Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody

By Taha Enes Kurtulmus

Last week, I discussed how the number of outstanding songs by an artist generally affects the proportionality of their streaming numbers. Briefly, if an artist has numerous hits, listeners will tend to divide their time between multiple songs (the Beatles, for example). Conversely, a single hit (or at least one whose commercial success outweighs that of their other popular songs) leads to a concentration of streaming, meaning it garners more listens than other artists’ songs of similar caliber. The effects of this phenomenon don’t stop there, though. Let’s explore how one-shot hits are likely to elevate less successful songs by the same artist.

Numerous hits prevent a concentration of streaming, due to a form of selective attention that psychologists call “distractor salience.” Translated into artistic terms, the more appealing songs there are, the less attention there will be for each track. However, the correlation works in the opposite direction, as well. If the absence of distractors are why single hits garner all that additional attention, how does this affect an artist’s other songs?

Generally speaking, the exact opposite occurs. While those songs compete with each other for attention and reduce each other’s streaming, single hits effectively elevate other songs. How come? If these are concentrations of attraction, how is their effect positive?

Let’s have a (hypothetical) look at Snow Patrol. “Chasing Cars” takes the lion's share of their Spotify streams, clocking in at 68 percent. That’s more than seven times more than their second most streamed song, “Run.” The disparities grow larger quickly, even by just moving a few songs down the list. The same phenomenon applies to the catalog of Passenger, whose “Let Her Go” occupies 78 percent of all streams. Are other songs being overshadowed by “Chasing Cars” and “Let Her Go,” or do they simply not shine themselves? Each of our answers will depend on our taste, but I think we can all agree that not all bands are releasing consistently great music that simply becomes overshadowed. Many such artists are truly one-hit wonders, if only in the mainstream sense. This is where the spillover happens.

It can be hypothesized that if Snow Patrol hadn’t released “Chasing Cars,” they wouldn’t be nearly as popular 14 years later and their other songs wouldn’t have been streamed tens of millions of times. This is because, in that situation, there is no salience of distractors. Presumably, these songs wouldn’t have achieved their popularity without the exposure of the Snow Patrol brand.

Humans tend to perceive unities, which in turn shape our behavior. In our minds, “Chasing Cars” doesn’t exist independently (for most of us, at least). It’s a part of Snow Patrol. That association, though, leaves room for some more attention - after all, “Chasing Cars” only lasts four minutes. It’s then easier for us to explore other material by a familiar commodity - i.e. Snow Patrol.

Since the adoption of streaming as an imperfect measure for popularity, algorithms have further intensified and encouraged this. Artist profiles directly list less-frequently-listened-to songs below one-shot hits, and streaming algorithms make regular suggestions that tend to include cuts by the same artist. This is how concentrated attention counterintuitively boosts other songs. It’s true what they say - a rising tide lifts all boats!


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


Photo: Ben Houdijk