Sunday, November 17, 2013

Everybody's a one-hit wonder. If they're lucky.

A few years ago I was talking to Sting's publisher. He told me that if he went to any city in Europe, checked into a hotel and turned on the radio, he could guarantee that within a couple of hours he would hear a song written by Sting. What's more, he knew which song it would be: "Every Breath You Take".

This idea, that even a career which was rich in hits, was really about one hit, fascinates me and seems yet another illustration of how success in the music business can be rooted in things completely beyond the artist's control.

I spoke to Hugh Cornwell at Louder Than Words yesterday in Manchester and put this to him. Was The Stranglers' "Golden Brown", which I'd heard on a radio in a shop yesterday, his "Every Breath You Take"? He confirmed it was. "In terms of PRS, it's worth all the other songs put together."

Maybe this has always been the case but as you've got more and more radio stations programming music from a smaller and smaller repertoire, much of which is machine-selected, it's surely going to be more so. Everybody's a one-hit wonder. If they're lucky.


  1. Just read graphic novel originating from Spain, published in French and soon in English. Late in the piece Golden Brown plays from a car radio and the lyric, in English, is quoted at length. The book is set in Palma in the 1980s. The French title is Histoires du Quartier by Gabi Beltran and Bartolome Segui. Score one, Hugh Cornwell.

  2. David, if artists and their management were willing to divulge, this would make an excellent "list"-type feature! Would be interesting to know for how many multi-multi-hit bands and artists this is the case, and what their one-hit PRS goldmine is.

  3. Where I work we have the radio on in the background. 6 Music is considered a little bit too much for most people. I half-heatedly fight for Radio 2 as Bruce and Evans occasionally throw a curveball. They will also play a song that lasts more than three minutes.

    However, invariably the radio falls to one of those stations with one name - Heart, Jack, Wave, etc. I am amazed how small the pool of music they pull from is.

    It is hard to go at least two hours without hearing an Abba or Queen song (probably my two least favourite bands) but the whole back catalogue of Abba seems to have been reduced to about three songs and Queen apparently only ever made about five songs. Madness are always played as well but it seems they only made three songs as well. It's all a bit depressing.

  4. Paul, I don't think artists or their management would have any problem "divulging", as you put it, because all you have to do is look at Spotify and see which of an artist's tracks are played twice as much as the others and you're there. I just looked: for Bowie it's Heroes, for Radiohead it's Creep (twice as many plays as the number two), for Hawkwind it's Silver Machine and so on. Similarly, Simon, the simple explanation for why those stations rotate a handful of songs is that research, either by phone or via what they used to call "auditorium testing" has taught them which are the songs that their listeners like.

  5. Anonymous1:13 pm

    Surprised at Heroes, or "Heroes" as it is somewhat irritatingly quotemarked. Would have named half a dozen others before that song.

    But then, a quick peep at Google's autofilled suggestted searches - less scientifically rigorous, but generally informative - shows it's there in fifth place, after "david bowie songs", "david bowie discography", "david bowie tour" and "david bowie eyes". (I'm aware these suggestions are tailored for me, but I can't ever remember searching for tour details.)

  6. Gary, this could have something to do with the massive exposure the song received at the Olympics. I share your surprise at the prominence of this track although I would have put it in the top three or four. Can't argue with the Spotify stats though I s'pose...

  7. "Heroes" wasn't even a hit when it came out. Only got to 24 in the charts.

  8. I think that I read that Baker Street was worth £80,000 a year to Gerry Rafferty. I wonder, though, how the PRS keeps a track of all these 'radio' stations.

    re:Simon. I remember when my local got a ne fangled wall mounted CD jukebox in the mid-80's. Thousands of songs available but perhaps the majority of those chosen were from less than 100 hits.

  9. Anonymous3:05 pm

    LondonLee, I'd be intrigued to see the full chart from the week "Heroes" had 23 better-selling songs. Not that I don't believe you, but old charts are often intriguing mixes of the sublime and ridiculous.

  10. Check out

    According to them it entered the charts at 24, stayed there a week, went up to 23, then dropped. During that time the top spot was occupied by Baccara, ABBA, and David Soul. Though the Stranglers, Pistols and TRB were also in the chart.

  11. Anonymous9:59 pm

    Thanks, Lee. Taken me on a right old memory lane that has.

    Although I haven't listened to it in a few years, I was delighted to get (at around the turn of the millennium) a hand-me-down tape of the last half-hour of the top 40 (naughty!) from March 1980, and it's a fascinating listen. Starting at no.12 with Martha & the Muffins' 'Echo Beach', we go through:

    The Captain & Tenille's pier-end schmaltz Do That To Me One More Time

    Peter Gabriel's Games Without Frontiers

    Rainbow's sub-Since You've Been Gone hackwork All Night Long'(sample lyric: "Don't know 'bout your brains, but your body sure looks alright")

    The Brothers Johnson's disco-by-numbers Stomp

    Marti Webb's schoolmarmy Take That Look Off Your Face, including the memorably awful line "I bet you didn't sleep good last night"

    Detroit Spinners working their way back to you babe

    The Vapors Turning Japanese

    Liquid Gold, Shirley not named after the popular brand of poppers, with their Saturday teatime disco Dance Yourself Dizzy

    Fern Kinney's housewife-pleasing Together We Are Beautiful

    And finally, straidinatnummerwon, it's The Jam's Going Underground.

    Must dig that tape out, it's a hell of a time capsule....