Anatomy of a one-hit wonder

One-hit wonders are a phenomenon that have been around forever.

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Anatomy of a one-hit wonder


Future. One-hit wonders are a phenomenon that have been around forever. Now, researchers are digging into what separates one-hit wonders from consistent hitmakers. Their findings may spark inspiration for creators (from musicians to painters to writers) who are trying to hone their craft.

Never gonna give you up
Why do some artists become one-hit wonders, never to hit the charts again? Stanford psychologist Justin Berg thinks he may have cracked the code.

  • Berg scraped data from over 3 million songs (released between 1959 and 2010) and parsed through sonic features such as key, tempo, and danceability.
  • He then quantified these features on two scales: novelty (how similar a hit was to the music at the time) and variety (the musical diversity of the artist’s body of work).
  • After analyzing patterns, Berg concluded that musical variety was useful for new artists before they broke out. But if the artist had already found success with a song, those who stuck to their style were more likely to make consistent hits.

Meanwhile, one-hit wonders tended to continue experimenting and switching up their sound.

Never gonna let you down
Berg’s analysis holds many similarities to a model of creativity pioneered by Dashu Wang, an economist from Northwestern University. Wang dubbed his model “explore-exploit,” claiming that artists tend to have “hot streaks,” where they experiment with a bunch of ideas (explore) and then hone in on an area they find that resonates (exploit).

The two researchers’ work suggests a potential formula for creators everywhere. When you first start, aim to innovate and be as original as possible. Then, once you’ve found a niche that you can exploit, double down on it and just create, create, create.


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