Pop Culture

Music collaborations are all about branding

Having songs featuring guest artists or merging music's bankable artists is a winning formula for branding

Here's a winning formula to get a song on the top of the mainstream charts - collaborate.

Song credits with the word "featuring", an "&" or the more stylistic "x" or "vs", indicating two or more artists joining forces on a tune, dominate today's charts.

Take the top 10 songs on Billboard's singles charts, which track the number of times a song is sold, both on physical and digital formats, played on radio, and streamed on sites such as Spotify as well as viewed on YouTube.

A whopping seven out of the 10 songs feature guest stars or are collaborations.

Right at the top is viral trap track Bad And Boujee by Migos featuring Lil Uzi Vert, a song that spawned countless memes before becoming a bona fide pop hit.

Then there is the tried-and- tested formula of merging music's most bankable stars, as seen in Starboy by The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, currently at No. 5.

Zayn's and Swift's duet, for example, is the equivalent of Hollywood blockbuster Passengers (2016), which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Fans get double the star power in one song and they bring the fanbase of both names together.

Going solo after you've spent years in successful boy bands and girl groups might be a daunting task, but as in the case of former One Direction heart-throb Zayn Malik and erstwhile Fifth Harmony singer Camila Cabello, appearing in collaborations propelled them back up on the charts.

Zayn appears in I Don't Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker) by Zayn/Taylor Swift in a pairing with another pop megastar, at No. 8, while Cabello sings the hook in Bad Things by Machine Gun Kelly x Camila Cabello, at No. 6.

For some acts, collaborations became the ticket to the all-elusive No. 1 spot.

American electronic dance music duo The Chainsmokers and pop singer Halsey finally scored their first mainstream top hit last year with joint single Closer.

That song became one of the biggest hits of 2016, spending more time at the top of the Billboard charts than any other song.

Away from the international charts and closer to home, some of the more prominent recent releases are also collaborations, such as Bounce Squad x Joshua Simon's Murda and Gentle Bones' latest single Liar, which features Linying.

Most of these collaborations are one-off singles though, and rarely do they represent long-form works such as albums.

Unlike in movies, which usually feature a cast who do not necessarily always work together in every film, singers, musicians and bands tend to be creatures of habit.

Despite their prominence on the singles charts, most bands and artists would consistently have releases under their own names.

For example, a band such as U2 would be expected to consistently offer music made by Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr, and having another artist in their songs would be the exception rather than the norm.

But increasingly, songmakers with an eye on chart success are seeing the results of putting two or more names together. Zayn's and Swift's duet, for example, is the equivalent of Hollywood blockbuster Passengers (2016) , which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.

Fans get double the star power in one song and they bring the fanbase of both names together.

Collaborations also spark the curiosity of listeners: What would it sound like if Swift was to make a song with Zayn? Does it mean that they are going out? Did the fact that Swift had a bad break-up with Zayn's former bandmate Harry Styles have anything to do with their team-up?

These are probably enough to get the fans excited about the song and if the end product is a tuneful track that demands repeated listens, then it becomes a hit.

Collaborations in music are nothing new, of course. It's a hallmark in hip-hop recordings since the genre's early days, as evidenced by groundbreaking 1982 single The Message, credited to Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five featuring Melle Mel and Duke Bootee.

In the mid-1980s, Run-D.M.C.'s cover of Aerosmith's Walk This Way, featuring the latter's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, became a landmark recording. Not only did it help rap music cross over to the mainstream audience, but it also gave birth to a new rap-rock hybrid genre and helped revive Aerosmith's then flagging career.

There was a time though when artists didn't even declare their famous guests in songs. The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps from 1968, for example, featured seminal British guitarist Eric Clapton playing prominent lead guitar, yet he was not formally credited in the song.

Artists sing a different tune these days. It would be commercial suicide for Maroon 5 not to have a "featuring Kendrick Lamar" in the song credits for Don't Wanna Know, currently sitting at No.9 on the Billboard charts.

Having Lamar, acclaimed as one of the best contemporary rappers today, drop guest verses on a track gives an otherwise lightweight pop tune a lot more heft.

Electronic dance music's entry into the mainstream in the past few years would also probably not happen if DJs and producers such as Calvin Harris and David Guetta didn't start working with pop stars such as Rihanna or Usher on their singles, exposing a whole new demographic of pop fans to euphoric dance tunes.

It's more than just about the music. Branding counts too in the race for the top of the charts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2017, with the headline 'Collaborating to get to the top of the charts'. Print Edition | Subscribe