The Return Of The One Hit Wonder
That sound you hear is the other shoe in the world of streaming falling. You saw it with Katy Perry, you saw it with Lorde, you are seeing it with Taylor Swift and you are seeing it with Sam Smith: you can’t get away with inferior product. You might be safe for the first song off a new album, just because enough people are interested, but after that… if you don’t have the goods you are done for.
The end result of too many choices is that, in the world of pop, only the cream rises to the top. Any cult band can get to the top of the Billboard 200 (albums charts) for a week, 50K equivalency sales will you there, even if you disappear soon after that (hi Foo Fighters). This year only Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar did any serious damage, all the rest arrive and disappeared, with an Imagine Dragon some traction but really, nothing much else. But you can’t enter the singles charts without serious, serious sales and streaming.
Take a look at the singles charts today. Taylor has precisely one of her three singles in there. Otherwise look at the top four right now. Post Malone, Cardi B, Logic, and Portugal, The Man: these are first hits for all of them. Where is the class of 2014? Where are the popstars who need to stay at the top or crash and burn? Pop stars are like syndicated Television shows, they need a certain number of hits before they can maintain a long-term career. Neither U2 nor Bruce Springsteen have had much of a 21st Century, they can’t give away their new music, but they have enough of a back catalog to sustain a career as a nostalgia act. Katy Perry is trickier but she can probably Arena tour every three years or so. Katy didn’t sell out her last tour. Neither has Lorde, an, as for Sam Smith, I bet he has problems on his 2018 tour, among other things at least Lorde is good live, Smith isn’t.
It’s a real problem, popstars can’t buy a hit so they tour to fill the coffers but if they tour too much people stop going and their problem is finite talent and quality control. It takes a Drake (though Drake’s last album was a step down) and Justin Bieber (though his last single didn’t do the business it could have, and it wasn’t as strong as it should have been) seem somewhat immune. Ed Sheeran had the 2017 anybody would have died for, but how many Ed Sheeran’s do you know? When even Taylor Swift isn’t Ed Sheeran, who else can be?
The truth is, being a popstar was never easy but once you made it you tended to maintain it for long enough: fans gave you the benefit of the doubt and you could get away with experimental albums or even out and out dogs. No more. When all new releases are available to you for ten bucks a month, cheaper than one single CD twenty years ago, people aren’t going with “all you can eat,” at all: it is all taster menus, and if they don’t like what they are being fed, they don’t take another bite. There is no reason to take another bite.
The result is a world of one hit wonders, where you are only as good as your last song so you better write a killer hook always.