Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio

Monday, May 10th, 2021

In the summer of 2003, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” was poised to become a hit — but it wasn’t sticky:

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio.


Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.


DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular.


They sandwiched it between the types of songs that Rich Meyer had discovered were uniquely sticky, from artists like Blu Cantrell, 3 Doors Down, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera.


When WIOQ first started playing “Hey Ya!” in early September — before the sandwiching started — 26.6 percent of listeners changed the station whenever it came on. By October, after playing it alongside sticky hits, that “tune-out factor” dropped to 13.7 percent. By December, it was 5.7 percent.


  1. Goober says:

    Or, and stay with me, here, maybe, just possibly, it just wasn’t that good of a song?

    I think it’s good to do a root cause analysis whenever a product doesn’t “hit” with the population the way we want it to, so that we can adjust and get it right next time. But we also need to be careful about overlooking simple explanations when we’re doing these analyses. Don’t attribute to “we didn’t play it in conjunction with other hit songs to trigger familiarity and we missed the instinctual triggers to cause people to like the song” that which is more easily explained by “people don’t like this song.”

  2. Grasspunk says:

    Isegoria, is there a link to that Rich Meyer reference? I can find an interview with him but not the one relevant to this book.

  3. Kirk says:

    Or, it could be as simple as that weird phenomenon where the people that like something are really good predictors of failure in the marketplace…

    It’s an interesting bit of study that teased out a possible set of customers that can inexplicably predict failure of a product because they like it. Cause/effect relationship? Who knows? All we see so far is a correlation.

    What I’ve noticed in my personal consumer choices is that I’m a pretty niche character, because an unexpectedly high number of the products I’ve tried and liked have been discontinued. I suspect that it’s possibly because my palate and tastes are trained in a non-standard white-bread American manner–I loathe the insane amounts of sugar usually used in your standard baked goods in this country, and I really enjoy very strong tart/sour tastes. This is more in tune with Central European palates, as far as you look at things like preferred beverages, and I’ll be damned if I know how I acquired my tastes.

    I suspect that there is a lot more to this than would appear on the surface, and that the tastes and preferences in popular culture are at least analogous to it. There are things like Red Dwarf on TV and Monty Python which were decidedly not “mainstream” culture when they appeared on the market here in the US, but they appealed to a certain niche that happened to grow. Other television that failed, well… It did not, although you will find really fanatical enthusiasts for just about anything. Witness the popularity of one David Hasselhof in German pop music vs. his even being known for that here in the US. Another set of artists I can think of that did really well in Europe and yet were virtually unknown here in their home country? Katrina and the Waves, and Jennifer Rush. Both had very limited success here in the US, yet were damn near superstars in much of Europe. Jennifer Rush still leaves me shocked and dismayed that she isn’t better known and more popular here in the US, yet for some damn reason, the Germans loved her.

    I don’t know the reasons for any of this, but I’ll throw out there that the phenomenon has a lot more to it than just “marketing failure”. Look at the guy who was huge in South Africa, and totally unknown here in the US–They thought he was dead, but he was just back in Detroit working in demolition and production line work in factories. Look up Sixto Rodriguez, and the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, and wonder at the amount of interest he had in South Africa vs. his home country.

    The line Jesus had about “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house…” doesn’t just apply to the Messiah…

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    I know how you feel, Kirk, I’m pretty much a compass pointing south when it comes to some things, in my case not so much food and drink as pop culture. I remember a few years ago there was a group called “Del Amitri” out of Scotland, I heard some of their stuff, and I thought, “These guys are going to be HUGE!” Well, they were and are – in Britain and Europe – in the US they had a couple of minor hits, then faded from view. And, I remember thinking that “Star Wars” was most certainly going to bomb…yeah…

    And of course, timing probably has something to do with it, as was the case, I believe, with “Monty Python”. The Pythons would probably not have been any kind of success in the US, had they been ten years earlier, or ten years later – but in 1969 British things were cool, thanks to the Beatles and the Stones, the ground had been prepared for offbeat humor by other comics, and they were generally making fun of Britain rather than the US, so when they were introduced in the US on the “Dean Martin Show”(!) they were in the right place at the right time. The same is probably true of “Star Wars” as well – by 1977, people were sick of cynicism, and morally gray areas, and pompous symbolism – they wanted Good Guys and Bad Guys, and that’s exactly what they got.

  5. Kirk says:

    I think the German construction/construct “Zeitgeist” is a valuable tool for analyzing a good deal of this. There are also levels to it all, as well–The Zeitgeist of today may not extend more than a decade or two, and what we think has lasting value and popularity actually won’t, past the end-time of this era. Similarly, things we think inconsequential and ephemeral may well turn out to be the iconic things people remember about this era.

    Witness the quirky nature of literary fame and reputation–Edgar Bulwer Lytton being a most excellent example. He was a famous author in his era, yet today, he’s remembered as a jokey catch-phrase used in a contest for bad writing… How’s that for a “lasting legacy”?

    And, yet… Some of his phrases entered the popular lexicon to an amazing degree. But, nobody remembers that he coined them.

    Likewise, in his day, Shakespeare was considered a middling-good playwright. Today, he’s a giant of English literature. How long will that last, I wonder?

    Everything has a time and a place, and the unfortunate thing for a lot of artists is that their time and place may not actually be the one they happen to occupy chronologically and physically. You wonder what’s going to be remembered and honored, in years to come–Witness the phenomenon of Benny Hill. In England, he’s an embarrassment. In the US and a few other countries, he’s a cherished icon of gently depraved humor. My stepdad, who was from Eastern Europe, and who served in the British post-WWII auxiliary forces in Germany…? He absolutely loved Benny Hill. Every actual Englishman I’ve known was vaguely embarrassed by the comic, and utterly puzzled as to why people enjoyed his humor–So there’s that to take into account.

    Analyzing this sort of thing is virtually impossible. You can only observe it in action, never being able to predict or design for it. Even things like the manufactured pop-music groups go through iterations of test-marketing to see what works, and a lot more winds up sliding down the wall than do the ones that stick… I vaguely remember reading about all the iterations that the Monkees went through, trying to find a combination that “worked”, and there are some interesting tales out of the Japanese idol market that describe the process of building a winning group of artists.

  6. Altitude Zero says:

    My Dad, a WWII vet, also loved Benny Hill, while he thought that Monty Python was “just stupid”. There’s no accounting for taste… and actually some of Benny Hill’s stuff WAS pretty funny

  7. Isegoria says:

    Grasspunk, I tried tracking down a Rich Meyer reference and didn’t come up with much.

  8. Grasspunk says:

    Isegoria, thanks for looking. It’s a fascinating topic for me, especially with songwriters in the house. If pop songs are a subject for you I recommend The Song Machine by John Seabrook. You’ll never hear Britney the same again.

  9. Isegoria says:

    Grasspunk, you might enjoy How To Have A Number One The Easy Way.

    I first found out about Polyphonic HMI’s Hit Song Science (HSS) a while ago. What does it take to go from recognizing hits via software to generating them?

    Of course, many hits are a product of cumulative advantage.

  10. Grasspunk says:

    Interesting! Believe it or not I bought a hardcopy of that KLF book when new to give to my (songwriting) father. I don’t think he appreciated it in 1999 and likely chucked it. Too bad, he could do with the $270.

    A few years back the kids took over my playlist of music to drive to by putting some current pop hits on it, so I avenged myself by scouring youtube for great pop hits of the past under the idea of “if you’re going to listen to pop music, you’re going to listen to it all”. I renamed the playlist to “Kid Indoctrination”.

    After a year or so of this we started to identify basic elements of pop music beyond “i like it” or “it’s catchy”. Things like prechoruses and how many parts a song has, raising energy (and often pitch) for the chorus, dropping out the beat then adding it back in to make the second half of a chorus more exciting. At that point we flipped into analyzing pop more seriously. It dominated discussion on the rides to the school bus pickup point.

    Now six years after forcing them to listen to “Lido Shuffle” I have kids who can dissect a pop song with ease, write and perform pop but still have atrocious taste is music. I’ve created nerds.

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