Numlock Sunday: Chris Dalla Riva on curse-busting and Christmas music
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Chris Dalla Riva, who wrote “Is the Grammy for Best New Artist Cursed?” for Can’t Get Much Higher. Here's what I wrote about it:
There’s a perception that the Grammy award for Best New Artist is cursed, and that the winners of the Grammy tend to have an inconsistent track record when it comes to actually panning out into bona fide hits. This is not entirely wrong: Only 26 percent of Best New Artist winners from 1960 to 1995 ended up making it into the Rock & Roll, Country Music or Songwriters Hall of Fame since their eligibility. That said, that’s pretty hard to do, and interestingly, the probability that a Best New Artist winner made it into a musical hall of fame was more than double the probability that a Best New Artist nominee that didn’t win did, at 13 percent. So essentially, this is one of those awards that does signal some talent, but take it with a grain of salt because the music industry is still really, really hard.
Chris’s newsletter is awesome, I really enjoy it, he’s doing reliably compelling stuff in the music data journalism space and I really loved this angle on a musical curse. We talked about who gets thanked at the Grammy’s, what Billboard rankings still matter, how what makes a hit changed and the fierce fight for this year’s holiday music number one.
Chris can be found at. I strongly recommend it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Chris, thanks for coming back on.
Yeah, of course. Always a pleasure.
You write a really, really fun music blog called Can't Get Much Higher, and you dive into the history of music and all sorts of fun, data-driven ideas. You had a recent post that I really, really dug where you investigated a curse, and I love curses, because curses have a lot of power over how people perceive stuff, whether it's the Madden curse in video games and football, or whether it's, as you wrote about, the Best New Artist curse. What prompted you to investigate the curse?
For the week of Thanksgiving, I did a little post about who people thank at the Grammys, and in the midst of writing that I was just doing some reading about the Grammys, and I came across this Best New Artist curse, which I've heard about before.
The crux of it is, if you win Best New Artist, your career is doomed. There are a couple examples. People point to the Starland Vocal Band; they're really only known for their song “Afternoon Delight.” They won. Christopher Cross won. He actually swept all the major awards at his first Grammys. I can talk about this more in a second, but people are always saying, "It didn't pan out for all that hype." Esperanza Spalding beat out Drake and Justin Bieber, I believe, for Best New Artist.
People always point to these things like, "It's cursed. You win this award and you never amount to much." But also if you scroll through the list, the Beatles have won. Mariah Carey won. Alicia Keys won. So I was like, okay, this is a perfect question that a little bit of data can answer.
Yeah. Do you want to explore a little bit what you found? Because I enjoyed how you went about it.
Yeah, sure. My first thought was, how do you measure if someone's had a successful career? And the first thing I thought was, okay, you've been elected to one of these music halls of fame. The three I chose were the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because they've started to step outside of rock and roll and it's seemingly coming toward more of just a music hall of fame; the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is pretty specifically country; and then the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
What I found was that of the 63 winners who have won Best New Artist, 26 percent have been elected to one of those halls of fame, which I thought was a pretty incredible hit rate. I mean, the Grammys aren’t claiming that they're trying to predict who is going to be a success, but as I said in the piece, if you told me if I won some award, there was a one-in-four chance that I would be enshrined in one of these hall of fame museums, I would take those odds.
Of course, it's a very limited cast of people who are elected to these halls of fame, and you can have a very successful career and not be elected. So, the other thing I looked at was just how many hits or how many songs did artists chart on the Billboard Hot 100 before and after winning the award? What you see by far is that there's like a 95 percent growth in hits after the award, across all winners. Which again, I'm like, that's pretty good. It more so seems like we love to hold up these examples of, “The Starland Vocal Band won Best New Artist. How could that happen? They didn't have much of a career,” when really they are the outliers.
You almost double your odds between being a nominee and a winner, you said.
That was the other thing I wanted to look at, was that it's possible that winners all have good careers, but maybe if they didn't win, it would be better if this curse was real. So I then compared the winners’ performances to all nominees, and I did the Best New Artist losers versus the Best New Artist winners. Losers have been elected to these halls of fame 13 percent of the time. The other thing is, in terms of hit songs, the losers also in general do pretty well, but for the nominees this year, I wouldn't be concerned that winning was going to tank my career.
I actually want to talk about the article that inspired this one, too, because that was really, really fun. Who do people thank first in their awards speeches at the Grammys?
The results for that weren't terribly shocking. I focused on who you thank first, because it would've been madness to track down every person mentioned in these speeches.
It was like, close to 30 percent of the time you're thanking your collaborators first, then God, then your family, and then it peters off after that into some other groups, like the Recording Academy or your record label or your fans.
The fans usually don't get the first thanks. Occasionally they do. But watching all those Grammy speeches, I realized, wow, these speeches are so boring. And I noticed some, I don't know, some interesting things that changed over the years.
Like in the '70s and '80s, artists were more likely to thank the record label than they are today. That's almost never the first entity thanked. But one example I held up, the Bee Gees, when they won Album of the Year for Saturday Night Fever, the first entity they shouted out was RSO, their record label. Things have changed, but by and large people get up there and the first entity they're thanking are their collaborators, which makes sense.
Yeah. I thought it was a fun story, because it gives us a chance to truly understand in the aggregate what goes into making something creative.
Yeah, definitely. The point about people not thanking their record labels first as much, I think it also signifies things that have changed in the music industry, and that there's been a ton of consolidation at the label level in the last 40 years. Most popular music you listen to is owned by three companies: Warner Music, Universal Music or Sony Music. I think artists probably would find it strange to thank this big corporate conglomerate, when in the '60s and '70s there were a lot more independent labels, so I could understand an artist having more affinity for and getting up there and being like, "Thanks to my label."
A little speculative, but that's sort of how I took it.
A label used to be a much smaller thing, you used to have a much more direct relationship with perhaps the person who ran it, but now it's just these subsidiaries. It would be weird to thank Walt Disney in your Oscar speech.
Yeah, exactly. That's totally it. I mean, it's like subsidiaries of subsidiaries of subsidiaries, and it's like every label you can think of, famous record labels like Motown and Atlantic Records, they originally were independent companies. Now they're all just subsidiaries of one of these three, all multinational, publicly traded behemoths. That's I think one of the underreported stories of the history of the music industry in the last few decades, is how much conglomeration has occurred at the label level.
Here's a bit of a wild card question for you. You write about data and music for your blog. I think one of people's biggest encounters with music data just happened, the Spotify Wrapped. Do you use Spotify? Did you have a Wrapped? Do you have any feelings about that?
Yeah, I do. I do use Spotify, though I work for a different streaming company called Audiomack, but I'm always keen on what other streaming companies are up to. The Spotify Wrapped is, I mean, talk about maybe the most brilliant marketing campaign in a long time, because they effectively have people just doing free marketing labor for them in this very fun, shareable way. I laugh a little bit at Spotify Wrapped when everyone's like, "Oh my God, this is so me." It's like, well, yeah. That's what you listened to!
Of course it's you. It's a really cool campaign. You always have some idea of what you listen to, but it's nice to see it all wrapped up, and it's always interesting to see what other people share and what they're listening to. When you see how many people you know with one of their top five artists as Taylor Swift or Drake or Morgan Wallen, you're like, "Okay, this really puts it into context why these people are so popular. Everybody's literally listening to them."
Yeah. It's interesting. I think one thing that I've been getting less interested in about it is that I used to get more surprise out of it. But I think perhaps, and this may be just being in my 30s, there's less dynamism in it than before. I guess that is an interesting finding to take from it at times, for me. It's just sometimes that your music tastes do just gel, and you're going to see the same lineup year to year.
Yeah, definitely. I feel like for me, I'm obviously a pretty active music listener, and there are different people that pop in every year, but I feel like every single year, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen are one of my top five artists.
There are certain people, where if you love them, you're going to keep listening to them. I also think people, as you said, are more aware of Spotify Wrapped now, so I'm always like, do sometimes people try to listen in a way to make their Spotify Wrapped look a certain way, so when they share it, they can get that social clout? I don't know! I think it's called Goodhart's Law or something: When people are aware of how something's being measured, it becomes a bad measure.
The post about who you thank at the Grammys is a Thanksgiving post, but we're coming up on another very important season for music. We are in the midst of the holiday season, and I know how much you pay attention to charts and follow charts and all that stuff.
I guess I’ll just ask, how has the landscape for holiday music evolved or changed? I know that this year potentially, you're seeing the reign of Mariah Carey's “All I Want For Christmas Is You” maybe be challenged. I guess I'd just love your take on what's going down in holiday music.
Yeah. The two big songs that are always vying for the top of the charts every Christmas are “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which has worn the crown for the last, I think, five years, and “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,” the Brenda Lee classic, which I think unbeknownst to a lot of people, and certainly me a couple of years ago, is that she was like 13 when she sang that.
So, very impressive. It seems like “Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree” has stalled out at number two on the charts the last few years. It seems like it's making a push for number one. People obviously love the song. I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if it's able to top the charts. If you go on Spotify and look at a lot of their Christmas playlists, those are the top two songs. So, streaming services have some ability to dictate which holiday songs are popular. Again, they want to give people what they like.
I have a feeling for the next long while we will be stuck in the “All I Want For Christmas Is You”/“Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree”/“Last Christmas” quagmire, because people like them. They're going to be at the top of all the playlists. They're going to get a lot of streams.
The one interesting thing to think is that now, if you look at the charts every Christmas season, there's Christmas music all over it. Twenty years ago, if you looked at the charts during the Christmas season, there was no Christmas music on it.
Because now, the charts are with streaming, they're tracking what's actually being played, whereas 20 years ago, it was based on sales. And once you buy “White Christmas” or “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” you don't have to buy it again.
Billboard changes the chart methodology all the time. I don't want to say all the time, but it changes over the decades about how they weight things and measure things. I'm curious after a certain point if they're going to sequester Christmas music to its own thing, to something that's not eligible for the general Hot 100 pop chart.
You're very much a student of these charts, and I guess they have changed. I think that some of the changes that they've made have been pretty fairly material. The Christmas thing is actually a really good illustration of that. Do you think that it’s still apples to apples to what it was years ago?
No, no, no.
It's certainly not. Like, it's been called the Hot 100 since 1958, so it sort of deceives us into thinking that it's this continuous chart, but it's changed so dramatically, and not just in terms of how we measure formats.
I mean, in 1958, it was basically just radio record sales and on-site — think jukebox. Now streaming dominates it. But also the underlying methodology has changed a lot.
Like in the '90s for a while, something was not eligible to chart unless it was released as a single, so really popular album tracks would not appear on the Hot 100, and that prevented, I think, "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls from topping the charts, because it wasn't officially released as a single, so it was not eligible to chart, even though it was, by most people's accounts at the time, the most popular song.
There's a statistical methodology that determines this, and there's someone who decides that X amount of streams is going to count the equivalent of a sale. They try to make these equivalences, but really the chart is just the same in name. I would say it's a vastly different entity than it was even 20 years ago.
Fascinating. Yeah. It seemed like it wanted to be talked about the way that we talk about box office, where that's an industry tool that kind of became a proxy for success. Now I don't even know if the Billboard charts would be considered an industry tool anymore. What do you make of them?
I mean, they are. Billboard is, again talking about conglomeration, it's owned by a company MRC and Penske, and they own the Hollywood Reporter and a couple other trades. Another corporate entity.
But Billboard's data, the data side is called Luminate, and basically every label pays for access to this data, the Luminate data, which is all the Billboard chart data, so they can see how their stuff's performing. Billboard is still pretty much the industry standard for how labels measure the success of their music. There are a couple other music data companies that have popped up, but still, people celebrate it. If you have a number one song on the Hot 100, people consider that the paragon of performance for a single’s artist. It's still important in the industry, definitely.
Chris, again, I really dig your blog. It is one of my favorite things that I get to read. It covers very fun angles about an industry that I like a lot, and it is really, really good, and people should check it out. Why don't you tell the folks about it, a little bit about you, and where they can find you?
Yeah, I write Can't Get Much Higher, which I bill as the intersection of music and data. As we talked about with this Grammys curse, I try to investigate mysteries or little histories and see what the data can tell us.
I've expanded a bit outside of that. We do a lot of interviews now with famous songwriters and industry insiders. You can find me there. You can find me basically anywhere online @CDallaRivaMusic — Instagram, TikTok. I make music, I post it there, and I post all my little data investigations there, too. And I work for the streaming service Audiomack, so go check that out.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.