I remember telling my boss on the day that I retired from the music business that one thing I was really happy about was that I'd never have to go the any award ceremonies like the Grammys again. And no more American Music Awards, no more MTV Video Music Awards, no more Billboard Music Awards, no more Academy of Country Music Awards, no more People's Choice Music Awards, no more BET Awards, no more Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies... Although, to be honest, I kind of actually didn't mind the annual Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame shindig.
One ceremony though that I went to just once and had a swell time was the big one in the UK, the Brits. It was 1998 and I was in London for something or other and our English company insisted I come along. So I went and was seated at the hottest table, which included Tony Blair's wife-- Tony didn't come-- and deputy prime minister John Prescott and his wife. People were catching onto the fact that New Labour wasn't Labour-- the same way that here, today, the New Dems aren't actual Democrats. For context, let's imagine that John Prescott was the Joe Manchin of his day. Stick a tack in that for a moment.
Chumbawamba-- which most Americans mispronounced Chumbawumba-- was a seriously anti-fascist band that built a political-musical following in the '80s and '90s in Britain. In 1997 they "sold out"-- they didn't-- by signing with the enemy, EMI. And-- boom: a huge hit, their only huge commercial hit: "Tubthumping" (AKA "I Get Knocked Down"), which topped out at at #2 in the UK and #6 in the U.S.
This came right after Alice Nutter told Melody Maker that "Nothing can change the fact that we like it when cops get killed" and followed it up, when EMI demanded she apologize, with a clarification: "If you're working class they won't protect you. When you hear about them, it's in the context of them abusing people, y'know, miscarriages of justice." She also urged Chumbawamba fans who couldn't afford to buy CDs to steal them (but from big chains, not independent stores). I had agreed to go to the Brits, in part, because Chumbawamba was playing. And they did.
More context: the New Labour government was refusing to support the dockworkers strike which was raging at that moment and the band changed some lyrics to "New Labour sold out the dockers, just like they'll sell out the rest of us." Right after the show-stopping performance, singer Danbert Nobacon headed right over to our table, grabbed a pitcher of ice water and poured it all over Deputy PM Prescott. I think I was the only one at the table who loved it. Everyone else was outraged and you'd have thought someone had just been assassinated. The only damage was to Prescott's dignitas. How would you like seeing that happen to Manchin? Wouldn't you pay to see it? Or McConnell or Mike Pence?
The band kept releasing brilliant political hits. Somehow they never got on the radio and eventually the band fizzled out. (The single after "Tubthumping"-- also from the Tubthumper album-- was "Amnesia," a catchy, tuneful attack on New Labour and slimy politicians in general. It did pretty well in the UK and Canada but didn't get any radio play in the U.S. (despite Tubthumper having sold over 3 million albums in America).
"Tubthumping" was named the #8 on Rolling Stones' top 10 one-Hit Wonders of All Time. The whole list:
Take Me On by Norway's A-ha
Come On Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Runnners, a legit band
Spirit in The Sky by Norman Greenbaum, a Jew for Jesus?
In A Big Country by Big Country
Tainted Love by Marc Almond's Soft Cell
My Sharona by a band everyone loved to hate, The Knack
No Rain by Blind Melon, as hated as The Knack
Tubthumping by Chumbawamba
96 Tears by ? and The Mysterians
Turning Japanese by The Vapors, who were smart enough to never even try again
So why bring all this up on Easter Sunday, when surveys show that blog traffic practically disappears? Well... this morning The Atlantic published a scholarly essay by Derek Thompson about what makes an artist a one hit wonder instead of a superstar with a viable career.
It takes an idiot to think Chumbawamba was a one hit wonder, but did anyone really ever want to hear another song by The Knack? One of America's greatest conceptual artists, Hugh Brown, designed the Knuke The Knack campaign and even one of the band members posed in one of Brown's t-shirts, which may have been given to him by me; I'm not 100% sure.
Or Blind Melon or The Vapors? Want to hear another one by them? Thompson wrote that "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.