Crack the code of one-shot wonders

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In September 1992, the band Blind Melon released their first self-titled album. The record was mostly ignored until a music video for the song “No Rain”, featuring a bespectacled girl dressed as a bumblebee, went wild on MTV. The song skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the last time the band struck gold. Two decades later, rolling stone named “No Rain” one of the greatest one-hit wonders of all time.

Shortly 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, 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 to have three consecutive albums certified Diamond, meaning over 10 million copies sold.

For decades, psychologists have pondered the ingredients of creative popularity by studying music, because the medium offers literally millions of data points. Is the thing that separates single hit wonders luck, skill, or a complex combination of factors? I have done my best to summarize their work in my book, Success Makers. This month, Stanford psychologist Justin Berg published a new article on the subject and argued that the secret to creative success simply lies in the difference between “No Rain” and Shania Twain.

Berg compiled a dataset of over 3 million songs released from 1959 to 2010 and culled the greatest hits. It used an algorithm developed by the company EchoNest to measure the sonic characteristics of songs, including pitch, tempo and dance. This allowed him to quantify a given hit’s similarity to the contemporary popular music landscape (which he calls “novelty”) and the musical diversity of an artist’s 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 making a hit initially when you’re not well known. But once you have success, the novelty suddenly becomes a huge asset that is likely to support your success. Mass audiences are attracted to what is familiar, but they become loyal to what is always distinct.

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

In contrast, Twain’s breakout success ranked first for novelty in Berg’s research. She was the pioneer of a new pop-country crossover genre that was daring for its time but would later inspire a generation of artists, like Taylor Swift. “Twain is a perfect fit for the model, because her mix of pop and country was so original before she came on the scene,” 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 country-pop realm without too much competition from other artists, which allowed her to dominate the charts for the next decade.

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

This second discovery of early variety benefits is similar to a pattern of creativity known as exploration-exploitation. Economist Dashun Wang of Northwestern University has found that artists and scientists tend to have “hot runs,” or tight clusters of highly successful work. When he took a closer look at what preceded those hot streaks, he found a similar pattern. First, artists and scientists “explored” or experimented with a whole lot of different ideas, styles, works, or subjects before they really got into the zone. Then they would “mine” or focus productively on a particular area.

Berg and Wang’s research suggests three rules of thumb that can be useful for creative work.

First, extremely new ideas are unlikely to find a large audience initially. But if they’re successful, artists and entrepreneurs may find the uniqueness an asset, the same way Twain’s country-pop hybrid style turned from burden to benefit after his first hit. Second, early career exploration can pay long-term dividends. This is as true for the workforce at large as it is for music. A 2014 study of young workers found that people who change jobs more frequently early in their careers tend to have higher earnings in their early working years. Third, the difference between one-hit wonders and hitmakers isn’t just a novelty; it is also concentration, or what Berg called “relation”. Hot streaks require creatives to dig deep when they find something that works for them.

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