Popular Science: What Makes a Hit?


The reasons why some things, be it a guacamole recipe in the New York Times or the recent Rae Sremmurd No. 1 single “Black Beatles,” develop mainstream popularity is not a mathematic equation where one simply solves for ‘x.’ Usually there is a certain sprinkle of luck and good fortune involved, but look closer and trends and common circumstances also emerge. The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson tries to get to the bottom of all this and more in his debut book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.

Whether it is how “Rock Around the Clock” unexpectedly became one of the biggest hits in music history in 1955, the original mixture of the familiar that made Star Wars the most successful franchise of all time, why the year 1991 changed the face of modern popular music, or the distribution channels that turned Fifty Shades of Grey into a worldwide phenom, Thompson covers a wide variety of topics, coming to the conclusion of “familiarity over originality and distribution over content.”

Behind the Setlist talked with Thompson about nostalgia as the comfort food of pop culture, why distribution has the keys to the kingdom over content, the way political rhetoric resembles songwriting, the myth of going viral and the ongoing race towards media ubiquity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First off, what was the experience like of writing your first book?

I had a great time doing it, honestly. I didn’t know that I was going to have a fun time writing a book. I had never written one before, obviously. A great part of the fun was just telling fun stories and connecting them with fascinating research that I would want to explore on my own anyway. It ended up being a really delightful experience.

How long did this whole process take you?

I probably thought about the book for four or five years, and it took about eight months to write.

What was the original spark of an idea that led you to want to tackle this material?

I’m an economics writer by trade. I used to write, and I still do write, about macroeconomics and the labor market. I love the ability of economic research to answer really big questions about what makes economies grow. Why do recessions last so long? How does work give people worth?

I realized that you could use the same mixture of economics and psychology to answer questions in the media and culture space. What distinguishes a hit from a flop? Why do people like what they like? What are the economics of media markets that sometimes determine what becomes a hit? There hadn’t really been a book that looked at the question of pop culture success through a seriously empirical lens. That’s pretty much what I wanted to do.

One of the major themes you tackle is the tension between the neophilic, the curiosity to discover new things, and the neophobic or the fear of trying anything new. How does that tension play a part in hits and what becomes popular?

I think it’s the central tension in hits. Fundamentally at a very human level, we are simultaneously curious, we are discoverers, and at the same time we are fundamentally conservatives. We are fundamentally couch potatoes as well. The interesting thing about hits, whether you’re looking at music or television or movies or even journalism, is how often this tension comes back into play.

This idea that, yes, of course every new product by definition has to be new. It has to be something that hasn’t existed before, but what do people actually want from these new products? What do they want from songs and movies? I think what they often want is to rediscover familiarity in a new way. So this tension between familiarity and surprise lives completely at the heart of these products.

A quick example. You look at something like Star Wars, right? Potentially the greatest hit in the history of cinema. Star Wars is, on the one hand, an utter original. There’s nothing else that’s like it. But on the other hand, how did George Lucas write it? He basically poured all of his favorite comic references into one movie and used Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in order to create a very familiar story of an ordinary person who goes on an extraordinary adventure. He defeats a villain intimately related to his origin story at the end and returns to the real world as a hero.

This is the story of Jesus. It’s Buddha, it’s Lord of the Rings, it’s Harry Potter, it’s Zootopia. So again, yes, Star Wars is an utter original, but it’s also a bundle of never before bundled allusions. It’s an original mixture of the familiar.

“What do people actually want from these new products? What do they want from songs and movies? I think what they often want is to rediscover familiarity in a new way.”

Do you think it’s become more difficult over time to still surprise with that familiarity as technology has changed and as more and more different stories have been told?

That’s a great question. Certainly, we live in an age of abundance. The number of books that have been published worldwide has grown by 7x since the 1980s. The number of original scripted television shows in the U.S. has grown by about 7x since the late 1990s. The number of movies is up by about 7x since the early 1990s. So we live in an absolute Cambrian explosion of stuff.

The first level implication is that there’s just more, which means there’s more flops, there’s more to pay attention to as an audience member, but how does that change the psychology of pop culture? You come back home sometimes after a really busy, arduous day at the office, and what do you want to eat? What do you want to make for yourself? You want comfort food, right?

I think to a certain extent there’s a comfort food element of pop culture right now. You see this reemergence of nostalgia as the fundamental animating principle. That is inherently tied up in the anxieties of abundance. As we’re surrounded by more and more and more, we retreat sometimes into that which is extremely familiar.

One of the other things you say in the book is that while content might be king, distribution has the keys to the kingdom. Not everything that is the best or the catchiest gets to be the most popular. There are all these other variables that come into play as well. What did you learn digging into that?

The seven-word thesis of the book is “familiarity over originality and distribution over content.” That’s what determines popularity in culture markets – familiarity and distribution. A really interesting story from the music world is how music labels send songs sometimes to online testing companies to test the inherent catchiness of songs before they hit the radio.

These music testing companies will play the songs for a couple hundred to a thousand people and ask them to grade the song between 0 and 100. They say anything that scores above an 80 is a guaranteed hit if it gets the right amount of distribution and exposure. But for every 100 songs that score over an 80, only about five of them will actually become hits because only about five of them will receive the right amount of distribution, marketing from the label and a little bit of magic sprinkle dust of luck.

So what you see essentially is that there are more catchy enough songs than there are spots in the cultural pantheon for hits. The distinguishing principle above that threshold level of quality, of catchiness, is not more catchiness. It’s more distribution.

You visited Pandora and Spotify. Combined with the other streaming services like Tidal and Apple Music, how do you think the streaming wars are going to change where music is going? Is that going to change what becomes hits?

So there are a handful of actors in the music economy. You have the songwriters, you have the publishers, who are in charge of the legal rights of the song, you have the label and you have the performer. It’s interesting to think that throughout the history of music economics different periods have preferred different actors.

At first in Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century, the music industry was a paper industry. It was about sheet music, not vinyl, so the publishers had the power. But then you have radio take off in the 1920s and 1930s, and radio airplay tends to benefit the songwriters. The songwriters are paid per spin, so now the songwriters have the advantage.

Then you have the birth of recorded music with vinyl and cassettes and CDs. Who makes a lot of money from that? The labels do, and the star performers as well. So recorded music was fantastic for the labels. Then you have the decline of CDs and the rise of performances, and performances benefit self-evidently the performers.

Now with the rise of streaming, it’s interesting because the streaming sites, particularly Spotify and Apple Music, and to a certain extent Tidal, were created really to benefit the labels. It’s the labels who are essentially co-owners of these streaming sites and make a lot of money off of them. So streaming has now stabilized the labels’ economics. It’s fascinating to think that different periods of music technology created different winners in the economic music ecosystem.


You mention the year 1991, which you recently wrote an article about in response to the Grammys this year. That was the year Billboard started incorporating Nielsen SoundScan into their charts, which completely changed all the lists and what then became bestsellers. How much of an effect are we still seeing from that?

It’s still living with us entirely. You look at the kind of music that was popular in the 1980s and early, early 1990s, before the Billboard change. It was a lot of hair bands, it was a lot of rock, and then after the Billboard change, when Billboard held up a more honest mirror to American audience taste, it turned out we liked hip-hop and country music a lot more than the labels thought we did, a lot more than Billboard told us that we did.

You look right now and you think, what are the most popular forms of music? To my ear and my eye, it’s hip-hop inflected pop, rap, pop music combined with rap, and country music combined with sometimes hip-hop and rap. Rock as a genre still has its fans, but I think it’s sidelined as a cultural totem. Metal is very niche. There are barely enough formally rock artists to even fill out the Grammys for Best Rock Performance. Obviously since 1991, hip-hop has clearly become the hegemonic music style.

One thing I would quickly say about why hip-hop has maybe lasted longer than the British Invasion or the drum machines from the 1980s is that hip-hop has always been a little bit about pastiche. It’s always been bundling other allusions. Initially this was a cause for some stuffy music critics to say hip-hop was unoriginal and that it was derivative, but in fact hip-hop’s openness to other styles has allowed it to change and therefore remain the king of music genres in a way that even rock could not.

The last couple years Billboard has been shifting around how they track things. They’re now incorporating YouTube views and streaming plays, for example. You see something like “Bad and Boujee” and “Black Beatles” explode in recent months onto a nationwide scale. How much of that is helping out these things which 10 to 15 years ago might not have made it this far?

Sure. What’s interesting about those explosions is where they came from, right? “Black Beatles” was almost certainly launched by the Mannequin Challenge, so it was a bottom-up meme that launched a song rather than what we’re used to in the music industry, which is top-down distribution. The labels deciding what artist they want to make big, sometimes paying or bribing or nudging the DJs to play that music a lot and get people familiar with it and therefore fall in love with it.

But right now you’re just as likely to see songs bubble up and the tastemakers are coming from surprising places. The Migos song was very much helped by Donald Glover at the Golden Globes giving it a shout out. So you’re seeing the broadcast moments that consecrate these songs coming from surprising places and not the old-fashioned place, which was just radio.

One of the most interesting stories in the book is the circumstances surrounding “Rock Around the Clock,” which ended up flopping on its initial run but then a year later went on to become one of the key rock and roll songs of all time. What did you take away from that situation?

This is one of my favorite stories from the book, so I’m always happy to talk about it. “Rock Around the Clock” comes out in 1954 and is the b-side to a song called “Thirteen Women.” It essentially flops. It doesn’t sell that many records. It charts on Billboard for I think one week, even though it has a really big marketing push from the label. It’s destined to be forgotten.

Then it’s the next year, 1955, that a 10-year-old boy named Peter Ford, who lives in Los Angeles, buys this record “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. His dad, Glen Ford, is a movie star and in this movie called Blackboard Jungle. The director for the movie comes over to Ford’s house and says, “Do you have any dangerous sounding music that I can use in this movie about juvenile delinquency?” The dad asks his son, Peter, to give the director a handful of his favorite rock and roll songs.

He gives them a lot of songs by black bands of the 1950s, like the Orioles, but in that stack he hands Richard Brooks “Rock Around the Clock.” The song ends up playing at the beginning of Blackboard Jungle, in the middle of Blackboard Jungle, at the end of Blackboard Jungle. And it’s only then, after the song re-debuts into movie theaters, that it becomes the No. 1 song in the country, the first rock and roll song to ever hit No. 1, and the second-best selling song of all time.

The reason I love this story is, one, it’s a fascinating example of a cultural product hitting relatively the same marketplace twice in 10 months and having entirely different outcomes. And two, as an explainer journalist, as someone who has just written a book about explaining cultural success, I think that it offers a case for humility. It says you can’t say that some products are destined to succeed or destined to fail. “Rock Around the Clock” sounded the same in 1954 as 1955, and it was a flop in 1954 and the biggest hit of the century almost in 1955. It’s really a remarkable story.

“What I mean when I say the viral myth is not that nobody shares anything. That would be absurdly silly to say. But rather what is predominantly responsible for the distribution of mass popularity online are broadcast moments rather than viral shares.”

Another thing I liked in the book is when you talk about the myth of going viral and how that’s not really what is happening when something like that occurs, rather it’s more of these broadcast systems. Can you explain a little more about that?

I think a lot of times when something goes big online and we don’t know how, we just default to saying, “Oh, it went viral.” But viral has a very specific meaning in epidemiology and disease. It means generations and generations of intimate shares or intimate infections. I get you sick, you get two people sick, and whatever disease it is, like typhus, is extended over many, many generations of intimate one-on-one sharing.

But there’s another way that information can go big and that’s a broadcast. 115 million people watched the Super Bowl. Did a Super Bowl ad go viral? It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to say that because 115 million people saw it at once. No disease spreads to 115 million people at once. So the question is, all right, what’s actually happening to a so-called viral video or so-called viral article?

If you look inside the information cascade that is at the map of this idea catching on and passing between people online, data scientists have said it looks much more like a series of broadcasts than it looks like a disease spreading. So how does that actually work?

Let’s say I write an article about “Rock Around the Clock.” I publish it on The Atlantic. The Atlantic is read by the homepage editor of The Huffington Post. This article is on the homepage of The Huffington Post for 10 hours, seen by millions of people, and then two of those people who see it who are your friends post it on Facebook, where you see it.

All you can see on Facebook is that two of your friends shared it. So you might think, wow, a lot of my friends are seeing this article being passed around. It’s totally gone viral. But the actual mechanism by which the article went big has nothing to do with viral spread.

It was posted on The Atlantic, which is read by hundreds of thousands or millions of people a week. Then it went to The Huffington Post homepage, which is read by millions and millions of people a week. So essentially the journey of its popularity much closer resembles an old-fashioned broadcast, like the Super Bowl, than it resembles the spread of a viral disease.

So what I mean when I say the viral myth is not that nobody shares anything. That would be absurdly silly to say, that nobody shares anything. But rather what is predominantly responsible for the distribution of mass popularity online are broadcast moments rather than viral shares.

You mention that one guacamole recipe in the New York Times that got really big, and even Fifty Shades of Grey. There’s obviously tons of guacamole recipes that get published and tons of fan fiction that gets published, but not all of them explode like those two did. Is there a way to quantify how those build in popularity like that or is there a semblance of luck in the end with how something catches on?

Sure. I of course believe there are some pieces of content that are more attractive than others. It goes right back to the lesson we had about music. Does catchiness exist in music, does quality exist? Yes, it actually does. Some songs are inherently catchier than others. I believe that. But above a certain threshold of catchiness or quality songwriting, distribution matters more than content.

With the Fifty Shades story specifically, there are lots of quirky distribution reasons why Fifty Shades went absolutely crazy. It was one of the first of its kind to market, one of the first BDSM Twilight fan fictions that was published by a major New York publisher. Its novelty was its own sort of marketing coin.

But I of course believe, with guacamole recipes for example, that if you’re the homepage editor for the New York Times you can see that some articles get clicks in the same spot more than other articles get clicks. If you put an article that says “I Believe Donald Trump Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President,” that is of course going to get more clicks than an article that says “Inside the Mechanics of the Canadian Parliamentary System.” It’s no contest, and it’s obvious to say so.

What makes a piece of content interesting? Well, that goes back to the first part of the book. It goes back to this fascinating interplay between the surprising and the familiar. Donald Trump is the biggest celebrity in the world right now. He is the most familiar icon in the universe, and of course a surprising take on a familiar subject is going to go big more than a weird take on an unfamiliar subject, like the Canadian Parliament. In assessing what sort of content is more clicky, more sticky, you go right back to the interplay between neophilia and neophobia.

“It’s fascinating to look at political rhetoric and study political speeches for their musical repetitiveness. You simply cannot stop seeing it everywhere. It’s like this secret code to persuasiveness.”

In going through all this research, what would you say is the most surprising thing you learned that maybe you weren’t expecting?

One of my favorite observations was about musicality in speech. There’s a chapter where I talk about how repetition is essentially the God particle of music. You can take almost any sound in nature, repeat it at a common interval, and the brain cannot help but process it as song. So I take this idea, I study it in the pop culture space and the music space, but then I bring it over to political rhetoric. I point out how almost every ancient Greek political rhetorical device is a form of repetition.

You have anaphora, which is repetition at the beginning of a sentence. Winston Churchill, “We shall fight them in the air. We shall fight them on the landing fields.” You have repetition at the end of a sentence, called tricolon. Abraham Lincoln, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And then most famously you have antimetabole, an A-B-B-A structure. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” A-B-B-A.

It’s fascinating, once you have this sort of gloss, to look at political rhetoric and study political speeches for their musical repetitiveness. You simply cannot stop seeing it everywhere. It’s like this secret code to persuasiveness.

Did you apply that to Trump and see if he uses one of those more often than others?

Trump is really fascinating, and I’m laughing even saying this, but it would not surprise you to hear that Trump does not use high ancient Greek rhetorical political devices very often. He has something more of a salesman pitter-patter. You sometimes see him read a speech and he’ll come to a line, let’s say, “Hilary Clinton is a crook.” He’ll read the line and then look up to the audience and say, “A crook, a crook, a crook. I’m telling you, a crook.” And then he’ll go back down and look at it.

So you’ll see that he clearly understands the power of simple repetition. “Make America great again. Make America great again.” Over and over and over. It’s a limited vocabulary that he’s working with and a limited set of ideas that he’s working with, but I think this has always been to his benefit for his core demographic because he is so clear about his message. Even if his speeches can be a little bit meandering, they always find their way home to the same four-word slogans.

Has this process whet your appetite and made you want to write a second book now?

Oh, yeah! I can’t stop thinking about ideas for a second book. I can’t stop thinking about the various ways that I missed something or got things wrong. Donald Trump is in the book in several places, but like everybody else I didn’t predict that he would win. His rise, and the rise and fall and fascination with people like Milo Yiannopoulos, says something very interesting about popularity and the incredible power of almost nihilistic scandal that attracts attention so reliably.

I do talk about scandal in the book. I talk about scandal consecrating some impressionist classics in the 1890s and scandal consecrating rock and roll in the 1950s, but I almost wish I had a chapter about the power of scandal to draw attention.

So let’s say a manager or some company comes to you. They have this product that they really like and are looking for advice on what the best way would be to make it a hit. What would you say to them?

It’s a tough question to answer in the abstract, just because economic markets are so determinative on strategy. One lesson that is generally applicable from the end of the book is a lot of companies don’t quite realize that their biggest business is almost certainly not the business they’re currently in.

I tell the story of the Walt Disney Company in the early 1930s and how, through an amazing series of events, they get into the merchandising business, whereby they end up putting Mickey Mouse on bed sheets and toothpaste and the famous Mickey Mouse watch. The Walt Disney Company learned, before any other entertainment company, the incredible potential of merchandising art.

And yes, you can call it base, and you can call it derivative and commercially cheap, but it was only because they found a way to merchandise Mickey Mouse that they could make this little movie called Snow White, which was even at the time considered a classic of all time. Charlie Chaplin himself called it the greatest movie ever made in 1937. So it was Disney’s incredible realization, which carried on into the 1950s.

His movie company was not a movie company. It was a toy company, it was a product company, it was an amusement park company, it was a television company. He got into TV much faster than the other movie studios. He ended up creating this amazing infinity loop of nostalgia whereby he was running many, many different channels, all of which were selling products and marketing products sold in other channels. The toys were marketing the movies. The movies were advertisements for his television show, which was itself an advertisement for the movies.

This playbook of seeing that your core product, the thing that makes you great and distinctive, can be sold and merchandised in sometimes very surprising and new industries is something that almost every company can benefit from realizing.

In closing, what are your thoughts about the future and where hits progress from here? Is it going to be more like what Disney has at this point, where they own the whole pipeline and have total merchandising, or is the internet going to continue to delineate things? Where do you see this progressing?

Yeah, I see it progressing along two distinctly different paths. On the one hand, you’re going to see a race towards ubiquity, where Disney and other large media companies – Amazon now is becoming a media company, Facebook is a technology and media company, Google is in many ways a media company – and you’re going to see them throwing themselves headlong toward a global domination in both the content space and the distribution space.

But then on the other hand, because the internet provides such gloriously cheap and universal distribution, it allows for individual artists, individual personalities, to have what I call “niche at scale.” Which is to say they might realize by doing something very specific that might not work if their market was just a suburb of a single American city works really, really well on the internet, where the city is several billion people.

I think you’re going to see both a growth of what I call “city-states,” one-man, one-woman shops, and the growth of empires that are larger and seek ubiquity on a scale that is unprecedented.

Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist