One-hit wonders dominate as social media turns up pace of the pop charts

Jess Glynne, one of 2014’s debut chart smashers. Ian West/PA Wire

In early September 1994, Whigfield released her single Saturday Night. It appeared from nowhere and echoed everywhere. As songs go it seemed quite innocuous. But its catchy wafer-thin sound actually represented a watershed moment in music chart history.

When it displaced Wet Wet Wet’s 15-week stay at the top with Love is All Around, it became the first debut single to go straight into the charts at number one. The UK singles sales chart had originally launched in 1952, so it took more than 40 years of weekly charts for this to happen. For 40 years, artists had been trying to build momentum and use broadcast media outlets and publicity drives to push their songs up the charts. But Whigfield didn’t need to.

Given this history, it might be surprising to discover in 2014 as many as 14 different acts achieved a number one debut single. So we had 40 years without a number one debut single, years that saw releases from a wide array of cultural luminaries – and now we have 14 in a single year.

Year of the debut chart smash

So where did “the year of the debut chart smash” come from? Clearly in part the evolving way in which music is consumed. Chart rules have changed over recent years in order to accommodate changes in music formats and to make the charts representative of the actual music being consumed. In 2006 music downloads were included in the charts for the first time, enabling Gnarls Barkley’s single Crazy to be the first single to reach number one on downloads alone (the CD format was released after it had first charted). And then in 2014, streamed music began to be included in the calculation of chart position, 100 streams of a song counting as a single sale. All of this leads to changes in the outcomes of the charts.

The pace of music culture was different before social media formats took off. Charts were only weekly, indicative of this slower pace. Music news travelled through broadcast media outlets, such as magazines, weekly music newspapers, radio and so on. Even in the 1990s, the emergence of the internet did little to speed up music cultures.

Today’s music movements are undoubtedly accelerated, particularly as social media has become an integral part of music culture. This is illustrative of broader cultural speed-up, with information passing quickly between people and through their expansive social networks. In marketing terms this is often thought of as buzz.

In the case of Whigfield the news of the dance routine associated with the song whipped up a buzz, foreshadowing the release of the single and easing it to number one in its first week. Today various social media outlets – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like – enable the buzz around artists to grow more rapidly and to spread quickly. As a result, artists can become very well known even before they have even released their first single, so more of them are able to go straight to number one. Music streaming sites neatly link the buzz around artists to listening practices, allowing people to listen to the artists that are gaining momentum – and the buzz is amplified.

Cultural frenzy

So the ways in which music consumption has changed is important but we need to consider the bigger picture – the speed at which culture is now able to spread. The pace at which information circulates is now much quicker than it was in the past and the rhythms of music consumption have changed as a result.

But this frenzied listening culture has another side – if music movements explode quickly they are also likely to burn out. In 2014 the number one single changed 41 times. Yes, there were some singles that reached the top on more than one occasion, such as Pharrell Williams’s Happy and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, but this is still a rapid turnover. Only six of these singles managed to maintain their number one position for more than one week.

If we look at the charts in the 1950s and 60s for comparison, we find that the number one single often changed less than 20 times in a year – with a few artists dominating. The top spot is now changing very frequently and we’re seeing a wider range of artists achieving recognition in a single year: this is musical turnover at a rate that we’ve never seen before.

So what of 2015? If we base our outlook on what happened in the charts in 2014, it looks as if we’re seeing a concerted speed-up likely to be followed by burn-out and fade-away. Songs will arrive from nowhere and disappear quickly. Popular music has always moved with haste, but we might see even more one-hit wonders and quickly forgotten artists. Perhaps this is one explanation for the re-emergence and growing popularity of vinyl – a small act of resistance to cultural speed-up and a tangible object that gives some sense of permanance to music’s movements.