Distractor salience and Spotify success

Chris Cornell & Matt Cameron on Soundgarden's 2010 reunion tour, where they always played the "over-streamed" (but not over-rated) "Black Hole Sun."

By Taha Enes Kurtulmus

Have you ever stumbled upon one of your favorite artists’ Spotify profiles and thought that some of their most proficient pieces deserve better streaming stats? Did you also notice that hit songs by other artists were enjoying disproportionately higher success in the streaming sense? Let’s dissect this phenomenon, known as distractor salience.

“De gustibus non est disputandum,” goes a famous Latin maxim. You may be familiar with its English translation: “There is no accounting for taste.” Ultimately, the Romans probably got it right. But what is the measure of good music? There are certainly numerous criteria, but it can be argued that reception is most suggestive. I say “reception” because “number of streams” often gets tossed out of the window too quickly, without any serious thought into its implications. Can this popularity contest be misleading as well? Of course, which is precisely why it’s helpful in us understanding “over-streamed” music.

For clarity on this concept, let’s use concrete cases with data from Spotify. The first is Soundgarden - one of those bands whose success is largely based on a single song, at least in a proportionate sense: “Black Hole Sun.” “But the band’s other hits have tens of millions of streams!” one might argue. Yes, but this smash from 1994’s Superunknown occupies more than 46% of the group’s highlighted/top streams. Compare that with the percentages taken up other artists’ top songs: 22% for Metallica, 21% for Queen, 25% for Guns N’ Roses, 17% for Eminem and 22% for Billie Eilish.

Don’t get me wrong about “Black Hole Sun” or Soundgarden. I dare not suggest that it’s overrated or that it’s their only worthwhile song. It’s an artistic masterpiece, and Soundgarden wrote lots of classics. But even masterpieces can be socially over-appreciated, which can be best understood through comparison with other great works of music. In this regard, Soundgarden’s signature tune is an “over-streamed” song.

Let’s compare “Black Hole Sun” with the most streamed songs in the Metallica catalog. The Soundgarden song has been stream 304 million times, more than any Metallica song but two - “Nothing Else Matters and “Battery.” That includes  tracks that are both commercially and critically adored, like “Master of Puppets and “One.” “Black Hole Sun” also has more streams than “TNT” by AC/DC, U2’s own “One”, “Learn to Fly” by Foo Fighters and nearly as many as Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” What is the pattern that explains the comparative success of “Black Hole Sun” over these rock and roll touchstones?

It’s that those other artists have multiple, sometimes even an abundance of songs that are considered equally outstanding by casual fans. This is what certain psychologists call “distractor salience.” Hypothetically, if “Nothing Else Matters” was Metallica’s only important tune, its streaming stats could be far greater than they are now.

The negative connotation of over-streamed music is that you’ve achieved something great - but not somethings. That’s often an incorrect assumption, as in Soundgarden’s case. If you’re an artist, don’t worry about your deeper cuts being overshadowed by a potentially over-streamed song. If that happens, then you must be doing something right.

 Taha Enes Kurtulmus is a pianist who divides his time between music and the social sciences. Follow him at @TEKurtulmus on Twitter.


Photo: Daniel DeSlover / Shutterstock