A Singing Sensation: Accidental Lessons in Market Research

What does preparing for a singing competition have to do with market research? Turns out, a lot!

Last week, I participated in a pop song competition at Martuni’s, an SF piano bar I frequent often. The competition required me to prepare and sing two pop songs, or songs in styles that were closely related to pop.

I immediately realized that one of the songs I wanted to sing was “Somebody to Love” by Queen. The perfect 80’s power pop confection, it would appeal to an audience of theater folk and 30-something bar attendees. It would also encourage audience participation, which I felt would be a great way to win showmanship points. And, most importantly, it was a song I’d performed before, that I knew well, and that I felt comfortable doing.

Choosing my second song was more difficult. I could have gone in several different directions:

  • A classic R&B song, like “River Deep Mountain High” by Tina Turner
  • A 90’s boy band song, like “It’s Gonna Be Me” by N*Sync
  • A reimagining of a mid-2000’s pop song, like this cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” by Yael Naim
  • A straight-forward interpretation of a contemporary pop song, like “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga
  • A song currently on the charts, like “All of Me” by John Legend
  • Anything by Adele

I knew that whatever I picked had to counterbalance the campiness of Queen, either by being more serious or more contemporary. I also knew I needed a song that would let me show off different parts of my vocal register and performing abilities. Queen would yank the audience toward me; the second song had to command their attention and hold them captive.

I finally decided there was only one way to go about selecting the perfect second song: perform a bunch of songs at Martuni’s every night the week before the competition.

Accidental Market Research

In making this decision, I inadvertently began conducting a market research campaign, with some very strict rules for song selections:

  • A popular song people know
  • A song I can sing well
  • A song that will resonate with the audience
  • A song for which I have sheet music that I can give a pianist

Experiment Night 1: Beyoncé

The first night, I sang Beyoncé’s “Love on Top.” Sadly, it didn’t go over very well with the audience. Roughly a quarter of the crowd applauded, while the others continued their conversations and checked their cell phones throughout the performance. My goal as a singer is to command the attention of the majority of my audience, so a song that doesn’t contribute to that simply won’t do.

After the disappointment of “Love on Top,” I needed a pick-me-up. I decided not to test a second new song, instead performing tried and true “Somebody to Love.” Standing ovation. Definitely the right choice for my first song in the upcoming competition.

Experiment Night 2: Cee Lo Green & John Legend

Cee Lo Green’s profane anthem “F*ck You” is a huge a crowd pleaser, but the issue here was that it was just too familiar to my audience. Everyone wanted to sing along, and I already had a winning Queen sing-along in my back pocket. I needed my second song to leave them speechless. So, out the door it went.

“Ordinary People” was John Legend’s first real hit (from 2004). I thought it would be a solid choice for me. Sadly, it was outside my comfortable vocal range, and the audience seemed bored by it. I think this was a case of a song that didn’t quite suit me, nor aged particularly well. Bye, John.

Experiment Night 3: Adele & Katy Perry

Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was well within my comfort range (and is arguably one of the most ubiquitous songs of the last five years), and the audience loved singing along to it… a little too much. It joined Cee Lo in the thunder-stealing reject pile.

“Teenage Dream” was an indulgence on my part. I’d performed it with my college a capella group, and loved Darren Criss’ cover of the song from “Glee.” This was just an experiment to see how it would go over. It went over alright. Like a lead balloon. The audience only showed vague memory of the song, and it was just too candy pop to work for this crowd.

Lessons Learned

My little experiment helped me narrow down the perfect second song, but it also reminded me of a few important lessons for conducting market research.

  • Lesson 1: Carefully consider your overarching strategy, and have a strong team to support you.

Before diving into experimentation, I set a very clear goal and made a bulleted list of rules to dictate how my experiment would run and how I’d interpret the data collected.

And I knew from experience that I could rely on the bar’s pianists to be able to read my sheet music, follow my suggestions about tempo, know where and how to improvise, and basically make me look good.

  • Lesson 2: Consider the popular choice, but focus on what suits your strengths.

I picked some songs I knew I could perform well, as well as some popular songs I knew would be a stretch for me. I wanted to not only try things I knew I could do well, but also try things I’d always wanted to do, and see how people would react. In the end, I decided to go with a stretch song that also played to my strengths.

  • Lesson 3: Have controls in place to help you properly analyze your results, and use multiple methods of data collection when possible.

I had friends sitting in the audience who’ve seen me perform before. They were able to give me honest feedback on how the songs suited my voice and style. This, combined with asking strangers in the audience, worked wonders for helping me figure out an ideal second song to sing.

I also gauged the song’s quality by how many people came up afterward to compliment me. (By that mark, Queen’s “Somebody to Love” far outranked any other song.)

  • Lesson 4: Even extensive research doesn’t always lead to outstanding results.

In the end, I chose to pair Queen’s “Somebody to Love” with Chris Cornell’s scorching hot cover of “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. Surprisingly enough, the song I’d sung a million times before, “Somebody to Love,” was the song that gave me the most trouble during the performance. Somehow, I forgot the words to the second and third verses. (This never happens when I’m singing in the shower.)

However, because I had spent about twelve hours the previous week working on an arrangement of my stretch song “Billie Jean” — when it was time to get up on stage, I knew that song through and through. And it became, without a doubt, the strongest of my two performances in the competition.


I didn’t win the competition this time, but I did pretty well and learned a lot, thanks to my accidental market research experiment. And next time? The audience will make no mistake in finding the right somebody to love. (Just as long as I remember the lyrics.)


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