The one-hit wonder can be one of the music industry’s cruellest, and kindest, trajectories. A song takes on a life of its own as a previously unknown act gets propelled into temporary superstardom, only to come crashing down just as fast when future releases don’t quite make the same mark.
For some, phone calls to the record label go unanswered, dreams and hopes are shattered and swanky dinners get replaced by beans on toast. For those who never banked on commercial success in the first place, the temporary high can offer welcome opportunities and some extra cash in the bank.
Careers defined by one hit have been a factor of the music industry since the dawn of its age, from Spirit in the Sky in 1969 – the first and only track to reach No. 1 by singer and songwriter Norman Greenbaum (which was later covered by Pop Idol’s Gareth Gates) – to Gangnam Style in 2012, a surprise global hit for South Korean act Psy that never translated into sustained success outside his home territory. More recently, singles by the likes of Danish band Lukas Graham and US rock outfit Walk the Moon have reached the Top 5 while multiple future releases from the acts haven’t even tickled the Top 40.
In 2022, though, when streaming and social media numbers paint a detailed picture of an artist’s fanbase, are one-hit wonders waning? By being able to directly target fans who find an artist via one song, perhaps long-term careers in music are more viable than ever before. Case in point: Scottish artist and former postal worker Nathan Evans, who surfaced out of nowhere to spend two weeks at No. 1 last year with his version of the sea shanty Wellerman, secured a record deal with Polydor and his debut album arrived last week.
Ted Cockle, president of music publisher Hipgnosis Songs, and former head of record label Virgin EMI, says this theory is, quite frankly, giving the music industry too much credit. While record labels can spend up marketing if an artist or song starts to gain traction, there’s no exact science to who has a career after a hit and who doesn’t. “If a record or artist starts to connect, as a record company boss you can start to push more and possibly advertise a little more but, ultimately, you’re in the hands of the public.”
“One hit-wonders generally occur because, just like virality, nobody can truly engineer magic,” says charts expert James Masterton. “You can make a record that hits the spot to perfection and which the public at large falls in love with only for its creators to discover it was actually lightning in a bottle and they’ve no way of recapturing it. The rules are that there are no rules.”
What has potentially changed, however, is more artists being able to have their moment in the sun, however fleeting. With 100,000 tracks now being uploaded to streaming services each day, the barriers to entry are lower than ever before. And the viral nature of social media platforms such as TikTok can propel tracks from new artists into mainstream popularity by audience power alone.
There are countless examples of this in recent years: from upcoming Brit PinkPantheress to Canadian act Powfu, and British singer and songwriters Mimi Webb and Cat Burns, who, after mastering TikTok, has one of the UK’s biggest-selling singles of the year so far with Go. “There are so many incredible songs that could have been hits but never saw the light of day because there were decision-makers who didn’t believe in the song,” says Cockle. “Now, so many more people can get a look in.”
This summer, Scottish production duo LF System – Conor Larkman and Sean Finnigan – had a surprise hit with Afraid to Feel, which spent eight weeks at the top of the UK singles chart. They say the success was down to building up support for their previous music in clubs and on the radio, which helped kickstart a domino effect for the track. The team at their record label Warner “worked their arses off” to serve it into as many spaces as possible, says Larkman, who adds that the “heatwave definitely helped” the upbeat party track – which samples the 1979 song I Can’t Stop (Turning You On) – strike a chord with an audience.
A similar thing happened to fellow Scot and DJ Ewan McVicar, who was playing his track Tell Me Something Good in clubs when it started picking up heat. It gained the attention of multiple record labels, including the Ministry of Sound, who licensed the track. Eventually, Tell Me Something Good hit No. 15 on the UK singles chart. For McVicar, the success is complicated. “I had an identity crisis,” he says. “I don’t make music to be in the charts. Success to me is releasing on labels I’ve listened to for years and playing in clubs and festivals that I’ve always wanted to play.”
Rather than trying to replicate the performance, McVicar has retreated from the commercial realm and since released music that hasn’t charted, on a number of niche independent labels. “This year was about me homing in on making music that means a lot to me rather than commercially appealing bangers,” he says.
LF System also says they don’t feel pressure to follow up their success. “If we have [another] No. 1 is great, but we will never sit down with the aim of making one,” says Larkman.
For others, maintaining a career, and being in control of it, isn’t a given after a big hit. Cockle points out that the competitive nature of signing an artist who has a big track can result in album deals for those who might not yet have proven their worth. (McVicar says there were “like 10” other record labels on the phone waiting to hear if they had secured the track before he signed it to Ministry.)
“Artists are obsessed with the album,” says Cockle. “So if a record label offers to pay for eight songs, everybody doesn’t believe that you trust them as an artist. You can’t say that if you’re trying to sign someone. You’ve got to use the right language otherwise they aren’t coming with you.”
Once artists sign on the dotted line, there is no guarantee of commitment. One music manager, who wanted to remain anonymous, says it’s taken a while to get the major record label for a young act she’s working with, who had a viral hit, to engage in a long-term plan.
“We’re two years down the line and we’re still trying to build his career from what was a great big hype into something real. That’s a much more long-term problem because labels want instant gratification,” she says. “Luckily, he’s ticking along, but for a lot of artists who have a great big spike in interest, they sign a big deal and within six months, if it’s not connecting, it’s over.”
The one-hit wonder, she says, is very much alive and kicking in 2022. “It’s probably even more crazy than before because now it’s based on some random clip on TikTok or Instagram. It’s just happening on a different medium.”