Why it’s so hard for a one-hit wonder to have a lasting music career

The musical qualities linked to a first hit conflict with those that make for lasting success

Aqua performing on stage at a music festival

Some consider the Danish band Aqua (seen performing at the 2018 Jelling Music Festival in Denmark) as a one-hit wonder, thanks to their 1997 megahit “Barbie Girl.”

Gonzales Photo/Alamy

It’s hard to predict which songs will become hits. It’s even more difficult to predict which artists topping today’s charts will go on to record more hits and who will see their fame fizzle out.

Now an extensive study of the pop charts provides some tips about how to avoid being a one-hit wonder. Artists with more variety in their catalog have a better chance to land repeat hits, says Justin Berg, a social scientist who researches creativity and innovation at Stanford University’s business school. But there’s a dilemma for artists who want to be popular over the long-term. Variety isn’t what helps artists land that first hit, Berg reports March 24 in Administrative Science Quarterly.  It’s the similarity of a new song to recent hits.

“There actually isn’t a way to thread the needle,” Berg says. “You face a … trade-off as a new creator, between a likelihood of initial [or] sustained success based on the novelty of your portfolio.”

The new insights could help artists from a variety of fields better understand the public impact of novelty in art — in music, visual art, books and beyond.

To figure out if there’s 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 figured I’d start with the industry … where the term one-hit wonder was coined,” he says.

Berg used a database of about 3 million songs from 1959–2010 released by record labels that had produced at least one hit in the United States over that time. Of those songs, nearly 25,000 landed on 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 that made the list, his yardstick 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 of the hits and nonhits from the 1959–2010 time window. Berg then noted how closely related hit songs were to the hits from the previous calendar year. He also compiled portfolios for most of the artists who had at least one song on the Hot 100, so he could quantify the variety and novelty of the songs they had released at the time of their first hit. These portfolios also allowed him to compare one-hit wonders to mega-hitmakers and to those who never made it big.  

Hits are rare, the data show. 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 drops from there.

Berg found that musical artists with what he termed low-novelty portfolios that closely resembled other already existing music were about twice as likely to have initial success. But those who built a more innovative and varied catalog before fame hit were more likely to generate a series 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 it puts some heft behind a lot of the intuition that artists and record executives have developed over the years.

Since the data end in 2010, the research may not fully capture the current state of popular music. Musicians are changing how they write songs to make them more appealing on Spotify or TikTok, says Noah Askin, a computational social scientist at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. “So much of it now is: How memorable is a given song? How much can you put it out as like a soundtrack to a short video clip?”

Berg doesn’t want his research to diminish the accomplishments of one-hit wonders such as Los Del Rio, who recorded the 1990s smash “Macarena.” “A lot of them in their time were quite famous and successful,” he says. “You go out and try to make a song that catchy. It’s not an easy challenge.”

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