In case you don’t remember 1998, or in case you weren’t around yet, that was the year President Bill Clinton claimed he “did not …”
Bill CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.
It was the year Google officially became a company.
MALE NEWSCASTER: In 1998, the founders of Google set up workspace in a garage in Menlo Park, California, and became incorporated.
It was the year of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland.
FEMALE NEWSCASTER: After a generation of bloodshed and decades of division and acrimony, George Mitchell ushers in what the whole island hopes will be a new era of peace.
Also in 1998, if you were anywhere near a radio, you would have heard this song:
“FLAGPOLE SITTA”: I’m not sick but I’m not well. And I’m so hot ’cause I’m in hell.
The song is “Flagpole Sitta,” by a Seattle band called Harvey Danger.
“FLAGPOLE SITTA”: Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me.
Sean NELSON: There was a long period of my life where I had to sing that song, like, four or five times a day.
Sean Nelson was the lead singer in Harvey Danger. Their song was everywhere.
NELSON: We went to see a Cubs game when we were in Chicago at one point. They played the song during the seventh-inning stretch and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the members of the band are here.” Like, we stood up at Wrigley Field. I don’t know that we got much of an ovation — it wasn’t our idea. But it was like that.
Like a lot of hit songs, this one endured. It was played in the 1999 movie American Pie, which itself was a huge hit. It was used as the theme song of the long-running British T.V. comedy Peep Show. In 2015, a video surfaced on the tabloid website T.M.Z. showing the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, at home in Russia, making dinner with his girlfriend. And guess what song was playing in the background? Yep:
“FLAGPOLE SITTA”: I’m not sick but I’m not well. And I’m so hot ’cause I’m in hell.
NELSON: I mean, the idea of such a notorious figure as Snowden listening to that song, A, at all; B, while in exile; and also C, like, that was 2015 did you say? So that’s, like, 17 years after it was a hit.
As it turned out, “Flagpole Sitta” was the band’s only hit. They made three albums before they broke up; the hit came from the first one. In a Rolling Stone reader poll, “Flagpole Sitta” was ranked one of the top 10 one-hit wonders of the 1990s. Today on Freakonomics Radio: what’s it like to be a one-hit wonder?
NELSON: The day before you have a hit, it doesn’t sound so bad. The day you have a hit, you’re like, “Well, I guess it’ll just be that way.” And the day after you have a hit, you’re like, “God, I don’t want this to be my whole life.”
We’ll investigate the science of creativity.
Markus BAER: Creativity is extremely difficult to predict.
We’ll hear from researchers who have studied one-hit wonders.
Justin BERG: Once artists reach that first hit, then the time for creativity is over.
And we’ll hear from some creators who’ve read that research.
Samin NOSRAT: Yeah, I hated that paper. I mean, it hit me where it hurts, you know?
Our culture tends to ridicule one-hit wonders. Should we be celebrating them instead?
* * *
Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? Most people do. Did your resolution have to do with being more creative? Maybe you’re an artist of some kind; maybe you want to be more creative at work, or in the kitchen at home. But here’s the thing about creativity:
BAER: It’s not well-understood.
Markus Baer is a professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University. And what is “organizational behavior”?
BAER: It’s the study of the human condition in organizations.
Baer grew up in Germany and went to college there. He didn’t plan to wind up in a business school. He was on a different path — a more creative path, you might say.
BAER: I was initially interested in clinical psychology, and especially parapsychology, but that didn’t work out at all.
Okay, and what is parapsychology?
BAER: I was actually studying, for a while, an experiment which would test whether or not people can transmit information in an extrasensory manner.
Most of us know this phenomenon as “telepathy.”
BAER: And my colleague didn’t believe in the effect.
DUBNER: I have to say, no offense, I’m kind of with the colleague.
BAER: Well, the person we were working with was a Dutch physicist, and he believed that if we do not believe in the effect, it would not occur. So he fired my colleague. And the entire department turned on me, which I found very, very odd. Just because I was affiliated with an experiment that ended up not being run. Not because we did anything wrong, just because we were skeptical of the effect.
DUBNER: So, I have to say, you’re an esteemed professor at a great university, Wash U. I know you’ve consulted and taught at big institutions and government agencies in the U.S. — at NASA, at the Office of Naval Intelligence, and so on. I’m very impressed that you’re willing to share the fact that you were drummed out of psychology because you were a believer in parapsychology. If these institutions like NASA know this about you, do you think that’s a negative, a positive, neutral?
BAER: I think most of them don’t know that about me.
DUBNER: Well, they used to not know.
BAER: I’m interested in interesting phenomena, so I was not very strategic when I chose this. I used to love The X-Files. I’m not sure if you were a fan of, um —
DUBNER: I wasn’t, but I know enough to know that it was an interesting show.
BAER: It was an interesting show. And so I thought, “This is a phenomenal opportunity to explore a phenomenon about which I don’t really know very much.” I spent a good year investigating, or preparing, for the examination of this phenomenon. And then being let go is, of course, a huge setback.
After that huge setback, Baer moved into a different branch of psychology, called “industrial organization,” or I/O, psychology.
BAER: When I made this transition to I/O psychology, the person I talked to — his name is Michael Frese — he described a phenomenon that he had observed, is that firms often struggle when they innovate. When they adopt innovation, they don’t get it right. They backfire. And so he was like, “Why is this happening?” That was the research question. And that focus on innovation then led me to examine creativity, which is the beginning of a journey that culminates in an innovation typically.
And just like that, Markus Baer left the paranormal behind. His story is familiar in a way: when you’re trying to do something novel, it’s easy to get knocked off the path, whether it’s in academia or the business world, just about anywhere. Mainstream society does not offer much encouragement for novelty or creativity. So Baer wound up studying creativity, in a business school. And what has he learned?
BAER: Creativity is extremely difficult to predict. Even if you look at successful authors, successful scientists, their careers are somewhat clumpy. And no one really knows whether or not you reach a peak and whether or not you reach another peak. Oftentimes you have only one peak.
DUBNER: A few years ago, we did a series on creativity, and we spoke with all sorts of artists and innovators, but also scholars of creativity — one of them being the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile, who’s kind of a giant in the field. She defined creativity as “novelty that works.” And I’m just curious what you think of that definition, and/or how you might define creativity.
BAER: I agree with it. I think there is one word, perhaps, missing — it’s that it “potentially” works. It’s really hard to know what works. And I think one easy way to kill things is by saying, “Well, it doesn’t work.” Well, it doesn’t work just yet. So doing something novel, and then demanding that that thing works right away in a way that others can comprehend is really difficult. So we have to be a little bit more generous in the standards that we apply to novel ideas.
Okay, so here’s a novel research idea that Markus Baer and a co-author worked on.
BAER: My co-author, Dirk Deichmann, is in Amsterdam, and he lived above a cookbook store. And he said there was a warm glow at night when he would come home, because people were gathering around in the store, cooking. It’s rainy in Amsterdam, he’s coming home on his bike. He thought, “I want to be part of that world.” And he pitched to me the idea of studying the extent to which people essentially can sustain their creativity. In this case, meaning: does a first-time cookbook author write a second book? And what would help us understand that?
They wound up writing a paper that was published in 2022 in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It’s called “A Recipe for Success? Sustaining Creativity Among First-Time Creative Producers.” This is the paper I read that made me want to make this episode about one-hit wonders. Baer and Deichmann looked at first-time cookbook authors to see how many of them published a second book within five years. They found that only half of the first-time authors did that. What made a first-time author more likely to publish again? You might expect it would be the authors whose first books were successful — they would have more encouragement and incentive to publish a followup book. But that’s not what showed up in the data. It was the successful authors who were more likely to not publish a second book. Now, why would that be? Baer and Deichmann identified two factors:
BAER: How novel is your first book? And do you win an award for it?
Why would novelty and awards matter so much? Here is Baer’s theory:
BAER: When you do creative work, you start to think of yourself as a creative individual. When you win an award for that work, that identity becomes very powerful and salient. So you think of yourself differently, and other people think of yourself differently. And when you make a decision whether or not to continue that journey to produce creative work again, you start thinking, “What are the potential consequences?” And one of the consequences: “Well, this could erode this identity that I just built, and I want to protect it, perhaps. Because the risk might be too great. Can I really replicate the success?” And people may not have the tools. And so what they do is they stop.
DUBNER: Can you — let’s talk a little bit more about the — your explanation is that these cookbook authors win an award, and then their self-identity changes, and maybe their outside identity changes as well. But can you talk as a psychologist, what’s actually going on there? Because I would think that, for some people, at least, this new identity — if the identity indeed does change — is actually a positive, and you’d want to embrace it. So why does that not happen, necessarily?
BAER: It’s a function, really, of the novelty of the first work, and whether or not you win an award for it. So, you’re absolutely right. Among individuals whose work is conventional — let’s say it’s a collection of recipes that you just have assembled for the first time — those authors who win an award go on to publish a second book almost 100 percent of the time. It’s when you did something more novel, where you see yourself as a creative individual, you say, “That’s rare. Not everyone can do what I do.” The problem is: Many people don’t know what they did in order to get there. There’s a little bit of luck in there.
DUBNER: And maybe a little bit of magic, too, right?
BAER: Yes. There are skills people can develop that are, perhaps, universally usable or applicable when it comes to being creative. But I don’t think many people have that much insight. And so they stumbled upon something — to some extent, got lucky — and then they really don’t know how to replicate it. I think people understand that there is a risk to screwing it up, in very simple terms.
DUBNER: Plus, there’s an attraction to going out on top, I guess, right?
BAER: While you’re hot, exactly.
DUBNER: You tell a joke, everybody laughs. The best thing to do: just leave the room.
So the Baer-Deichmann argument is that, among cookbook authors, one-hit wonders produce only one hit because they are essentially afraid to try again. That’s the theory, at least. Let’s bring this theory to an actual cookbook author whose first book was both extremely novel and massively successful.
NOSRAT: I wrote a book called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, that took me a very long time to write.
That is Samin Nosrat.
NOSRAT: I’m a writer and a cook and, uh, a person.
DUBNER: That answered one of my questions. The person part I knew. I was curious which order you think of yourself in writer, cook — so is that the order or is that just the way you happen to describe it today?
NOSRAT: No, I definitely think of myself as writer first.
There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Samin Nosrat. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, published in 2017, sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, and it was turned into a popular Netflix series, starring Nosrat. The book was plainly marketed as a cookbook, but she doesn’t think of it that way.
NOSRAT: But I had no choice because there’s not, like, next to the cook books, “Not-a-Cookbook” section.
DUBNER: What would that section be called?
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is about cooking but it’s also about Nosrat herself, and the history of cooking, and a lot more.
NOSRAT: I had the idea for that book sometime around 1999 or 2000.
DUBNER: So just another 17- or 18-year overnight success story.
NOSRAT: Yeah, totally. And it’s not to say I spent all of those years writing it. The idea — the germination of the idea to the publishing of the book, that’s how long it took. The act of writing, I think, was about three-and-a-half years maybe?
The project began when she was a young kitchen intern at Chez Panisse, the landmark restaurant in Berkeley, California, founded by Alice Waters.
NOSRAT: I’d been given this list of 30 important books in the history of Chez Panisse to familiarize myself with, and cook from in my free time. These concepts were not ever explicitly explained in those books, whereas every single day in the kitchen, these were the things that we were orienting ourselves around.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was Nosrat’s first book, and it certainly fit the definition of “novel” — one of two factors, you will remember, that Markus Baer says may lead a first-time cookbook author to not publish again. Do you remember the second factor? The book had to win an award. That certainly applied to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat — a James Beard Award, no less. But Nosrat is working on a second book. It’s just taking a while.
DUBNER: So on your website, it says, “We all know I’m a painfully slow writer, so please do not write to ask me when the book is coming.” So, on behalf of all your readers and fans, of which I am one — I loved your first book. So on behalf of everyone, I’ll be the obnoxious one. When is the book coming?
NOSRAT: I actually — I don’t really know. You know, it was, I think, originally supposed to come out this year, and then Covid happened and then just like a lot of stuff has happened.
DUBNER: How do you spend your days at the moment?
NOSRAT: Well, right now I spend most of my days crying.
DUBNER: I might need you to explain exactly what you’re crying about. I mean, are there a lot of reasons?
NOSRAT: There are multiple reasons. Part of it is my general, creative malaise. And part of it is I recently went through a big family trauma. My father passed away. And those things, I think in a lot of ways, are related. But in theory, the way I should be spending my time is working on a book. And since that book is a cookbook, it’s partly testing recipes and thinking about food and how I cook it and how people at home might cook it. And then writing about that.
Coming up after the break: Nosrat takes a look at the paper by the creativity scholars about first-time cookbook authors:
NOSRAT: I’m just like, “Oh, you don’t understand creativity.”
I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, we’ll be right back.
* * *
Okay, let’s rehearse what we know. The creativity scholar Markus Baer co-authored a paper which found that writing a particularly novel cookbook, and getting recognized for it, makes authors less likely to produce a second book within five years. In a way, he’s pointing to a long-standing phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the sophomore slump. That’s based on the idea that second-year students get lazy or complacent with their academic work. Baer argues that the sophomore slump applies just as much, if not more, when it comes to creativity. The most significant point in his research is that certain conditions will lead first-time creators to stop producing work altogether, the theory being that a second project could pose a threat to their new creative identity. Baer and his coauthor reached this conclusion in part by interviewing first-time cookbook authors. They asked these authors to choose between developing a new idea, for a second book, or continuing to promote their first book.
BAER: We gave them choices in an experimental setting and said: “Do you want to come up with a second idea? Or do you rather want to build on what you did? Do you want to design a way of exploiting your success?” And to the extent that people said, “It feels threatening to me to think about doing this again, and not knowing exactly what the outcome will be,” those people ended up not choosing that option of developing a second idea.
DUBNER: Wouldn’t it make sense that someone who creates something novel and it’s successful, and then has the option to either, as you put it, build on what they’ve done, exploit that success, versus trying to come up with another novel idea — to me, it makes a lot of sense to want to build on and exploit that success, because successes are inherently anomalous, right? Most things fail. So, if I’ve been lucky enough to come up with something that succeeds, of course, Markus, I don’t want to go back to the drawing board and try to come up with another purely novel idea. If I wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul and it sells 5-million copies, now I want to write Chicken Soup for the Automobile, Chicken Soup for the Fountain Pen, Chicken Soup for the Computer Console. Doesn’t that make a certain amount of sense, as opposed to the theory of shirking from the newfound creative identity?
BAER: It does. And you’re absolutely right. One of the first papers written in a journal called Organization Science was about this tension between what is called “exploitation” and “exploration.” So, once you’ve explored, or you have invested resources into developing novel ideas, you want to exploit that. It’s rational. And many authors will make such a decision. And that’s why we have so many sequels. But there are clearly diminishing returns to those efforts, eventually. And I think our authors, because there is no real incentive for them, oftentimes, to continue that journey because it’s a labor of love. Most cookbooks don’t sell very well. Very few cookbook authors have advances or then, subsequently, get contracts. So you really can hone in on what the individual would do, almost in the absence of any other factors. So, if you have a successful first one, you tend to write a second. Makes sense. Above and beyond that effect, however, if your book was novel and you won an award for it, you become much more concerned about continuing.
That, at least, is what Baer’s research paper says.
NOSRAT: Yeah, I hated that paper. I found it really insulting.
That, again, is Samin Nosrat, the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
NOSRAT: I mean, it just, like, hit me where it hurts, you know?
DUBNER: On the other hand, it’s motivation to prove them wrong.
NOSRAT: Totally, totally. I was like, whatever. No. But it’s not a new phenomenon, you know. That’s not something I think anyone is shocked by.
DUBNER: Meaning this notion of a sophomore slump kind of thing? You spend all your life working toward an idea, and then it works.
NOSRAT: Totally. And I think many authors I know struggle with that, and especially the people who have the first big success. There are some people in my life who are the cautionary tales, who are still, like, 18 years later working on the second book. And I’m like, “Don’t be like that.” Like, I totally know about that. And I knew about that.
DUBNER: You didn’t need this paper.
NOSRAT: I didn’t need this paper. I knew about that before Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat came out. I knew that that was a thing that could happen to me, especially because I’m already a procrastinator and a perfectionist. And so I knew that that was something that I had to be very, very, very careful about. And that’s not to say that it’s something that has not plagued me.
DUBNER: So, to me, what they’re saying is that, “Oh, all of a sudden that you’ve had a success, you are now perceived by others as something that you may not have perceived yourself as, and therefore, you’re worried that if the next thing you do is not as well-perceived or perceived as a creative triumph, then you’re an imposter. And so the only sensible thing to do is quit and just run away and hide.” My sense is that was not the case with you.
NOSRAT: Like, I get it. And that’s not to say that I don’t have those, like, totally neurotic worries — of course I do. But the part of me that wakes up and is like, “Ooh, I got to make this thing. Ooh, I got to try that thing.” I’m a generator, you know what I mean? I’m a generative person. I’m a creative person. I want to make stuff and share it with the world. And I think, ultimately, the thing that I produce will be more authentic and more beautiful and more truly me and what I need to make. Creativity’s a complicated and ineffable thing. And it’s not like I’ve been sitting around doing nothing. I’ve been making other stuff. And all that stuff I think will show up in this.
Here is some of the other stuff Nosrat has been making: a children’s cooking show, hosted by Michelle Obama; a podcast called Home Cooking; and for a while she wrote a monthly food column for The New York Times Magazine.
NOSRAT: That’s just time. Time, time, time, time, time.
DUBNER: One way in which this paper, I believe, could apply to you in some ways is that a success like yours, especially, which is really large, does create this almost impossibly elevated expectation for what’s next. So not only was your first book very, very successful, but you personally are just beloved. People love you. So if we know anything from history, very few people go their entire lives being only beloved, unfortunately. And with a success like yours, matching or exceeding or even getting in the neighborhood is not necessarily so easy. I don’t mean to jinx or put a negative component on this, but—
NOSRAT: No, trust me. You’re not saying anything hasn’t already crossed my mind.
DUBNER: But I don’t sense that your creative identity is so fragile that you won’t produce another book. But I could imagine that one can think oneself into that sort of trouble?
NOSRAT: Yes, absolutely. That’s entirely a thing that happens. Something I think about and sort of lament privately to myself all the time, is that I’m the product. And I think that increasingly when you’re an author, and certainly a cookbook author, you become the product in a way that I think wasn’t true 20, 30, 60, 80, 200 years ago.
DUBNER: Because of the nature of how media and exposure work?
NOSRAT: Yeah. And when you go to the store right now, there are so many cookbooks where the person’s face is on the cover.
DUBNER: Yours is not!
NOSRAT: I ensured that. You know how I ensured that? By having an illustrated cookbook. I totally understand that I am the subject of people’s parasocial relationship.
DUBNER: You’re saying you understand that because you felt that way about people before?
NOSRAT: Because I have that with other people on T.V. and the internet, too. Like who I adore and love, even though I’ve never met them. So I totally understand what it is to feel that way about somebody you’ve never met. And I don’t fault people or blame them or anything. And also it’s really hard to be that person. It takes an emotional drain and it’s just another part of the psychological challenge. And also probably isn’t for my friends who are novelists or write science books or something.
DUBNER: Because they’re not the product.
Okay, but let’s be honest. You could imagine, after you’ve managed to produce some kind of hit in a creative field, that you are afraid. Afraid that the next thing you make won’t be as beloved as the last one. Afraid that you’ll be a one-hit wonder. Afraid that you’ll be the answer to a trivia question. “One-Hit Wonders for $1,000, Alex.” “This Seattle pop band had its one and only hit in 1998 with ‘Flagpole Sitta.’”
NELSON: Imagine if you told a joke at a party when you were 20, and then every party you ever went to for the rest of your life, the only thing anyone wanted to hear you say, and the only reason you were invited, is because they want you to tell that joke again. It’s not quite as funny, it’s not quite as thrilling. But there are way worse things, and you feel like a total fool for complaining. It’s just a particular little sting in the tail.
That again is Sean Nelson, from Harvey Danger.
NELSON: The frustrating thing, of course, is that still the success of it is so outsized compared to anything else I have ever done or even really tried to do.
And Nelson has done a lot. He’s a journalist and an author; a screenwriter and actor; and he’s still making music: an album of Harry Nilsson songs, for instance, sung by Nelson, backed by a full orchestra. But after all that, he’s still best known for singing a song he co-wrote when he was 22.
NELSON: The feeling that the lyrics to “Flagpole Sitta” were etched on my tombstone the day it was written — that’s a thing that I have a hard time escaping. If I’m anything in anyone’s mind, it’s always going to be as the singer of that song. And then, “Oh yeah, he did some other stuff too.” But in a way that may be better than, “I’ve never heard of this person, why should I care?”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously argued that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. So, is it better to be known as a one-hit wonder than to have never had a hit at all? We may think of the one-hit wonder as a failure — but it’s the kind of failure most creative people would kill for. Because you know who likes to ridicule one-hit wonders? People who have had zero hits.
Justin BERG: The odds are very long against any creative work being a hit such that if it is a hit, that should be celebrated as a giant accomplishment.
That is Justin Berg. Like Markus Baer, he studies innovation and teaches organizational behavior at a business school — in Berg’s case, it’s Stanford.
BERG: So many of our favorite songs are what we think of as one-hit wonders. They’re great creative acts. I just think the term “one-hit wonder” should be a positive because “no-hit wonder” is much worse and much, much, much more common.
Berg isn’t just saying this. He knows it, empirically. He recently published a paper called “One-Hit Wonders Versus Hit Makers: Sustaining Success in Creative Industries.” Because pop music is a much bigger field than cookbook writing, Berg had a lot more data to work with.
BERG: The final data set is pretty comprehensive. It captures virtually the entire history of pop music from 1959 to 2010. It includes data on over three million songs by about 70,000 artists. It took us about three years total to build. A lot of data on music exists, but for the purpose of having a comprehensive data set, capturing the entire song catalogs of, like, we wanted every artist to ever have a hit and then every artist ever be signed by a hit label.
DUBNER: When you say a hit label, you just mean a label that has had hits or a hit?
BERG: Exactly. So we ended up cross-referencing Spotify, Apple Music, and then two crowdsourced platforms called MusicBrainz and Discogs. And then, of course, we integrated that with the entire history of the Billboard Hot 100.
Okay, so what did Justin Berg learn from this broad and deep analysis of pop-music hits? Here is one amazing statistic: of those 70,000 artists in his database, 93 percent never had a single hit. And of the 7 percent who did have a hit, nearly half had only one hit. Maybe it’s because he is a professor of innovation at a top business school, but Berg was more interested in the 7 percent of the hitmakers than the 93 percent of the failures. And here’s what he really wanted to know: what’s the difference between a one-hit wonder and a repeat hitmaker? He suspected the answer may lie in what’s called path dependence.
BERG: Path dependance is the idea that what happens early in a process can limit the range of options that you have by the end of that process. And what we see in the data is strong evidence for path dependence in artists’ careers. An artist’s path to sustained success depends on the creativity in their portfolio of songs at the time of their first hit song.
“The creativity in their portfolio of songs at the time of their first hit song.” How do you measure that? Berg did it systematically. He used a machine-learning algorithm that examined every song on a variety of sonic features — tempo, time signature, “danceability,” several others — and then he indexed each song on two dimensions: novelty and variety.
BERG: So novelty is how unique artists’ songs were compared to what was popular at the time. And variety is how much diversity the artists had within their own portfolio of songs.
And here’s what he found:
BERG: Artists who reach their initial hits with more creative — meaning, more novel, or more varied — portfolios were more likely to keep generating hits, while those who reach their initial hits with less-creative portfolios, so more typical, more homogenous — they are more likely to become one-hit wonders and not ever have a hit again.
DUBNER: So when I hear that, I think, “Well, yeah, that makes perfect sense.” You’re telling me that more creative artists are more creative for longer. So what’s surprising about that?
BERG: So first off, there’s a tradeoff here. New artists who build novel portfolios are less likely to ever have a hit. They’re more likely to strike out, and we never hear about them. And then once artists reach that first hit, then the time for creativity is over — if their goal, of course, is to sustain success. If their goal is creativity, they should keep on being creative. But what my model and what the data suggest is actually, if you continue to try to be creative after your first hit, you’re less likely to have commercial success.
DUBNER: Got it.
BERG: So at that point, you have two, kind of, dual, opposing goals if your goal is to maximize the likelihood of commercial sustained success. The first is what we call relatedness. And that is the idea that you want your new songs to sound like your old songs. So that’s really about leveraging your existing portfolio. And then the second, somewhat opposing goal is you need to adapt to the market. The problem is your old songs are stuck in time. And what we find is that artists who reach their initial hits with more creative portfolios are better able to pull off this balancing act between these two opposing goals over time.
DUBNER: Okay, so name some artists who pull off this balancing act and become repeat, creative hitmakers.
BERG: I mean, so many of our favorite artists fit the model really well. The quintessential artist that fits the model extremely well is Shania Twain.
“MAN! I FEEL LIKE A WOMAN”: The best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun and … Oh-oh-oh, go totally crazy …
DUBNER: Do you like Shania Twain?
BERG: So my wife grew up in Georgia. And she’s a child of the 90s. So there’s a lot of country-pop played in our house. I do like Shania Twain. I also just appreciate her creative genius. I also think that society has caught up to that recently. And I think part of it was they had to get over some gender stereotypes that prevented people from seeing what she did in the mid-90s as creatively genius.
DUBNER: Okay. Name a couple other good examples of continuing creativity in the pop music space.
BERG: The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, the Carpenters. Taylor Swift is not in the study because you had to have your first hit by 2005 to qualify for the study. But I have run the numbers, and she fits the model quite well. Which, intuitively, if you think of her earlier portfolio makes sense. It was both novel and varied.
DUBNER: So the Supremes catch my ear because they didn’t write their music, right? As far as I know, they were part of the Motown machine. So does this apply equally whether one is just a performer or a performer and a writer?
BERG: So the results are a bit stronger when you write your own songs, but it actually still holds when you don’t write your own songs. One reason for this is, working with an artist as a songwriter, as a producer, as an executive means working with their portfolio. Portfolios are these enduring entities that exist. Especially when their portfolios have had broad success already, people are familiar with them. And so the path dependence comes from the portfolio having enduring effects, in that when you start working with an artist, even if it’s a new collaboration, you end up listening to their songs or are already familiar with them. And then you work within that portfolio and your assumptions work within that portfolio.
DUBNER: Now, this perhaps just reflects my lack of appreciation for the Carpenters, but in my mind, all their songs sound kind of the same.
BERG: Well, that’s actually what’s optimal after their initial hit. Early on, if you go back to the original stuff, you’re going to hear more variety than what would be best for any artist after their initial hit, which is relatedness, making sure that your new songs stay true to your signature sound or that what audiences have appreciated about your sound in the past.
DUBNER: That would explain maybe ABBA as well?
BERG: Exactly. ABBA is a great fit for the model, especially on the relatedness dimension.
DUBNER: But I have to say, as someone who likes to think artistically or creatively generally in my life, that’s a bummer, like the last thing in the world I’d want to do. But look at me — I’m hosting a weekly radio show for 12 years now. But this is a thing I struggle with, which is how can I constantly change enough things to not make it feel like I’m painting by numbers? So do you have any advice for that? You’ve been successful, you’ve been doing this thing, people like it. You understand that relatedness is important, even valuable. But also you’re a human, your tastes and appetites and curiosities are always changing. So how do you balance that?
BERG: I totally understand the feeling that it’s all a big bummer that the time for creativity is early in your career and then it’s over after you make it. But I think that’s not the best way to look at it. You should look at the challenge that you face after your first hit as a creative challenge. You want to always throw a bone to your listeners who have been with you for a long time, but then also bring them along to new topics, new domains, new ideas. And then you can also run some experiments on the side, right? So while you’re continuing with that mainstream of relatedness, you can experiment with some things to either help your creative outlet, or potentially run some side experiments that you can work into that mainstream.
Coming up after the break: why couldn’t Harvey Danger pull off a second hit? And: will Samin Nosrat be a one-hit wonder? I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio. We’ll be right back.
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The band Harvey Danger started when the four members were in college, in Seattle.
NELSON: When we started playing music together, none of us had ever been in a band before. None of us had ever really played the instruments we were playing before.
That, again, is lead singer Sean Nelson.
NELSON: And so every time we would finish a song at all, it felt sort of like an extra accomplishment, just for having overcome our own method.
When they wrote “Flagpole Sitta,” the song that became their only hit, it just seemed different.
NELSON: There was an element of, like, not that we wrote a thing, but that we found a thing. A very energetic, punk-ish kind of feeling and also a kind of classical bubblegum-pop sensibility. And it just sounded so good right away. It sort of announced itself as a song you can’t avoid, a song you can’t ignore.
The budget for their first album was just $3,000; it was put out by a small independent label; expectations were not very high.
NELSON: I handed a copy of our record to a deejay in Seattle, and he would sneak it into regular rotation. And apparently every time he did that, there would be a lot of phone calls and there would be people saying, “What was that?”
It took some time, but as we heard earlier, “Flagpole Sitta” turned into a massive hit. Radio. American Pie. Wrigley Field. Edward Snowden.
NELSON: When it came time to make a second record, we were torn because our impulse was to get as far away from the style of “Flagpole Sitta” as we possibly could. And so the first draft of the second Harvey Danger album was very dour, and almost mournful, because by that time, the one-hit-wonder track really did feel like something we had been kind of relegated to. Not necessarily by fate, but just by the people we were working with at the record label.
So here is the creator’s dilemma: the band wants to keep evolving; but according to the research by Justin Berg, from Stanford, that comes with a cost.
BERG: If their goal is creativity, they should keep on being creative. But if you continue to try to be creative after your first hit, you’re less likely to have commercial success.
There were some other problems. Because of a record-label merger, the band didn’t even know who owned their recording contract, and it was unclear if they’d even get to release their second album. So that took a while; and, by then:
NELSON: It seemed like the whole world had changed, and some sort of generational turnover had happened. Now it was like either Britney Spears or Limp Bizkit, except then occasionally a thing like The Strokes. And none of those things had anything to do with what we were doing. We then found ourselves squarely in an area that had absolutely no place for us.
BERG: I think this is a media problem, where it’s a “what have you done for me lately” problem?
Justin Berg again, from Stanford.
BERG: The media contributes to music being a very high-churn industry. So we like to celebrate novelty. We talk about, you know, the importance of novelty in these creative industries. But really what’s successful on average is typicality. So, you know, in the music industry, that would be songs that are similar to what’s been recently popular.
DUBNER: Do you happen to remember “Flagpole Sitta,” by Harvey Danger?
So Berg didn’t know the name of the song — to be fair, a lot of people don’t. But once we started playing it for him…
BERG: Yep! I remember it. Yeah.
DUBNER: Does that bring back any memories from your youthful listening?
BERG: Well, yes, because I played Ultimate Frisbee in high school and we used to write cheers for the teams that we played. And we wrote a cheer to that song.
DUBNER: Get out of here! Really?
BERG: Uh huh. Yep. So the story is, we were a new Ultimate team. And we went and played the perennial champions at Amherst Regional High School in the national championships. And not long before we played, YM Magazine had done a feature on the Amherst Ultimate team. It was called something like “The Ultimate Guys.” So we had to work that into our cheer, obviously. And I think it was: “We had visions, you were in them. We were looking into a YM.”
“FLAGPOLE SITTA”: I had visions, I was in them. I was looking into the mirror.
BERG: So that’s the memory.
“FLAGPOLE SITTA”: To see a little bit clearer.
DUBNER: It’s impressive that you have such a concrete memory and affiliation with a song that you didn’t even know the name of.
BERG: Uh, indeed.
DUBNER: Now, we spoke with one of the guys in that band, and he said that their hit song — and it was truly their only, anything resembling a hit — but he said that their one hit was very different from everything else on the rest of the album. And that was their first album. The second album was also really different. So, is the fact that they came to be known as a one-hit wonder pretty consistent, would you say, with your findings?
BERG: What the data suggests is that all the songs in the portfolio at the time of the initial hit matter, but that the hit matters the most, obviously, for shaping expectations in the market. And so if that’s not their bread and butter, that’s not going to set them up for success to do this balancing act of balancing relatedness and adapting to the market.
But again, in a world where 93 percent of musicians with hit labels have zero hits, shouldn’t having even one feel like a major triumph? Sean Nelson again, from Harvey Danger:
NELSON: I look back on it as like, yeah, that was really good. We had a version of an experience that almost no one ever gets. And then also, quite apart from all the other stuff we’ve been talking about, we were vindicated in a way — our interest in being in a band instead of trying to get some sort of career-track job in the real world or whatever, it was validated, at least for a while.
And remember what we learned from Markus Baer and his study of first-time cookbook authors: that first hit can add a lot of pressure.
BAER: Some pressure — I’ve done a study on that as well — some pressure’s good. Extreme pressure is not very helpful. Most people don’t do their best work, their best creative work, under those conditions.
So how should a creator approach that situation?
BAER: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take the work seriously. Take the process that guides your work seriously. The key, to me, is to accept the fact that a lot of things that have to do with the outcome of our work — whether or not people buy it, whether or not people read it, whether or not people award it — is out of our control. And then say, “I will just continue on this creative journey.”
There is, of course, no guarantee that the creative journey will be a pleasant journey.
NOSRAT: Oh, making a book is truly the worst thing in the world. It’s the hardest thing in the world.
That, again, is Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat — and, hopefully, author of a second book at some point.
NOSRAT: I think there are probably other people whose relationship to writing is different than mine. I know there are, because I have a lot of journalist friends who don’t—
DUBNER: Agonize over it every single moment?
NOSRAT: It’s not agony for them in the same way that it is for me. It’s a job. And God bless them, because if there weren’t people like that, we wouldn’t have newspapers to read.
DUBNER: If you could remove the suffering and anxiety that you’ve been describing, and not be a creative person, would you?
DUBNER: Can you explain that to someone who’s not a creative person that says, “Just go be an accountant?”
NOSRAT: It would kill my soul to be an accountant. I think I can try to learn to trust myself a little bit. Let’s be quiet for a little while and sit with this and see what we feel like, what I feel deep inside and what’s useful for myself to make and what will be useful for people to have. Then that’s actually the true inside part of me. That’s my real self. Trying to figure out, like, “how do I make the thing that makes everyone happy?” when I know there’s actually nothing that’s going to make everyone happy. And so actually the only thing I can do is make the thing that I need to make from the inside of my heart.
That was Samin Nosrat and Sean Nelson from the creator side of the ledger; and Justin Berg and Markus Baer from the scholar side. My thanks to all of them. My full conversation with Samin in particular was so interesting that we’ve decided to publish the whole thing as a bonus episode in a few days. If you know anyone who is a fan of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, please let them know.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- “A Recipe for Success? Sustaining Creativity Among First-Time Creative Producers,” by Dirk Deichmann and Markus Baer (Journal of Applied Psychology, 2023).
- “One-Hit Wonders versus Hit Makers: Sustaining Success in Creative Industries,” by Justin M. Berg (Administrative Science Quarterly, 2022).
- “Readers’ Poll: Your Favorite 1990s One-Hit Wonders,” by Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone, 2012).
- “The Curvilinear Relation Between Experienced Creative Time Pressure and Creativity: Moderating Effects of Openness to Experience and Support for Creativity,” by Markus Baer and Greg R. Oldham (Journal of Applied Psychology, 2006).
- “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning,” by James G. March (Organization Science, 1991).
- Waffles + Mochi, T.V. series (2021).
- “Nelson Sings Nilsson,” album by Sean Nelson (2019).
- “How to Be Creative,” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- Salt Fat Acid Heat, Netflix series (2018).
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat (2017).
- Video of Edward Snowden listening to “Flagpole Sitta,” (T.M.Z., 2015).
- Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, by Sean Nelson (2006).
- Home Cooking, podcast by Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway.