Priceonomics has an article about the end of the one-hit wonder:

From 2005 to 2010, the fraction of songs by artists that never made the chart again hit an all-time low. It’s important to keep in mind that these numbers are conservative, as several of the bands that generated these possible one-hit wonders could still hypothetically produce another hit someday. In other words, UGK still has a chance to write another “International Players Anthem” and scale the charts again (note: as one reader points out though, this particular chance is extremely unlikely).

This is part-and-parcel of a larger phenomenon that they talk about, which is the increasing conservatism of the radio in general. My favorite story is when a conglomerate purchased a very popular radio station in Colosse that was known for introducing new artists to the nation. They decided that the station would be even more popular if they declined to play any single that hadn’t been on the radio for at least a month. Within a year, they seemed to have changed formats and were playing techno and dance music. But for the same reasons that the radio stations are not keen on playing new music, they’re also less keen on taking a chance on any new artists. Which means that they’re less likely to run across that otherwise mediocre band with that one great song. Or more favorably, it could be described as giving artists with that one hit much more investment, helping to assure that they will have follow-up hits.

It’s an interesting article, and you should read it.

According to the chart of one-hit wonders, the nineties were a watershed year for them. I mean, sure enough if I look through the list there are a lot of songs there that I like. The nineties were the prime of life as far as listening to new music, so of course they would ring familiar. The top song on the list is Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” which holds a particular sentimental value. Also holding some sentimental value is Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Unlike “Barely Breathing” that I like through and through I am relatively indifferent to the song itself, but some time after its release I met Porky, and it informally became our song. Which if you remember the song, is kind of odd because it’s a song about a relationship falling apart and seems about as sincere as a snake.

Some of those on the list I was surprised to see, mostly because I remember followups that I thought were as good as the initial release. For instance, after “Sonny Came Home,” Shawn Colvin released “You and the Mona Lisa” which I consider far more memorable. And while I consider “The Freshman” to be the best Verve Pipe song, I thought “Hero” was a pretty solid follow-up.

When I got Rhapsody in 2004, I actually started listening to some of the CDs of a lot of one-hit wonders from the 90’s. And… well for a lot of them there was a reason that they only had that one hit. This was not news to me. Everybody’s taken a chance on a CD only to discover that either they poured their heart out into the one song, or it was the one song that they didn’t write themselves. One of the biggest surprises, though, was Marcy Playground, whose “Sex and Candy” makes the list towards the bottom. It turned out, they were a band that I liked through-and-through.

Of course, good music stopped coming out around 2011, which coincidentally is when I turned 33:

When you reach 33 years or older, you will stop discovering new music, according to a new online study. New research, based on U.S. Spotify users, concludes that 33 is the average age when people stop listening to new music.

“While teens’ music taste is dominated by incredibly popular music,” the study says, “this proportion drops steadily through peoples’ 20s, before their tastes ‘mature’ in their early 30s.”

The study reports one reason for people’s transition away from popular music:

“First, listeners discover less-familiar music genres that they didn’t hear on FM radio as early teens, from artists with a lower popularity rank. Second, listeners are returning to the music that was popular when they were coming of age — but which has since phased out of popularity.”

The research also suggests that “men and women listen similarly in their teens, but after that, men’s mainstream music listening decreases much faster than it does for women.” While people with children tend to stop listening to new music earlier than their peers.

marcy playground photo

Image by rufusowliebat Oneders!

I actually started stopping well before 33. Mostly. Every now and again I will fire up Pandora and find some new artists. But country, which was one of my staples, started shifting away from what I enjoy. The local music scene – and its general flavor – that fueled a lot of my listening kind of died. Alternative and a lot of pop speaks rather specifically to a phase of life I’ve passed. So the primary use of that genre is to take me back to a different time, and old music does that better because it was there with me. Also, I listen to less music of any stripe.

Another factor that could have hastened the decline of my interest in new music was is the collapse in price for exposure. Which sounds wrong, but near the tail end of the phase of my life where I listened to new music, Rhapsody occurred. And then, suddenly, it was all there. In an alternate timeline, I would have had to buy CDs one at a time and would have had to try new things and give them a chance. Remember when you were young, your resources were limited, and you got that new CD? How you listened to every track? These days, apart from the audiobooks I listen to in lieu of music, I no longer have to listen to a song for long enough to really absorb it. I’m not as invested. In that sense, those who argued against the availability of music may have had more of a point than I realized.

Either that, or really it just all went downhill in 2011.

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33 thoughts on “Oneders!

  1. I always thought of the 1980s as being the golden age of the one-hit wonder. The age seem dominated by New Wave bands with one or two great songs and that is it.

    Though in a decade or so, we can be talking about all the one hit wonders from 2005-2010.

    I agree with your hypothesis that the increased corporate ownership of radio makes it highly unlikely to hear new music on the radio. This is probably increased by Pandora and Spotify which allow people to create stations just of musicians that they like. Radio seemed to be daring only in small glimmers like the rise of FM in the Late 1960s and that is probably overly romanticized.

    There is still good radio but it tends to be non-profit and community radio. Stations like KEXP in Seattle and WFMU in the Hudson Valley. More with-it NPR stations can play some indie rock as well. There used to be a decent alt rock station on Long Island called WDRE/WLIR. They switched formats overnight and that was when I stopped listening to radio in the car except NPR or other public radio. This was around 2000-2002.

    My guess is that this is all about selling ads and the types of ads. If young people are the ones who discover new music, they also don’t have much money. Car dealership ads or new Carpeting ads are completely irrelevant to most young people. WLIR used to run ads from a few local alternative clothing stores (this was in the 1990s so think alt.girls in tennis dresses and chokers.)

    Here is an interesting article from a former alt.rock DJ. She had her station’s formats changed on her twice. The first station went from alt.rock to Gospel. The second went from alt.rock to an all-talk format. The decisions by executives said that the Ipod was making certain kinds of music on the radio obsolete. She also wrote that DJs don’t have as much control over their playlists as audiences imagine and that is often set by corporate.


  2. Like Saul, I think that the 1980s seem to be the hay day of the one-hit wonder because all the factors were right. The music scene was not as fragmented as the present, meaning that more people were listening to the fewer artists, and the broadcast industry’s infrastructure at the time made it possible for a particularly catchy song to capture the audience for a bit and project the singer or band to one-hit wonder status. Currently, the music scene is much more fragmented. You have more artists but their fan base tends to be smaller and the broadcast infrastructure makes it more possible for people to listen to what they want rather than what is playing. One hit wonders do not thrive under these circumstances.


    • LeeEsq: Currently, the music scene is much more fragmented. You have more artists but their fan base tends to be smaller and the broadcast infrastructure makes it more possible for people to listen to what they want rather than what is playing. One hit wonders do not thrive under these circumstances.

      This is an interesting point. There can be no “novelty” without monoculture; AKA, when everything is novel, nothing is.

      Not sure on the 80’s/90’s supremacy for OHW’s – the 80’s had new wave + MTV, so that encouraged the elevation of “weird” or visually-inventive artists, who may not have had a rich musical catalogue aside from their hit; but the ’90’s had the post-Nirvana-sign-everybody, hip-hop-is-a-real-thing-now-not-just-a-fad, “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach going for it, which also resulted in a lot of weirdos getting airplay.

      Butthole Surfers had a radio hit, for God’s sake.


      • I would say that one hit wonders and novelty songs depend on mass culture rather than monoculture, it sounds nicer. There can’t be a one hit wonder or novelty song unless enough people are listening to it.

        It reminds of an anecdote that the musician and writer Elijah Wald tells to show how definitions of popular music changed during the twentieth century. Elijah Wald’s father was from an earlier generation than his mother and would often sing the songs of his youth. Elijah Wald would ask his father who sung these songs and his father would be confused because everybody sung them, that’s why they were popular. Before the 1950s, there was very little connection between a specific song and a specific artist. There would be multiple artists singing the same hit song in different versions. People would go shop for a particular song at a record store and the clerks usually assumed that any workmanlike version would do. Rock created a link between an artist or song that really didn’t exist before. Its why traditional pop has standards but current pop has covers.


        • Things I realized recently, while playing YouTube DJ for my six-year-old’s impromptu dance party:

          1.) Penn & Teller (!) play a huge part in the video for Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky”. This is far weirder than Aerosmith’s role in “Walk this Way”.

          2.) Following on #1, it is surprisingly hard to explain the plots in eighties music videos to a six-year-old. “Take on Me” and “Dancing with Myself” were also particularly confounding (“Are those zombies?”).

          3.) But they still think Billy Idol’s hair is “cool”.

          4.) Devo’s “Whip It!” video could never be made today without Tumblr exploding.


    • What was very different about the 80’s was that it was the last time FM radio was the biggest most powerful outlet AND that FM was a mono-culture. FM was dominated by classic rock and pop with little mixing between them. Alt rock ( which just meant all the different sounds that were an alternative to classic rock), Hip Hop and MTV blew FM away and widened every bodies tastes for good.

      It’s hard for you young whipper snappers to remember but little bands like U2 and REM, just to name two, were alt rock bands at first. They got their first major air play on college radio and the handful of alt radio stations. The other issue with whether a band was one hit wonder in the 80’s was that many english bands were really successful for years over there but only had one hit here. A band like Modern English has one hit here, I Melt With You, but had several successful english albums.


  3. Coming from the classical music side, I have a different perspective. I am well over 33, but I discover new music all the time, if by “new music” we mean new to me.

    Classical music encompasses some eight centuries, so there is no way one person can hear it all. So I will hear something on the local classical station on my commute, or on the internet feed of any number of stations around the world. This something will make me sit up and proclaim “That’s really good!” and I might look it up on Amazon and buy a CD. But it might be something written in 1600.

    The term “new music” has another meaning in the classical context. Roughly speaking, it means the composer is still alive. So “new music” might have been written forty years ago, or it might be premiered today. My local classical station is very good, so I might hear new music in this sense there. However it is I stumble across someone, YouTube is a quite reliable source for finding more.

    There also can be trendiness in classical music. The 1980s was the Decade of Pachelbel’s Canon. This is a gorgeous Baroque piece that was forgotten, then rediscovered, then played to death. You have heard it, even if you don’t know it, probably in a jewelry store commercial.

    I’m not sure where I am going with this. Perhaps it is just that a classical background changes how you look at things.


    • I think you touch on something the OP mentions in the blockquote – it’s somewhat misleading to say that people stop listening to new *music* at 33 – I mean, some people do, but if you read the fine print, what the study is really saying is that most stop listening to new *mainstream* pop music at 33 – you might instead fall down the rabbit hole of becoming obsessed with, say, Indonesian gamelan records that never come anywhere near any chart. You spiral away from the cultural center, towards more esoteric things.

      I listen to a *lot* of new music. I listen to *very little* new mainstream pop music.


      • My Friend Matt: So, what kind of music are the boys listening to these days?

        Me: A lot of rap and hip hop, though the older one is starting to get more into electronica.

        My Friend Matt: What do you think of that?

        Me: I actually like most of the things they play around the house. It’s always cool when they get into a new kind of music that I have no experience with, because it always introduces me to all of this great stuff I never would have known about otherwise.

        My Friend Matt: So you’re one of those parents whose teenagers can’t annoy if they want to just by playing their music, right?

        Me: No. They’ll still put on Journey from time to time.


  4. Pandora actually helps me (now at 40) discover new artists. Admittedly, the ‘style’ is often the same (stations go for related music and ‘you might also like’), but I ran into several singers I hadn’t really encountered before. (Several of them embarrassingly big stars and quite popular, but whom I have never encountered or never known I had at least).


    • Can I just say that I find it very odd that you are 40 and have a college freshman son. My mom was 34 when I was born. So I was only 6 when she turned 40. I am currently on track to being a parent at an older age than my parents. For all I know my kids could be 3 or 4 when I am 40. If I have kids of course…


      • Different lives go in different direction. There is easily an oopsie that could have me with a college-age child at 40. I know some oopsies that did happen and non-oopsies as well. And adopted (formally or informally) step-children. It may be atypical for people in our cohort, but he’s definitely not the only one around here.


        • I couldn’t really convince women to go on dates with me until I was 24-25 (and it is doubtful that she saw it as a date even though I did).

          It took me until about 27 to start going out on dates regularly.

          So let’s just say I am a late bloomer.


      • Though I will say, it was kind of strange when I did the math and determined that my ex-girlfriend’s grandmother was the same age as my mother. Both she and her mother were conceived before their mothers reached majority, and I was a late-ish addition in my mother’s life. (Notably, ex-girlfriend’s parents were pretty high-strung at the prospect of their daughter getting pregnant while she dated, which was when she was 18-22 or so.)


      • As a 39-year old with a kid who’ll turn 18 in October, I don’t find it odd at all!

        And really, though my situation is somewhat odd, having kids at 22 was, even in my generation, still pretty common where I’m from.


          • I remember the first time I was alone with him for an evening. I was scared shitless, despite the fact that he was a tiny infant who couldn’t really move on his own and basically just sat in the swinging chair and gurgled.

            I had no business having a kid at 22, but his mom was even worse (she would say, “I’m not ready to have a kid,” as she disappeared for a week or so at a time), so I had to grow up fast.


            • The “scared” part doesn’t really go away with age, just experience (yours, and others’ – I have a friend who is a total loon, and yet he has somehow managed to raise multiple children without killing them – if *he* could do it, how hard could it really be?!)


              • I remember getting really confident, when he was an infant and still couldn’t get around very well. “This is easy! Why do people act like this is difficult?” Then he started walking around.

                Once when he was 3, I decided to take a shower while he was napping. When I got out of the shower, I saw he was up, and began looking for him in our one-bedroom apartment, casually at first, but soon with extreme panic, because it was a small apartment, easy to search, and he wasn’t there.

                We lived in a first-floor apartment with a sliding glass door that opened to a walled patio. I looked there, naturally, but figured there was no way he could have gotten out, because the wall was much taller than he. However, I noticed that a patio chair was moved to the wall, and realized with horror that he had moved it over, climbed over, dropped own the other side (which was on a small hill, making the drop further than the climb, and with no chair to climb onto first). I think it was at that point that I realized this was going to be tough.

                Oh, and I looked for him out there for 20 minutes before I spotted him walking with a woman I didn’t know in the courtyard between apartment buildings, coming from the other side of the complex.


        • My mom was a bit on an outlier in 1980. I think most of the people I went to high school with had parents that are a good few years younger but there were some late additions with pre-Boomer parents.

          I did work for a couple that had their third and last kid at 48 and 49 respectively.

          My cohort largely seems to be having kids much later. Most of my friends are on kid one or none. Maybe kid two. I know one woman from high school with four children and there is a good spread between ages. The oldest is between 8-10 years old. The youngest is under 1 or just turned 1.


      • My son is technically my step-son, from my wife’s brief first marriage (which itself was very young). I also had a similarly, just as poorly thought out, short first marriage at the same time. (My wife and I, amusingly, knew each other in high school. We never dated. Weren’t friends. Bumped into each other right as we were graduating from college, turned out we were working about 100 yards apart for two years and didn’t know it. Started having lunches, etc. Meeting people we knew from high school is hilarious. She’s often asked, quite incredulously, “You married WHO?”. Ah, my wonderful depths are hidden from the masses, although my wife assures people who know my via the ‘net that I’m much less of a jerk in person. I’d have to be, to be married, I think).

        Anyways, I’ve raised him since he was 5 so he’s my kid. :) He’s turning 19 this year, and I’ve found that parenting a teen is basically years of sorrow and frustration mixed with enough joy and pride that the stabbings are minimal.

        Seriously, watching your child make the most obvious and avoidable mistakes is…painful.


    • I recommend Songza. It has several channels just devoted to new music. If you’re not feeling adventurous, you can select the channels that just have critical favorites. Spotify is actually a pretty good way to find new music, but you have to pay attention to what they’re adding, so it takes more work than just letting Sonza tell you what’s new.


  5. Which if you remember the song, is kind of odd because it’s a song about a relationship falling apart and seems about as sincere as a snake.

    My own no-hit-wonder musical career was contemporary with Deep Blue Something, who were popular just up the road in Dallas. They played fratty jerk-rock that was heavily influenced by The Outfield (of the helium-voiced plaint “. . . you know I like my girls a little bit older / I just wanna use your love tonight”) but without the subtle lyrical character development or songwriting adequacy. As a bonus, offstage they took special care to come off as assholes. Their subsequent global success with the simpering “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a good reminder that the world is an ugly place.


    • I owned not one, but TWO Outfield albums…not just the mega-popular debut, but the much less successful follow up, Bangin’.

      The crazy part was when I finally realized that they really, really wanted to be the Police (next time you hear the songs, listen to the vocalist’s phrasing – he’s clearly aping Sting).

      JD Considine used to write really short reviews of albums he wanted to trash. IIRC, I am pretty sure his scathing review for Deep Blue Something’s album consisted solely of the words “Deep Brown Something is more like it”, though I can’t locate confirmation.

      I did, however, find confirmation that his review for GTR was even shorter, just three letters: “SHT”.

      And I will never forget his review of Right Said Fred: “Wrong, Said JD”.


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