stages of a small business especially, speed is its own virtue.

“You Wanted a Hit” — LCD Soundsystem

8) You Gotta Break Down to Build Up

Somewhere in the second half of a pop song is the breakdown, where the drums go quiet, the synths turn down, the background singers disappear, and the music dribbles into near-silence. Then: BAM! It blows back up again, louder and more resplendent than before. Think of business the same way. If you want to reach new and greater heights, you might need to dismantle the elements that got you where you are and reassemble them into something else. That could mean making-over your staff, cutting expenses to fund a big new investment, or rejiggering the product. The tech world is filled with companies that pulled off major pivots from one product or service to another. Think of Microsoft: Everyone thought it was doomed when the Windows phone failed. Now, its latest devices are beating Apple’s.

“Hey Ya” — OutKast

9) Give Your Spiel, and Then Give It Again, and Again …

Pop music is stupidly repetitive and only getting more so. The reason: Repetition works. We remember — generally, with fondness — what we hear all the time. So don’t be afraid to pound the message of your business into any ears you see, as often as you see them. But please make that message pretty, cool, or interesting, and nothing at all like the Kars for Kids jingle.

“Rack City” — Tyga

10) Cliches Work, Until They Don’t

In business as in pop music, originality is overrated. It’s great, sure, but it’s also rare, and it isn’t enough on its own to guarantee success. A lot of pop songs sound similar, and deal with similar subjects, for a simple reason: formulas work. Maybe your business is a formula that works — if so, don’t hold any illusions about it. But in business and pop, formulas can lose their effectiveness the moment a true revolution arrives (see No. 3). When that happens, you need to shift gears quickly. Plenty of companies have succeeded at shifting gears, and yours can, too.

“Million Reasons” — Lady Gaga

11) Question the Fundamentals

Virtually nothing in pop music is the same as it was 20 years ago. The shift has not been in degree but in kind. We’re at the beginning of a new era, in technology and in everything else, and the smartest musicians, producers, and entrepreneurs understand that very few of the rules our parents lived by still apply. (Maybe none!) The unthinkable — good and bad — is possible. Frank Ocean is using that to his advantage, by re-envisioning what an album rollout might be. Even John Mayer seems to have caught up to the fact that big releases don’t really matter anymore and is dribbling out major songs a few at a time. A commensurate move in business might be building your product for mobile first, rather than bothering with a desktop version, or even deciding to forgo a traditional office space. The point is, just because there have been rules doesn’t mean you still have to follow them.

“The One Moment” — OK Go

12) Small and Steady Beats Big and Wobbly

In pop music in 2017, artists like Run the Jewels are making a comfortable, creative living by finding a loyal niche and serving it — and not worrying about the larger world. Meanwhile, the biggest stars grind it out, praying for a blockbuster status that only the fickle masses can bestow. There’s a lesson here: Modest predictability brings its own kind of freedom, and monstrous growth comes with a banquet of risk and uncertainty. The strongest companies, experts say, are those that grow continuously over time, even at modest rates. Data show that steady growth is a much better predictor of long-term success than even a relatively extended explosion.

“Legend Has It” — Run the Jewels

13) The Next Great Can Come From Anywhere …

The annals of popular music are filled with unlikely successes, whether from unknown artists or known ones who were never expected to have a mainstream hit. A long-winded thrash metal band cracking the Billboard Top 20? Unthinkable — until Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” A startup electric car company growing more valuable than a Detroit behemoth? Impossible — until Tesla did it. There is no prerequisite to success in pop or in business, so don’t impose any limitations on yourself.

“Enter Sandman” — Metallica

14) … But Today’s Great Can Be Forgotten in a Flash …

And often, they will be. The pop charts ring with one-hit wonders (no matter how you define the term): acts that scored a grand slam once and never so much as got a triple afterward. In business, too, nothing about getting to the top in your field guarantees you’ll stay there. When’s the last time you heard of someone buying a Snuggie?

“Somebody That I Used to Know” — Gotye

15) … So There’s No Good Reason Not to Be Your (Best) Self

Perhaps the main lesson to learn from pop music, then, is not to focus too much on growing huge, but rather on growing solid. Move fast, change it up, figure out whether you’re an original or not, but above all, run a business that works, whatever scale it happens to work on. There are great musicians who experiment throughout their careers but are unafraid to come back home, as it were — to keep putting out the kind of great music that made them great. Maybe you’ll reach the top, maybe not, but if your bottom line is in order and your customers are happy, that’s really all that counts.

“Devils Haircut” — Beck