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Cracking the Code of One-Hit Wonders


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In September 1992, the band Blind Melon released their self-titled debut album. The record was mostly ignored until a music video for the song “No Rain,” featuring a girl in glasses dressed as a bumble bee, went berserk on MTV. The song rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. That was the last time the band ever struck gold. Two decades later, Rolling Stone named “No Rain” one of the biggest one-hit wonders of all time.

Soon after Blind Melon topped the charts, another artist had a breakout moment. Shania Twain released her second album, The Woman in Me, which included the No. 1 hit “Any Man of Mine.” Whatever the polar opposite of a one-hit wonder is, that’s what Shania Twain turned out to be. She became one of the most consistent hitmakers of her era, and the only female artist ever with three straight albums certified Diamond, meaning more than 10 million copies sold.

For decades, psychologists have puzzled over the ingredients of creative popularity by studying music, because the medium offers literally millions of data points. Is the thing that separates one-hit wonders from consistent hitmakers luck, or talent, or some complex combination of factors? I did my best to summarize their work in my book, Hit Makers. This month, the Stanford psychologist Justin Berg published a new paper on the topic and argued that the secret to creative success just happens to hinge on the difference between “No Rain” and Shania Twain.

Berg compiled a data set of more than 3 million songs released from 1959 to 2010 and pulled out the biggest hits. He used an algorithm developed by the company EchoNest to measure the songs’ sonic features, including key, tempo, and danceability. This allowed him to quantify how similar a given hit is to the contemporary popular-music landscape (which he calls “novelty”), and the musical diversity of an artist’s body of work (“variety”).

“Novelty is a double-edged sword,” Berg told me. “Being very different from the mainstream is really, really bad for your likelihood of initially making a hit when you’re not well known. But once you have a hit, novelty suddenly becomes a huge asset that is likely to sustain your success.” Mass audiences are drawn to what’s familiar, but they become loyal to what’s consistently distinct.

Blind Melon’s “No Rain” rated extremely low on novelty in Berg’s research. Dreamy, guitar-driven soft rock wasn’t exactly innovative in 1992. According to Berg, this was the sort of song that was very likely to become a one-hit wonder: It rose to fame because of a quirky music video, not because the song itself stood out for its uniqueness. After that hit, the band struggled to distinguish their sound from everything else that was going on in music.

By contrast, Twain’s breakout hit rated high on novelty in Berg’s research. She was pioneering a new pop-country crossover genre that was bold for her time but would later inspire a generation of artists, like Taylor Swift. “Twain is a great fit for the model, because her blending of pop and country was so original before she had her breakout,” Berg told me. After her second album, he said, her novelty, which had previously been an artistic risk, helped her retain listeners. She could experiment within the kingdom of country-pop without much competition from other artists, and this allowed her to dominate the charts for the next decade.

Berg’s research also found that musical variety (as opposed to novelty) was useful for artists before they broke out. But down the line, variety wasn’t very useful, possibly because audience expectations are set by initial hits. “After the first hit, the research showed that it was good for artists to focus on what I call relatedness, or similarity of music,” he said. Nobody wants Bruce Springsteen to make a rap album.

This second finding about the benefits of early variety is similar to a model of creativity known as explore-exploit. The Northwestern University economist Dashun Wang has found that artists and scientists tend to have “hot streaks,” or tight clusters of highly successful work. When he looked closer at what preceded these hot streaks, he found a similar pattern. First, artists and scientists would “explore,” or experiment with a bunch of different ideas, styles, jobs, or topics, before they really got in the zone. Then they would “exploit,” or productively focus on one particular area.

Berg’s and Wang’s research suggest three rules of thumb that may come in handy for creative work.

First, extremely new ideas are unlikely to initially find a large audience. But if they break through, artists and entrepreneurs may find that uniqueness is an asset, the same way that Twain’s country-pop hybrid style switched from a burden to a benefit after her first hit. Second, early-career exploration can pay dividends in the long run. This is as true of the broader labor force as it is in music. A 2014 study of young workers found that people who switch jobs more frequently early in their career tend to have higher incomes in their prime working years. Third, the difference between one-hit wonders and hitmakers isn’t just novelty; it’s also focus, or what Berg called “relatedness.” Hot streaks require creative people to mine deeply when they find something that works for them.



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