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When Old Hits Compete With New Singles, Do Artists Win or Lose?

The unpredictability of TikTok-spurred viral success has resulted in countless contemporary acts seeing older songs take off while their newer material hangs in limbo.

In the summer of 2006, Gym Class Heroes released As Cruel as School Children, their second album with the Fueled by Ramen label. The band was hunting for a commercial breakthrough, and they got it — but it came from an unexpected source. In a bizarre twist, “Cupid’s Chokehold,” a baroque hip-hop ballad from the group’s previous LP, began to show signs of commercial life. 

“It started to take off on one station in Milwaukee,” recalls Crush Music founder Jonathan Daniel, who managed Gym Class Heroes at the time. “We decided to go with that as the single and make a new video.” That decision paid off; “Cupid’s Chokehold” went on to hit No. 1 at pop radio and cracked the top five on the Billboard Hot 100.

This maneuver, the musical equivalent of switching horses midstream, was once unusual — new music was the priority until it became old music, at which point it was mostly left alone. “It was so strange and new at that time,” Daniel says of the 2006 decision to throw resources behind a song from the previous year. In 2022’s music industry, however, what was once strange has become relatively routine: An artist releases a fresh album or single, only to have an old one experience the sort of random viral surge, often on TikTok, that has become commonplace. 

The Weeknd put out Dawn FM in January, but his chart hit right now — and pop radio single — is “Die For You,” which came out on 2016’s Starboy (No. 41 on the Hot 100, two spots higher than it reached when it was initially released). While the hard rock band Ghost hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart with Impera in March, the group’s big track at the moment is the chirpy, organ-slathered “Mary on a Cross” (No. 92), from a 7″ vinyl single that hit stores back in 2019. AJR released a new single, “I Won’t,” in July after signing a deal with Mercury Records; the band entered the Hot 100 last week (chart dated Oct. 8) with the 18-month-old “World’s Smallest Violin” (No. 97), an existential crisis that plays as a string-laden romp, which is climbing at pop radio as well. (Last year, as another Crush act, Marina released her new album, Daniel says “all of a sudden three different songs took off from her first two albums.”) 

It’s easy to imagine that this experience could be nerve-wracking for labels. “Kids don’t care whether somebody’s pushing a single with millions of dollars of marketing,” says Pablo Douzoglou, director of marketing for Beggars Group (4AD, Rough Trade Records, Matador Records, XL Recordings and Young). 

And it could potentially be even more frustrating for artists who sank months of blood, sweat, and tears into their latest release. When “Cupid’s Chokehold” started to resonate on the airwaves, for example, Daniel remembers Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy initially feeling something along the lines of, “Wait, I just worked so hard on this new record, I’m sick of that old song!” 

Artists already face stiff competition with their peers for ears and eyes; now they have to battle against their own back catalogs as well. Did listeners not give a new album serious consideration because they were still looping older tracks? Is it a zero-sum game, in which the TikTokers making videos to “Die for You” or Panic! at the Disco’s 2016 album cut “House of Memories” do so at the expense of singles from Dawn FM or August’s Viva Las Vengeance?

This was not a concern for the managers, label executives, and radio veterans who spoke for this story; they were almost uniformly enthusiastic about instances when an artist had a new release to promote at the same time as a throwback was enjoying viral attention. This is partially because it feels so hard to capture listener attention at the moment — there’s so much new music all the time — that artists’ teams can’t help but be grateful for any interest that comes their way. “So much of the industry right now is primarily, if not entirely, TikTok-based, and the success that comes on the platform is almost indiscriminate,” one manager explains. “Everyone talks about wanting a hit on TikTok; you can never manufacture that,” Douzoglou says. “If you get an opportunity, you try to capitalize.” 

“I don’t think of it as competition” between the new and old music, he adds. Increased interest in an oldie “is going to help the artist, which is what business we’re in — helping artists in general, and new releases when possible.” 

“It’s only been additive,” Daniel agrees.  

These moments do force labels and artist teams to decide how to prioritize their resources. When Perfume Genius’ 2017 track “Otherside” started to perform well on TikTok in 2020, for example, Matador Records was readying a new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, for release. Douzoglou and his team reached out to several of the TikTok users who posted clips set to “Otherside,” and it turned out many of them “had never heard anything from Perfume Genius.” As a result, Douzoglou chose “to leave [the trend] alone and focus on the new album,” he says. 

Douzoglou acknowledges that this approach might not be for everyone. Most of the artists on the Beggars roster, he says, are “not in the singles-based world.” On top of that, “when some of these songs start trending, at least in the indie community, it’s likely related to something besides the music.” The trend can still help both the artist and the label — Douzoglou says one likely result is an uptick in physical sales on artists’ back catalog, for example — but it might not be worth chasing and spending money on.

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Even for artists that live and die by hit singles, “not every viral hit is going to be a sustained phenomenon worth disrupting a game plan for,” says Sean Ross, a radio business veteran and author of the weekly Ross On Radio newsletter. “The danger,” he notes, is “a label chang[ing] gears for a phenomenal song and neither becom[ing] a hit.” 

Ghost’s team at Loma Vista is working on two initiatives “in parallel,” according to Todd Netter, the label’s senior director of marketing: one for Impera and another for “Mary on a Cross.” (Netter, who has a gift for colorful metaphors, says that if the two campaigns “do intersect, it’s more like a DNA double helix than a collision.”) On the one hand, Loma Vista is promoting “Spillways,” with its hammering piano and Boston-like guitar riffs, at rock radio; it climbed to No. 12 on the latest Mainstream Rock Airplay chart. Ghost recently crisscrossed the U.S. on tour, playing the current single, of course, along with “Mary on a Cross.” 

At the same time, Loma Vista put together what’s known as a “thematic album compilation” on Spotify featuring “Mary on a Cross” and other Ghost tracks. “It’s essentially a playlist delivered as an album product,” Netter explains. Although all the music has already been released on various albums, the collection shows up on Spotify as Ghost’s latest release, with its own title. Grouping songs in this way “triggers the algorithm, unlike a playlist, so it’s a more proactive way of getting music into people’s ears,” via Spotify’s automatically generated personalized playlists (collections like Release Radar and Discover Weekly), Netter says. On top of that, Ghost released an official live video for “Mary on a Cross” in September.

Shooting new videos for old songs that are suddenly in recirculation is another common tactic — a way to, in Douzoglou’s words, “make a link between something people have already seen [probably homemade on TikTok] and something more official” from the artist. Matador put out a video for Pavement’s “Harness Your Hopes” in March, more than 20 years after the track’s original release. Doja Cat released a new video for “Streets” — originally from 2019 — in March 2021, and the Weeknd did the same with “Die for You” later that year.

The latter two videos followed a wave of TikTok interest in the respective tracks, and both were directed by Christian Breslauer. “Streets” and “Die for You” “were records that the artist loved — I know Abel [Tesfaye] and Doja felt that way,” Breslauer says. “I think when they get to shoot the video it’s exciting. They get to dig up these songs which had kind of fallen by the wayside and see through what they probably imagined when they were writing them in the studio.” 

Now that older songs regularly experience sudden resurgences — top TikTok tracks last week included Snoop Dogg’s 2007 auto-tune exploration “Sensual Seduction” and a sped-up version of Echosmith’s 2013 ode to high school angst, “Cool Kids” — it’s likely that pivoting from a new single to an old one, or running campaigns in parallel, will become increasingly common. 

“The industry has a lot of information,” Daniel says. But more than ever before, “the public decides what’s a hit or not.”