The Second Single … And the Old Single

As a music fan, and a fan of the business, one of the nice moments in hit music is the release of the second single from a project. The first single is heavily watched, but it’s often the second that determines an artist’s career trajectory.

When a developing artist follows the breakthrough hit with the right second single, it always establishes them as someone to be reckoned with, really. Cyndi Lauper has not just “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” but a song for the ages in “Time After Time.” (And “Girls” turned out to be for the ages, too). Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” is a breakthrough, but “Livin’ on a Prayer” is a career song.

Sometimes the excitement is a smash followed by an even bigger hit.   Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and then “Someone Like You.” Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is Song of the Summer within seconds, but “Teenage Dream” is next. Taylor Swift’s journey into pop with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” might have been just a stunt, but “I Knew You Were Trouble” was a policy statement.

Sometimes the excitement is in hearing a perfectly acceptable first single followed by a smash. Radio rides along with Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All,” but “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” gives her back the momentum.  The first Electric Light Orchestra single from its album was “Shine a Little Love,” but the next one was “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Radio and listeners try to be a good sport about “The Girl Is Mine,” and then Michael Jackson drops “Billie Jean.”

The inverse happens when the second single is an obvious fizzle or ultimately a disappointment. Radio obligingly tried to like Lauper’s “True Colors,” too. But when “Change of Heart” came along (for me, a better single, but not a hit), it was the moment that Lauper became just another artist, and that moment is oft-repeated on follow-ups to massive debut or breakthrough albums.

Through it all, there was always a moment when the second single was brand new where — if it was good enough — it made the previous single sound a little less exciting, even if listeners still liked the first single. It was impressive that the Black Eyed Peas could go from strength to strength. But if you came across “Boom Boom Pow” when “I Gotta Feeling” was new, there was always that moment of “why is that station playing the old song?” Even when two smashes competed, it still felt like “fresh” won the button punch. And if the next hit single doesn’t make the previous one go stale (think Michael Jackson with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”), then something phenomenal is probably happening for that artist.

I say that because I’m driving around a major market today, close enough to another major market that I can punch between five CHRs at any given time. And as the CHR format continues to become more recurrent-driven, what you realize now is that you are more often hearing the previous single than the next smash. At this moment, with the possible exception of Calvin Harris, “Feels,” there’s not a second single that fits a once-familiar profile.

The more recurrent nature of CHR changes the song-of-the-summer battle as well. Is it “I’m the One” or “Despacito”? If you’re just going by ubiquity, the wave of hits before them — “It Ain’t Me,” “Stay,” “That’s What I Like,” “Say You Won’t Let Go” — are still the songs you hear even more. You’ll hear the next wave of contenders, “Bad Liar” or “Feels,” now and then. And it’s almost July.

Some artists, with their ubiquity, have confounded the new-excitement pattern. The Chainsmokers always have multiple singles, and “Honest” came before “Something Just Like This” really felt done. There is always a Justin Bieber single and, while “What Do You Mean” was eclipsed by what came after, the heat was split between “Sorry” and “Love Yourself.”

One reason the “next single” moment happens less is because radio isn’t propelling it. PDs and MDs have less impetus to go find the next single, even from a major act. The current Ed Sheeran album will have five hits, play out over the course of the year, and take him from star to superstar, but not until those songs are worked sequentially, as with “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill,” two songs that could have been hits at the same time. And it’s too bad, because “Divide” could have been a spring book event for CHR and Hot AC.

As you count the ways in which there is less excitement in the business, and on the radio, the loss of that “next single” moment is definitely one of them. The place to discover the next single now is Spotify, and before you dismiss that as just another song on a playlist somewhere in space, I’ll agree with you that it doesn’t have the impact of suddenly having the next hit from an artist all around you. Most people have probably never even considered this topic enough to know how the excitement was missing. But would we do anything to bring it back?

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

1 Comment


  1. Yes, it’s summer, but we’re only getting started. By mid-summer, Despacito will be unavoidable and I’m The One will probably be dropping. This is exactly why That’s What I Like and the rest of those “songs of the spring” you mentioned will not be song of the summer. And I do hear Bad Liar quite often, and I also hear Despacito, I’m The One, etc. more often than those other songs you mentioned… excluding Stay.

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