The One-Hit Wonders
It's nothing new. One-hit wonders have been a staple of the music industry for years. Since the term rock'n'roll was coined, bands have rollercoastered into the limelight and then faded away. From the Kingsmen ("Louie, Louie") to Billy Thorp ("Children of the Sun") to Winger (who cares), one-hitters mark a moment in history, cashing in on the current sound with a catchy hook. The nineties seemed to buck the trend. While other fads like doo-wop, disco, new wave, and glam rock have all brought a flood of generic acts, with the emergence of alternative rock, a core group of artists -- Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, STP, etc. -- became the foundation for a movement, grounding not only a genre, but social conscience. Eddie Vedder was dubbed the voice of a generation. Trent Reznor tapped into everyone's dark side. Yet in the last few years, alternative has begun to fade. Bands blend together. Nothing comes off as new. It's become a wasteland of one-hitters, and the list is growing: Geggy Tah, Space Hog, Dog's Eye View, Everclear, The Nixons. Flashes like Nada Surf disappear as quickly as they hit the buzz bin. Others, like the Flaming Lips, drift back into the underground. Geoff Mayfield thinks it's a K-Tell collection in waiting. "It's like the early days of MTV," says Mayfield, chart director for Billboard magazine. "You have a lot of bands out there with one good song and nothing else. That's it, and they're done, back into oblivion."Alternative used to be immune. Bands like R.E.M. carried the genre to its peak, pulling lesser bands to the top with them. Through the mid '90s anything labeled "alternative" would sell. But Mayfield likens it to baseball expansion: more players dilute the talent pool. Groups like the Bloodhound Gang and Nerf Herder, pumping out quirky novelty songs, are bumping heads with Soundgarden and Beck. It's taken its toll. Some critics have blamed the recent slump in record sales on the increase in one-hitters. Though bands like Filter or Urge Overkill might have initially seemed bound for stardom, popping up from below radar with a catchy song, a hit on the radio doesn't necessarily translate into a high return. Fewer long-term artists mean fewer long term sales. It has the industry at a stand-off. Record labels are pointing the finger at radio stations and MTV, claiming that radio no longer promotes artists, but singles. Even when a band has a break-through hit, labels charge that radio doesn't follow up by playing a second or third track from a disc. "It's a return to a Top 40 mentality," says Roy Tarkin, senior editor at Hits, an industry trade magazine. "Radio is looking for that instant reaction, a song that gets quick results. It's a cookie cutter mentality. Everything is turned into hooks. That's what matters. The bands are interchangeable."But radio execs blame the record labels. "The labels are pushing bands out of the nest before they have feathers on their wings," says Chris Ripley, music director at KXTE in Las Vegas. "When they find a sound that works, they find 16 bands that all sound the same. A few might get one hit before they go on to the next batch."It's become a power struggle, each fighting for control. Radio wants the freedom to spin records at will. Labels want stations to follow their marketing plan. No one is willing to give in. Bill Gamble, program director at Chicago's largest alternative rock station, Q101, says it can only get worse as alternative continues to wither, with both radio and labels scrounging for a new trend to latch onto."We just got through a dominant phase where we had lots of good music," Gamble says. "Now we don't know what's going on. When there's not a dominant sound, everyone is searching for something that will break through. A lot of things get tried out, and there's a lot of push and pull between radio and record labels. Everyone wants to find the next big thing." Abbey Konowitch sees breaking a band as a long-term project. The executive vice president and general manager of MCA Records, Konowitch has pushed staple MCA acts like Salt-N-Pepa, as well as younger groups, like The Why Store. He knows that for a band to be successful, it not only takes a lot of spins on the radio, but also a heavy amount of artist development, putting money into touring, promotion, "building a foundation." "It's a matter of the psychology of the record company," Konowitch says. "If you are willing to pursue something for a long time, you will have a hit. Look at Jewel. She was pushed for over a year. Now she's a star. That's what it takes." But Konowitch also says it's easy to "lose sight" of the final product. Record companies with too many artists on their rosters will quickly discard a group if it's not selling. "It's Darwinian. The strongest survive," Konowitch says. Those unlucky enough to be pushed aside might not even see the light of day. Those that do work, labels may stop with one hit song, letting radio spin a record into oblivion, hoping that they can recoup the money they invested in the band. "We're in a quick hit environment," Konowitch says. "We lose sight of the final goal. Radio loves a one-hit wonder until they get pressured to pay the next cut. And we don't ask radio to stop spinning a record so much. We don't ask MTV to stop playing a video. No one is really to blame."Mayfield doesn't see it that way. He doesn't blame MTV, the media or radio. He knows where the real problem lies."The biggest culprit is the one people don't want to look at," Mayfield says. "What about the music? No one wants to blame the bands for writing bad songs. That's where the real problem is."