What my uncle Neil Sedaka taught me about the evolution of hitmaking
My uncle is Neil Sedaka. I won’t tell you who the other artist he mentioned was, but he’s someone with many number one hits in the 1970s and has a nickname for his fans.
My moment with Noam was a game-changer for me, even though I had known for a long time that the man I know as Uncle Neil was famous. I remember seeing gold and platinum records lining his apartment. There are pictures of Uncle Neil with the guy with the big sunglasses in his kitchen. Not to mention that I’ve been backstage at a few concerts.
Some of the kids reading this may not know who Uncle Neil is. You might confuse him with Neil Diamond or even Neil Young, but I bet most of you have heard the phrases “love will keep us together” or “breaking up is hard to do”. These are the two number one songs in this country, and Uncle Neil wrote the music for both.
Uncle Neil is considered so timeless that he was asked to be the guest host of the second season of “American Idol” in 2003. Shortly thereafter, contestant Clay Aiken ranked with “Solitaire” of Uncle Neil, making him one of the few artists to appear in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 five decades (1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 2000s).
But what makes Uncle Neil so rare is that he both wrote and sang most of his best hits. He is one of more than 80 artists to have partially written and performed at least three No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100.
And as the appearance of “American Idol” suggests, Uncle Neil has managed to transcend pop trends and achieve success through very different musical eras. He is one of ten artists to have three No.1 hits which he sang and wrote with over a dozen years between his first and last No.1 hit.
You probably recognize some of the other names on this list like Madonna, Mariah Carey, Elton John, and Janet Jackson.
Indeed, Uncle Neil was not just a question of length, but of depth. From 1959 to 1963, he became the second best-selling artist after Elvis Presley. Uncle Neil knew he was on top of the world when he saw his first number one hit (the aforementioned “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”) on the Billboard Hot 100.
But the current music industry is very different. There are now more Billboard charts than we can count. In my uncle’s heyday, you would listen to songs on record or on the radio; there are so many options at your fingertips now. All you have to do is squeeze a piece of glass.
According to Will Page, former chief economist at Spotify, more than 75,000 songs a day are streamed and more than 70 million songs are available anytime through streaming.
These numbers are changing rapidly and are very different from those of the past.
In the 1970s, at Tower Records, you had about 40,000 albums to choose from.
The way we see success for artists today is much more varied than it was 65 years ago when Uncle Neil was making his debut.
Is a song a hit if it’s trending on YouTube? What if it’s associated with a Tik-Tok meme? The idea of playing on the radio and selling songs doesn’t hold the same place as before.
In other words, they don’t always reflect the larger cultural issues and the conversations that take place.
If the Billboard Hot 100 was Uncle Neil’s “bible” of success, what are the benchmarks today? Is there?