One-Hit Wondering

When I’m tired and I’ve been drinking (as was the case last night) I can get pretty nostalgic. Rather than focus on current cable programming or what's waiting for me on the DVR, I’ll often get caught in an endless loop of YouTube videos from very specific musical genres—a path that quickly spirals out of control before I know what’s hit me. Something about revisiting those magical moments from my past seems to inject me with new life, lifting me out of melancholy and into a more positive mindset. I got stuck in such a circuit last night after drinking a bottle of pinot noir and stuffing my face with roasted chicken—a cavalcade of female one-hit wonders from the rather nebulous pop genre transition between 1988 and 1992. “This song could never exist today!” I said to my wife with an enthusiasm that only copious amounts of Campari and red wine can generate. “There’s no such thing anymore as regular, everyday, commercially-successful one-hit wonders that aren’t geared towards kids under the age of eighteen. No way this song gets released in 2015 unless Selena Gomez or Taylor Swift sings it. She had other songs, too—Sophie B. Hawkins—but nobody cared about them."

What was funny about my sentimental sentiment concerning Ms. Hawkins was the fact I had been feeling a little depressed about similar issues in the whisky world—about how a distillery or brand might have a number of delicious and interesting selections, yet few customers have the time or the interest to care beyond one singular, sensational focus. "What's the best one of the three?" is the question most people ask, hoping to slim down the ever-increasing options into a one top choice. For new brands in today's distilled spirits world, moving forward towards the second or third hit single isn't easy to do. If I were a brand manager in 2015 I'd be hammering that point home to board members on a daily basis. Expansion of a spirits brand can be a dangerous proposition if you're not offering consumers something truly interesting—something worthy of the extra investment. It's like selling a hit single versus an entire album of good songs. For example, how many people bought Jane Child's self-titled 1990 debut and really listened to the whole record? Not many, I don't think. I'm pretty sure everyone skipped right to this song and put it on repeat:

"I Don't Want to Fall in Love" was a HIT, too! I loved that song when I was ten, but I didn't really gravitate over to the follow-up, "Welcome to the Real World." I was like most of my Bowmore customers—right to the 15 year old aged in sherry; no real interest in the 12 or the 18 year. Or perhaps the Aberlour A'Bunadh is a better example. We sell about twenty bottles of the cask strength, sherry-aged beast for every bottle of 12 or 16 year that goes out the door. It's clear that Pernod-Ricard would like Aberlour to become a Highland superstar in the French-owned portfolio, but the problem they're facing is similar to the one Martika faced back in 1989. Everyone loved "Toy Soliders" so much they had a tough time moving on to something that wasn't "Toy Soliders"—myself included. "Love Thy Will Be Done" just never did it for me. But I will listen the entire "Toy Soliders" song every single time it's played (usually by my own request on YouTube at 11 PM after I've been drinking). 

As a whisky company, what happens when the rest of your portfolio gets overshadowed by one mega-popular hit? What happens when you try to move forward with something new and different, but the audience rejects that attempt at forward progress in favor of a comfortable classic? Do you ride the success of that one hit single for as long as possible, or do you begin making inroads elsewhere? It's true that different expressions work differently in different countries, so of course I'm speaking from my experiences in my own market. Just like David Hasselhoff went on to a prosperous singing career in Germany, it's totally possible for an artist or a single malt whisky to find success in different markets. Carol Decker, for example, sang the track "Heart and Soul" for the band T'Pau in 1987 and the song hit number four on the American charts. But in Canada the singular sensation hit number one for twenty-five straight weeks! The group's follow-up "China in Your Hand" would chart in the UK, but only reached number twenty in Canada. It didn't even register on the Billboard 100.

I think that my own personal feelings about the situation stem from an appreciation of spirits that obviously goes a little deeper than the surface. I'm more invested in the people and the producers than the average consumer, so I obviously get a little emotional about some of these trends. For example, as fans of Lady Miss Kier, my wife and I would probably take umbrage with someone comparing Deelight and their incredible hit "Groove is in the Heart" with some of the other artists I've mentioned already. "Do you not recognize the brilliance here? The style? Bootsy Collins and Q-Tip adding their own finishing touches to a total work of genius?" But I think that's the way a lot of things work. A lot of people get very passionate about a number of different artistic genres and it upsets them when something remarkable gets pushed into the all-too-narrow focus of the pop culture limelight.

Ultimately what wading through all these one-hit wonders last night helped me to realize is how much I really enjoyed these songs during their particular place in time. Just like I enjoyed the Ardbeg Alligator in 2011, or the all the other ultra-peaty superstars of that era. That of course was before big sherry took over the spotlight and whiskies like Big Peat and Smokehead became defined by their role in a cultural movement, rather than by the quality of their product. There's no shame in that, however. It's inevitable. Sometimes it's just the price of success. Eventually trends come back around again and forgotten hits get discovered once more.

I just bumped "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" on the way to work this morning and I was rocking out the whole way. That song had never sounded so good.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll