Breaking a Hit Wonders Code

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In September 1992, the Blind Millions group released their debut album, titled. The record was largely ignored until the music video for the song “No Rain” appeared on MTV in the mirror of a girl dressed as a bee. The song peaked at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the last time the band hit gold. Two decades later, Rolling Stone Named “No Rain” by one of the biggest surprises of all time.

Immediately after Blind Mellon topped the charts, another artist had a breakout moment. Shania Twain has released her second album The woman in meWhich included the number 1 hit “Every Man of Me”. Whatever the opposite of a hit surprise pole, this is exactly what Shania Twain was. She went on to become one of the most consistent hit makers of her era, and was the only female artist to certify Diamond with three direct albums, meaning that more than 10 million copies were sold.

For decades, psychologists have wondered about the components of creative fame through the study of music, because the medium actually offers millions of data points. Is it something that separates the surprise of a hit from the fate, or talent, of a fixed hit maker, or some complex combination of factors? I tried to summarize their work in my book, The makers beat. This month, Stanford psychologist Justin Berg published a new article on the subject, arguing that the secret to creative success lies only in the difference between “no rain” and Shania Twain.

Berg compiled a data set of over 3 million songs from 1959 to 2010 and released the biggest hits. He used an algorithm developed by the EchoNest company to measure the vocal characteristics of a song, including key, tempo, and dance abilities. This allowed him to measure how much the given hit was similar to the popular contemporary music scene (which he called “novelty”), and the musical diversity (“type”) of the artist’s work.

“Innovation is a double-edged sword,” Berg told me. “Being very different from the mainstream is really bad for your chances when you don’t know well the chances of getting hit in the beginning. But once you succeed, innovation suddenly becomes a huge asset that is likely to continue your success. The mass audience refers to what is known, but they become loyal to what is constantly different.

Blind Melon’s “No Rain” rating was very low on innovation in Berg’s research. The soft rock playing the guitar in 1992 was not entirely innovative. According to Berg, it was a kind of song that was most likely to surprise a hit: it became famous because of a weird music video, not because the song itself stood out for its uniqueness. After his beating, Bond tried to differentiate his voice from anything else that was going on in the music.

In contrast, Twain Breakout ranked higher on innovation in Berg’s research. He was a pioneer of a new pop-country crossover genre that was bold for the time being but would later inspire a generation of artists like Taylor Swift. “Twin is perfect for a model, because her pop and country combination was so original before she broke up,” Berg told me. After her second album, she said, her initiative, which was previously an artistic endeavor, helped keep the audience engaged. She could experience country pop without much competition from other artists in the kingdom, and this allowed her to dominate the charts for the next decade.

Berg’s research also found that the genre of music (as opposed to innovation) was useful for artists before they broke down. But below the line, the type was not very useful, perhaps because the expectations of the visitors were set by the primary stores. “After the first attack, research showed that it was better for artists to focus on what I consider to be related or similar to music,” he said. No one wants Bruce Springston to make a rap album.

This second finding on the benefits of the first species is similar to the model of creativity known as exploration-exploitation. Northwestern University economist Dashun Wang has found that artists and scientists have hard clusters of “hot lines” or highly successful work. When he looked closely at something before these hot lines he found the same pattern. First, artists and scientists will “explore” or experiment with different ideas, styles, tasks, or themes before they really come into the zone. They will then “exploit”, or focus productively on a specific area.

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

First, very new ideas are unlikely to find a large audience in the beginning. But if they break down, artists and entrepreneurs may find that individuality is an asset, just as the Twin Country-pop hybrid style turned into a bar profit after its first attack. Second, an early career description can pay off in the long run. It’s as real as the broader workforce as it is in music. A 2014 study of young workers found that people who change jobs more often at the beginning of their career have higher incomes in their first working year. Third, the difference between a hit surprise and a hit maker is not just new. It’s also the focus, or what Berg calls the “agreement.” Hot streaks require creative people to dig deeper when they find something that works for them.

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