Mick Jagger, Prince, and the Secrets of Making a Smash Hit

“Think like a consumer, not like a creator.”


  • Mick Jagger’s foolproof strategy for marketing hits
  • Why we love Prince’s “Purple Rain” so much
  • How we can all marry popularity and genius in our creative pursuits

Ryan Holiday is a former director of marketing for American Apparel, leading media strategist, and author of six books, including his latest, Perennial Seller. Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Hit Makers, which explores the secret histories of pop culture hits and the science of popularity. The two recently sat down to discuss popularity, genius, and why there can’t be a formula for creating either.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view Derek and Ryan’s full conversation, click below:

Derek: Let’s start with Perennial Seller. What is your definition of a perennial seller?

Ryan: I try not to focus on really firm definitions, because it’s limiting. In book publishing, a book is officially backlist after one year. In the music industry, an album is cataloged after 18 months. Anything on the inside of that is not perennial. Then anything on the other side, we can start to have the conversation that, “Hey, it’s begun to last.” [A perennial seller] is something that is so far past its release date that it’s starting to surprise us that it’s still selling.

Derek: You start with a big question: “What share of fame or success is quality, that which is inherent to the product, versus marketing, that which is outside of the product?” Someone gave you the advice you should spend 20 percent of your time creating something and 80 percent of your time promoting it, a Pareto law for artistic works. You say this is bunk—why?

Ryan: First off, I just hate it as a person who likes to read books and consume products. I don’t think anything really good was ever made with someone spending less than half of their time actually making it. There’s too many questions that go into a work of art that you won’t have time to answer, if it’s only a small fraction of the things that you’re working on.

If you’re not spending as much time as you can on the making of the thing, you’re not going to make something great. That’s not to say I don’t think marketing is really important, it certainly is, but I think you can end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater in both directions.

“If you’re not spending as much time as you can on the making of the thing, you’re not going to make something great.”

Derek: I think that’s exactly right—something has to be good enough to be successful. It has to pass certain thresholds of simplicity and safety and excitement, and maybe shareability. The problem is that there are so many things that are good enough. There’s only a few slots for a hit, for a perennial seller, that the difference often above that threshold is marketing or luck, or something exogenous to the product itself.

Ryan: Completely. It’s like saying that it’s two marathons. You run the marathon of making something and you think they’re going to congratulate you and give you a medal. Then, actually, the race attendant leads you over to the beginning of another, possibly harder, marathon.

On the outside, people don’t understand how hard it is to make something really great. Then creators who want to make something great often think that that’s going to be sufficient. It’s necessary, but it’s not at all sufficient. There’s so much great work out there that’s completely undiscovered for that reason.

Derek: We’ll call it “the double marathon problem,” which is that it is necessary to have a creativity marathon, but it is also necessary to have a marketing marathon. Nothing or very, very little is automatically self-distributing or perennial-seller-becoming.

There’s No Formula for Creating Hits—But There Is a Playbook

Ryan: This is even more true early on in your career. I often will hear a song from a band or a musician or pop star and ask myself, “If this was Rihanna’s first song, would it be a hit?” I think the answer’s probably no.

Derek: This is the “Kid A” theory of hits. “Kid A,” Radiohead’s fourth album, sold one million copies. It might be the strangest album ever to hit platinum. There were lots of sociologists and psychologists that I talked to who wanted to make this very specific point—if Radiohead debuted with “Kid A,” they wouldn’t be Radiohead. They wouldn’t be able to sell a million people with “Kid A.” They had to work their way up to it.

“We’ll call it “the double marathon problem,” which is that it is necessary to have a creativity marathon, but it is also necessary to have a marketing marathon. Nothing or very, very little is automatically self-distributing or perennial-seller-becoming.”

They had to do “Pablo Honey,” get a little weirder with “The Bends,” and get a little weirder with “OK Computer,” but still have some super catchy choruses. Only then, once they became one of the biggest bands in the world, could they jump choruses entirely and make some weird, neo-jazz, electro alien music that was “Kid A.”

If you think about some of the creations that we consider genius in artistic history—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”—[they’re] almost never the first or second work. They’re the work that tends to come after these artists have bought popularity, have bought the attention of a critical mass of people.

Once they have people’s attention, they can say, “Great. Now that I have your attention, I can lead you somewhere weird, somewhere truly, truly mind bending.” The name that we give to that intersection between mind-bending eccentricity and popularity is genius, but the genius often comes after the popularity game has been won.

Ryan: Because popularity is another word for distribution, essentially. I was thinking of Bon Iver’s new album [which is] super weird, and it only works as an album. It works because he has so many people who would already be fans of his music, and so he’s able to push that envelope in a way that if that was the first album, we wouldn’t be talking about him.

Derek: Right. The “Kid A” principle of hits is actually so powerful that in music, they sometimes say that album sales are actually a referendum on the quality of the previous album.

All right, let me talk to you about the act of creation. You have a couple of really accurate suggestions for creators, one of which is to think like a consumer, to think like your reader or your listener. You talk about the Max Martin car test—what is it and what does it mean?

“The name that we give to that intersection between mind-bending eccentricity and popularity is genius, but the genius often comes after the popularity game has been won.”

Ryan: Max Martin [is] arguably one of the most famous hit makers of all time in contemporary music, [with] something like 20 or 30 #1 hits. He subjects all his songs to what he calls the car test. He drives down Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down, and he tests the song and [asks,] “Does this work? Is this music actually working? Not is it just beautiful to make, is it challenging to me creatively? What does it actually feel like in the context that it’s going to be consumed?”

There’s also a famous story about The Rolling Stones that Rich Cohen tells. They’re working on an album [and] don’t know what song should be the first single. Mick Jagger says, “You don’t know what was the right song until you hear it on the radio, and by then it was too late.” Famously, The Rolling Stones call up a DJ and ask him to play the song. Most of us can’t do that, but we can test the context either with our imagination or actually interact with those people.

Not enough people do this. I work with lots of authors and even entrepreneurs; they make the thing, and then it’s done, and they’re already well into the planning of the marketing before they really stop to see whether this is worth that investment.

Derek: Thinking like a consumer, not like a creator, is an unbelievably powerful idea. Particularly for entrepreneurs, but really for people in any slightly creative industry.

I think about this for writing. Writing explanatory journalism, which I do a lot, [and] writing for a massive audience, [which] you do a lot, is like scuba diving. There’s information that you need to get: a piece of coral at the bottom of the ocean. You have to scuba dive all the way down and grab the coral. Your work is not done though. You have to come back to the surface, back to sea level, and be able to show other people that coral.

“Thinking like a consumer, not like a creator, is an unbelievably powerful idea.”

You have to describe this journey to people that haven’t gone all the way down to the ocean floor, and haven’t gone all the way up. It’s two pieces of work. You have to do the work of the creator, the work of the scuba diver. Then you have to show it to people who are on sea level, who never made that journey with you.

There’s No Formula for Creating Hits—But There Is a Playbook

You have to think at sea level, even though all the work is underwater. That’s often how I think about explanatory writing: write for people that have no idea what my reporting was, who have no idea what the story is, who are still at sea level, make this interesting to them.

Ryan: I really like that. The analogy I’ve been thinking is somewhat similar. I’m working on a book [about] the story of Peter Thiel and his war with Gawker. I don’t come from a journalism background, and the first thing I had to do was read tens of thousands of pages of legal documents.

[This] gave me an incredible empathy for what journalists do. Then, I was [also] thinking about it more like a lawyer. I started to think of writing in that sense. You have all the objective facts or the material or the evidence of a given case. Then the lawyer has to sit down and go, “My job is not to give the jury or the judge or the court everything that I’ve discovered, that wouldn’t be plausible.”

You have to present them with a winning narrative. You have to pick the best of all the narrative if you want a chance at commercial success or a verdict in your favor. The creator’s job is to pick what’s the best narrative or arrangement or path on this project.

Derek: You have a section of your book where you talk about coming to terms with commercialism. A lot of people who are creators are not natural marketers. They enjoy being alone. They enjoy theater of the mind. What is your advice to them to become more effective marketers of their works and creation?

Ryan: I’m not actually saying everyone should embrace commercialism in its purest form. I’ll give you an example—in The Obstacle Is The Way, which is probably my most commercially successful book, I’m really interested in Stoic philosophy.

If you listen to somebody like Tony Robbins or [other] motivational speakers, they’re basically just taking from academic research and ancient philosophy and putting it in their own words and acting like they made it up.

Derek: I call [this the] “re-gifting intuition.” Great self-help only works if the audience is already in tune with the lesson. If self-help is telling you to do something that you really don’t want to do, then you immediately reject it. The most clever self-help, or sometimes the most successful, is actually re-gifting.

“Great self-help only works if the audience is already in tune with the lesson.”

Ryan: With The Obstacle Is The Way, I looked at the sales of the book that were for a very niche audience, and said, “Look, I’m not going to spend two years of my life writing a book that sells 3,000 copies. It’s just not worth my time.” I also have no interest in talking to 20,000 people pretending that I made something up that I didn’t make up. [So,] I split the difference.

Derek: I think it’s really important to point out that genius and commercialism are not always fighting each other. My example here is Prince’s “Purple Rain.” He came up with the idea for “Purple Rain” because he had been touring with and around Bob Seger, and he was jealous of the audience reception that Bob Seger was getting. He wanted to write a song that was a real crowd pleaser, so he basically takes the chord progression from the song “Faithfully” by Journey—he actually goes to the songwriter at Journey and says, “Do you mind? I’ve sort of taken your chord progression, particularly for your outro and made it my five minute outro with my Prince-y guitar solo and ooh oohing,”—and that’s how he wrote “Purple Rain.”

Ryan: Interesting.

Derek: “Purple Rain” was his attempt to use Journey to become Bob Seger. You could not imagine a more commercial method for a song.

What do we love from Prince? We love “Purple Rain.” We love his inextricable weirdness. Prince can never not be Prince. [“Purple Rain”] was Prince in service of crowd-pleasing. There’s a space between these Venn Diagrams where wonderful things that move people and bring tears to people’s eyes can live.

Ryan: It’s also being honest about the audience and what they want. There’s not a less appealing phrase in the English language than Stoic philosophy. Stoic means no emotion, so people think that’s bad. Then philosophy means totally impractical and boring. I wanted to do [with The Obstacle Is The Way] almost what Prince did, which is take something that I like and translate it into terms people are going to be receptive [to].

Derek: You made a very good point that people need help, too, that no man is an island. Great writers have editors. Great basketball players have coaches. In my book, I talk about this as the “top five network.” The Clintons became a dynasty by having a great top five, the five people who are closest to them. Michael Jordan had a great top five. Serena Williams has a top notch top five.

Ryan: One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand about music or books is that they tend to think that the people in those industries know exactly what they’re doing, which is true in some sense, but totally wrong in another sense. It’s evidenced by the fact that they pay outside people to make the work. If publishers knew how to make successful books, they wouldn’t give large advances to people who don’t work at the publishing house to make those books.

The other part of it is [that] only you know what you’re trying to create. That’s the thing that only the artist can do because you know your fans, you know what’s not in the market, you know what you feel like expressing.

Then, once you have that, then you need the team who can see the work that you’re so close to a little more objectively and can guide you.

Derek: That great play is a marriage of great players and great coaches. This is a question I got a lot—Does your book have a formula? When people ask you this, do you have a pat answer to the question?

Ryan: I have presented a formula to the best of my ability. I would never pretend that if you follow these eight steps you’ll automatically have a [perennial seller], but I’ve tended to find that you are cutting off your potential audience if you don’t. I guess what I’m saying is one of the reasons I think journalists who have big online platforms often struggle in the transition to books is that because the reader is paying for the book, they expect more than just information.

“The formula for hits would actually make the outcome of hits impossible to happen. By definition, there cannot possibly be a strict formula for outlier popularity or for hit status products.”

Derek: I think about that as a potentially worthy criticism of my book. Sometimes I look back and I’m, “Oh, I should have been more clear about takeaways in this section or this section.” Because in magazine journalism, it’s not just about the takeaway, sometimes it’s more about the exploration.

Ryan: Then the other trouble [is that] people [will] go, “Oh, I need more takeaways,” so they take a work of journalism and slap a few takeaways at the end of each chapter, which also doesn’t work.

Derek: I think that’s very true. My feeling is that formulas work really well for something like salt. Sodium and chloride makes salt. Because the underlying elements of sodium and chloride never change, but familiarity and surprise, the more important ingredients I talk about in my book, are constantly changing. That’s the first reason why it’s difficult to say that there is a formula for hits. The second reason is that a formula creates a predictable element every single time, whereas hits are by definition exceptional.

If there were a formula for making popular movies, then everybody would eventually learn it. They would all make movies based on formula, and none of those movies would be exceptionally popular. The formula for hits would actually make the outcome of hits impossible to happen. By definition, there cannot possibly be a strict formula for outlier popularity or for hit status products.

That doesn’t mean that, as you said, there aren’t really important mistakes to avoid, and really interesting general rules of both creation and human behavior that can make any individual in all sorts of disciplines a much more successful creator of cultural works or startups.

Ryan: This was another thing that I found with Robert Greene’s book, The 48 Laws of Power. People go, “How can you have these laws if some of the laws contradict each other?” Well, situations are different, so the law’s always true, but the situation changes. You’ve got to suspend a little bit of disbelief there to make it compelling and interesting.

Derek: To review, because I think that people might want to go back through this and remember the takeaways, especially given what we just said:

  1. The car test theory of creation—think like a consumer.
  2. The best narratives have the power of simplicity, that’s very important.
  3. There are two marathons to making and marketing something. After you finish the first marathon, by definition, you must begin the second.
  4. Great players need great coaches, and great plays are a marriage of great players and great coaches.
  5. There is no formula, but there are rules.