It’s hard to predict which songs will become hits. It’s even more difficult to predict which artists currently topping the charts will record the most hits and which will see their fame disappear.
Now, an extensive study of the charts provides some advice on how to avoid being a one-hit wonder. Artists with more variety in their catalog are more likely to have repeat hits, says Justin Berg, a social scientist who researches creativity and innovation at Stanford University’s business school. But there is a dilemma for artists who want to be popular in the long run. Variety isn’t what helps artists get their first hit, Berg reports March 24 in Management Science Quarterly. It is the similarity of a new song with recent hits.
“There’s really no way to thread the needle,” says Berg. “You face a…compensation as a new creator, between a chance of [or] sustained success based on the novelty of your portfolio.”
The new insights could help artists in a variety of fields better understand the public impact of novelty in art — in music, the visual arts, books, and more.
To discover if there is some kind of formula that can help explain who becomes a flash in the pan and who becomes a musical staple, Berg focused on the pop charts, with their rich collection of data. “I thought I’d start with the industry … where the term one-hit wonder was coined,” he says.
Berg used a database of approximately 3 million songs from 1959 to 2010 released by record labels that had produced at least one hit in the United States during that time. Of those songs, nearly 25,000 made it onto the weekly Billboard Hot 100, which tracks the most popular songs based on sales data, radio play and now online streaming. That provided Berg with a list of nearly 4,900 artists who had one or more songs listed, her criteria for defining a hit.
Berg then turned to a Spotify system that rates songs on 11 variables, including danceability, energy, and key. This system provided metrics on most hits and misses from the 1959-2010 time window. Berg then noted how closely related the hit songs were to the previous calendar year’s hits. She also compiled portfolios of the most artists who had at least one song on the Hot 100, so she could quantify the variety and newness of the songs they had released at the time of their first hit. These portfolios also allowed him to compare one-hit wonders with mega-hit makers and those who never made it.
Hits are rare, the data shows. Of the 69,000 artists in the original database, 93 percent never had a hit, 3 percent had one, and 1 percent had two hits. The success rate for additional hits goes down from there.
Berg found that music artists with what he called low-novel portfolios that closely resembled other existing music were about twice as likely to have initial success. But those who created a more innovative and varied catalog before rising to fame were more likely to spawn a string of hits.
“It’s a music nerd’s dream to read something like this,” says Storm Gloor, a music industry researcher at the University of Colorado Denver. He says that he puts some weight behind much of the intuition that artists and record executives have developed over the years.
Since the data ends in 2010, the research may not fully capture the current state of popular music. Musicians are changing the way they write songs to make them more engaging on Spotify or TikTok, says Noah Askin, a computational social scientist at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. “A lot of it now is: How memorable is a given song? How much can you get as a soundtrack for a short video clip?
Berg doesn’t want his research to diminish the achievements of one-hit wonders like Los Del Rio, who recorded the 1990s hit “Macarena.” “A lot of them were pretty famous and successful at the time,” he says. “You go out and try to make a catchy song. It is not an easy challenge.”