How Hit Songs Are Rediscovered Decades Later: A Statistical Analysis.
The dynamics of nostalgia and song revivals.
Intro: The Most Rediscovered Song of All-time.
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” began its remarkable journey in 1975 when the British band first released the eccentric rock-opera hybrid. Naturally, record executives hated the song, believing its mixture of incongruous music styles and 6-minute run time precluded it from radio play. Well, they were wrong, and the song quickly surged to number nine on the Billboard Charts.
Fifteen years later, "Bohemian Rhapsody" re-entered pop culture's zeitgeist following the death of Freddie Mercury, Queen's enigmatic lead singer, who passed away due to complications from AIDS. Mourning fans adopted "Bohemian Rhapsody" as their de facto theme song, and a re-released recording catapulted the single to number one on the UK charts.
Less than a month after the song's re-release, the movie Wayne's World employed Queen's masterwork as a comedic setpiece in a spirited round of carpool karaoke. The convergence of two unrelated events propelled "Bohemian Rhapsody" to widespread ubiquity, as the song surpassed the success of its initial release.
Twenty-six years later, "Bohemian Rhapsody" experienced a fourth surge in popularity following the release of a Queen biopic of the same name. The film grossed $910M worldwide, and the titular tune returned to the Billboard Charts, peaking at 33.
Indeed, a single piece of music can live many lives. Bohemian Rhapsody's re-emergent popularity is rare, though not entirely unprecedented, as several songs experience cultural revivals years after their initial release.
Since the advent of the Billboard Hot 100, 72 recordings have graced the charts multiple times. So what spawned these seemingly random surges in public rediscovery? How does a song achieve a second (or third) commercial life? And how have changing industry dynamics impacted the public's relationship with a beloved song or artist?
Methodology: Tracking Song Rediscovery.
Our goal is to chart the history of music rediscovery using Billboard's Top 100 as a marker of public interest.
We'll examine music re-popularization over time, as well as sociological trends that facilitate public reengagement with a given work, including:
Songs re-released by record companies.
Songs featured in media.
Songs re-popularized following musician deaths.
We'll define a song as "rediscovered" if that piece re-enters the Billboard Charts five or more years after its first appearance in the Top 100.
Music Rediscovery Over Time.
Is music rediscovery a new-age internet phenomenon or a long-running paradigm spawned by the birth of music copyright protections? The answer is likely both. In graphing the frequency of songs re-charting by decade, we find two distinct phases:
Our first epoch of music rediscovery runs from the 1970s to the 1990s, with a clear-cut peak in the 1980s. We then find few examples of song re-popularization in the 2000s, followed by an explosion of music re-popularization in the 2010s and 2020s.
The chronology of song revivals raises more questions than answers. What fueled the surge of songs re-charting between 1970 and 1990? And, assuming the internet is somehow responsible for the post-2010 swell in hit rediscovery, what digital phenomena contributed to the recent boom?
Songs Re-charting via Re-release.
Believe it or not, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has had multiple stints on the Billboard Charts. I don't know about you, but I've never listened to an American anthem and thought, "this song needs to go on my deep work playlist." So how did a ceremonial song hit the Billboard Charts twice? Well, Whitney Houston is why.
On January 27, 1991, ten days into the Gulf War, Whitney Houston performed "The Star Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV to a global audience of 870 million viewers. The public response to her rendition was highly positive, which led the record company to release a single of the performance.
Ten years later, Houston's stirring cover of the American anthem was re-popularized in the months following the September 11th attacks, which prompted the record company to re-release the song as a commercial CD single.
Re-releasing songs, whether it be as individual singles or as part of a compilation of hits, was exceedingly popular during the 1970s and 1980s:
In fact, most songs that re-entered the charts between 1970 and 1990 were re-released singles:
In economic terms, re-releases are an antiquated form of value capture that predates iTunes and internet streaming. Suppose you're a record executive and want to cash in on a song or artist in your portfolio re-entering the collective consciousness — what do you do? You re-release the work and compel consumers to repurchase the same content in a slightly different package.
Today, re-releases are dead — at least when it comes to re-commercializing a work. So, if you're feeling particularly patriotic, so much so that you want to listen to "The Star Spangled Banner," you no longer have to fork over $12 for a vinyl or CD of Houston's iconic performance — you can stream it or watch it on Youtube. God bless America (and technological progress).
Songs Re-charting After Being Featured in Media.
1986 was productive for The Beatles, despite the band's breakup 15 years prior. The band's cover of "Twist and Shout" was prominently featured in memorable scenes from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, with Ferris overtaking a parade demonstration to lip-sync the tune, and Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School (released two days after Ferris), with Dangerfield covering The Beatles classic. The films inadvertently boosted publicity for the twenty-year-old hit, propelling it back up the Billboard Charts.
Since 1958, ten songs have reentered the Billboard Charts due to their inclusion in radio, television and film:
Although the sample is limited, we find several instances of 60s and early 70s pop hits utilized in films released during the 80s and early 90s, such as "Stand by Me" in Stand by Me, "Unchained Melody" in Ghost, "Do You Love Me" in Dirty Dancing, and, of course, "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World. Perhaps there is a predictable time interval when hit songs ripen in nostalgic value, or maybe this cluster is a smattering of randomness.
Another find is the relative decrease in media-driven rediscovery post-2000. This trend may be explained by ongoing fragmentation within the media landscape. Few contemporary movies or shows have the cultural reach of Dirty Dancing or Ferris Bueller, save for serialized productions like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or The Fast and Furious franchise. As a result, there are fewer chances for a tune to go viral through a movie or show. But film and television are only half of the story.
Social media has no problem attracting and captivating consumer attention and is thus wildly prolific in reviving older music:
When we chart media-driven song revivals over time, we see a minor bump in rediscovery in the 80s and a swell in music revivals post-2010, primarily driven by social media:
Social media may be the most efficient format for music rediscovery. Services like Tik Tok and Twitter enjoy massive reach, formalize cultural trends by surfacing virality to their users, and meme-ify recognized songs to convey complicated emotions within the contents of a short-form clip. As a result, the future looks promising for media-driven song revivals.
Songs Re-charting After a Musician’s Death.
On April 21st, 2016, beloved rock icon Prince tragically passed away in his Minnesota home. Prince was a fixture of American pop culture for over 20 years with 47 hit songs, an iconic (and campy) film classic in Purple Rain, and a flamboyantly memorable persona (expertly mocked in a classic Chapelle Show skit).
Streaming activity doubled for Prince's music catalog in the months following his death, with 66 million on-demand audio streams, 7.7M in album sales (the highest of any artist in 2016), and seven songs re-entering Billboard's Hot 100.
Prince's posthumous revival is one of many high-profile deaths that have catapulted artists back onto the Billboard Charts:
And yet, rediscovery resulting from a musician's passing is a relatively new phenomenon:
How is this possible? Plenty of famous musicians died before 2010 — what is unique about 21st-century posthumous music discovery? For example, John Lennon, a much-beloved artist with a lengthy hit catalog, never re-charted after his passing in 1980. Assassinated by a crazed gunman, Lennon's death provoked a media sensation, receiving ample coverage in the weeks following the attack. So why did this widely-covered tragedy not encourage a mass rediscovery of Lennon's work? The answer lies in music distribution.
Before streaming, consumers owned their favorite music via physical mediums like CDs, records, cassettes, and digital downloads from iTunes. Artist revenues stemmed from one-time album or song purchases and subsequent re-releases. Today, audio-streaming services offer users unlimited music access in return for a tidy monthly payment, while artists are compensated via usage-based payouts, receiving a nominal sum per stream.
When John Lennon tragically passed away in 1980, grieving fans likely consoled themselves by playing a previously-purchased vinyl or cassette tape. And if Lennon passed away today? His fans would go to Spotify and stream his classics, sending his music up the Billboard Charts.
Songs Re-charting Due to Seasonal Holiday Demand.
A Christmas hit may be the pinnacle of commercial success in the music industry. Mariah Carey reportedly collects over $2.5M in annual royalties between the middle of November and the end of the year — entirely driven by "All I Want for Christmas is You." One festive hit song can be a self-sustaining commercial behemoth.
Holiday-themed music rediscovery has grown considerably in recent years:
That said, the term "rediscovery" may be misleading here, as these songs never exited the public consciousness (for more than eleven months). So why are we seeing an uptick in re-charting holiday songs?
Throughout its history, Billboard has continually revised how it produces its music rankings, shifting from radio play data to physical sales, then digital downloads, and, finally, audio streaming. In 2012, Billboard added streaming data to its ranking methodology in response to Spotify's rapid ascendence.
Consequently, 2012 is the first year Christmas music reemerged on the Billboard Charts:
The revenue structure of streaming services, particularly their usage-based payouts, is tailor-made for holiday songs with seasonal demand. Before audio streaming, you completed a one-time purchase of a few Christmas classics or relied on radio play to hear holiday hits popular for one month out of the year.
Streaming has allowed Mariah Carey, Michael Buble, and Wham! to better capitalize on the lumpy seasonal demand of their holiday hits.
Final Thoughts: The Future of Nostalgia.
In 1688, scientists began studying an unknown emotional and mental state experienced by Swiss Mercenaries in far-off European lands. In his study of the mercenaries, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term "nostalgia," from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). Hofer described nostalgia as a psychopathological disorder characterized by sufferers manic with longing.
During the second half of the twentieth century, nostalgia morphed into a unique abstract concept as the term shifted from a medical affliction to an emotion that was celebrated and embraced. In 1979 sociologist Fred Davis showed that the term "nostalgia" was heavily associated with words like "warm", "old times", and "childhood", rather than with "homesickness." Today nostalgia is widely described as "a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past."
Music rediscovery, in all its forms, is driven by the warm comforts of nostalgia. Whether it be the sensation evoked by a memorable movie moment, the sad realization that a once-loved artist is gone, or the warm embrace of Christmas joy — the collective impetus to rediscover a song stems from widespread associations between pieces of music and joyful memories.
In fact, the music industry is set to experience a boom in song rediscovery. Songs are still copyright protected, with beloved works added yearly to a growing pool of intellectual property – thus providing more fodder for rediscovery. At the same time, modern technology has allowed music fans to explore and reengage with old favorites via streaming and social media. As a result, it's easy to imagine a future of music consumers binging songs from the past.
Today, "Bohemian Rhapsody" stands as an outlier, a song continually rediscovered over several decades. But what if "Bohemian Rhapsody" is simply the first song to experience such a phenomenon? There may be other Bohemian Rhapsodies yet to come. Indeed, the future looks bright for works of the past.
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