What Do Pop Stars Have That One-Hit Wonders Don’t

A new study finds that artists who had creative portfolios before an initial hit were more likely to continue creating hits

Shania Twain in a white shirt and hat singing on stage
Shania Twain performs during the Zurich Film Festival in September 2021.  Thomas Niedermueller / Getty Images for ZFF

Why do some music artists produce only one popular song and others churn out hit after hit? 

Researcher Justin Berg at Stanford University’s business school thinks it has to do with the creativity of an artist’s portfolio before they reach fame. 

In a study published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Berg tested his hypothesis by looking at a data set of more than 3 million songs by almost 60,000 artists from 1959 to 2010. Of those artists, 4,857 had one or more hit songs. 

To determine the creativity of songs, Berg used an algorithm to measure features such as key, tempo, time signature and danceability. He also calculated how varied an artist’s portfolio was each year they released one or more songs. What Berg ultimately found was that artists who had a novel or varied portfolio before an initial hit were more likely to continue creating hits, but a novel portfolio was less likely to yield the initial hit.  

“Novelty is a double-edged sword,” Berg tells the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. “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.” 

Artists are also more likely to succeed if they create new songs that are related to their existing work, Berg explains in a statement, but they also have to balance keeping up with current trends. 

“Artists with more creative portfolios have more options for pulling off this balancing act over time, increasing their odds of sustained success,” Berg says in the statement. 

Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is a good example of a one-hit wonder, per the Atlantic. The song took off in the 1990s after the band released a quirky music video featuring a tap-dancing girl dressed as a bee. But the group’s songs weren't particularly unique or innovative, and they failed to differentiate themselves from the other music at that time, Thompson explains. 

A few years later, Shania Twain’s album The Woman in Me had the opposite effect, propelling her into fame and leading her to become one of the best-selling music artists of all time. 

“Twain is a great fit for the model, because her blending of pop and country was so original before she had her breakout,” Berg tells the Atlantic. Twain dominated the country-pop genre, topping the charts with song after song. 

“It’s a music nerd’s dream to read something like this,” Storm Gloor, a music industry researcher at the University of Colorado Denver, says of the study to Science News, adding that the research backs up the instincts of artists and record executives. 

Because Berg only looked at data up to 2010, the research may not reflect current music trends, Science News’ Chris Gorski explains. With the rise of apps like TikTok, musicians are rethinking how they write their songs. 

Berg believes this research can help predict success in creative work, though he warns that a completely data-driven approach may be misguided. 

“I think measures like those in this study ought to be used in conjunction with more intuitive assessments of creative work,” he says in a statement. “A 100 percent-data approach may someday beat a mix, but we’re not there yet. At this point, if someone were using a hybrid data and intuition approach, I’d bet on them over either one alone.”

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