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All creative industries, including music, are dominated by hits. Most artists have only one or two hits throughout their careers, a phenomenon known as a one-hit-wonder.

Only a few manage to overcome this stage and produce multiple hits. A recent study by Justin M. Berg explains the psychology behind one-hit wonders and what distinguishes them from serial hitmakers. 

What is a one-hit wonder?

A one-hit wonder is someone who becomes extremely popular because of one piece of work. Many people who are dubbed “one-hit wonders” find it difficult to grab attention to their other songs due to that one hit.

Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” are largely seen as examples of one-hit wonders. 

Berg’s study: One-Hit Wonders Versus Hit Makers

Berg compiled a data set of about 3 million songs released between 1959 and 2010 and identified the biggest hits. Then he used an algorithm developed by EchoNest to pull out the characteristics of the hit songs. 

These included the songs’ key, tempo and danceability. He did this to get an idea of the diversity of the artists’ portfolios (which he calls “variety”) and how similar this song is to the pop music landscape of that time (“novelty”).

For example, according to Berg’s research, Blind Melon’s “No Rain” was rated very low in terms of novelty. Its soft-rock sound was super popular in 1992, which made it a likely contender to become a one-hit wonder.

On the other hand, Shania Twain is an example of a novel, or innovative, artist. Her country-pop sound was different from what was going on at the time. This innovation made her an icon and inspired the next generation of country artists. Berg said her novelty helped turn casual listeners into hardcore fans, leading to a long and sustainable career. 

Berg also shows that variety is useful for artists who are just starting out. This is because artists can see what sticks, and then capitalize on that. He also concluded that diversity is no longer important once artists establish their reputation. Instead, they must focus on what Berg calls “relatedness” or music similar to their iconic sound to maintain their status.

This supports the creative model known as explore-exploit. According to economist Dashun Wang, artists have clusters of very successful works, which he calls “hot streaks.” This means that artists first experiment with different genres, and then exploit or focus on a particular area.

Main points from Berg’s research

While artists may find it difficult to find a large audience with a new style at first, they have a greater chance of retaining their success if they breakthrough with that style. In addition, experimentation in the early stages of an artist’s career is necessary to find what sticks and sustain their career. Last but not least, Berg says, the key difference between one-hit wonders and serial hitmakers boils down to “relatedness” and the creation of an iconic sound that is maintained over the years. 

Final notes

While focusing on what is currently popular can lead to virality and immediate success, this does not necessarily mean that you will succeed in the long term. Therefore, if your goal is sustained success, you need to focus on what works for you and become a master of what you do. Only then will you stand out from the crowd. 

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