Music

Catalog Hits Were Soaring on the Charts. Why Have They Fallen Off in 2024?

When The Weeknd’s “Die for You” came out in 2016, it was just a modest hit, failing to crack the top 40 on the Hot 100. But the track was rejuvenated during the pandemic, thanks in part to the community of TikTok users who love sped-up and slowed-down remixes. Interest in “Die for You” eventually spiked enough that it was promoted to radio as if it were a new record, and after Ariana Grande hopped on a remix, the ballad lumbered to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in March 2023, more than six years after its release. 

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In recent years, starting especially during the pandemic, major hits following a similar trajectory have become a regular feature of the pop landscape. Two months after “Die for You” peaked, Miguel’s early 2010s R&B hit “Sure Thing” climbed to No. 1 on the Pop Airplay chart — No. 11 on the Hot 100 — more than a dozen years after its original release. And in October, Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” topped the Hot 100, four years after it came out as a deep cut on 2019’s Lover

“There’s a huge trend for music that’s chronologically old to have a second life,” Amazon Music global head of music programming Mike Tierney told Billboard in 2022. “The lines are getting incredibly blurry.”

It felt reasonable to assume that this blurring process would continue. In a surprising turnaround, however, those lines look more solid this year: So far, no catalog tracks — defined as more than 18 months old — have made it to the upper reaches of the Hot 100. 

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The closest thing would be Djo’s neo-glam hit “End of Beginning,” which peaked at No. 11 at the end of March, just around 18 months after its original release. Early in the year, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2002 nu disco cut “Murder on the Dancefloor” looked like it might become ubiquitous after its revival via the hit film Saltburn, but in the end, it topped out at No. 51 — pretty good for a song released more than two decades ago, but not at the same level as the reincarnated hits of 2023. 

Executives believe this change is partly due to the deluge of superstars and breakout artists vaccuming up attention with new releases, preventing listeners from wandering aimlessly towards oldies. In addition, they say, disruptions to the pipeline of film and TV last year, and the music ecosystem on TikTok this year, closed off some avenues for old songs to transform into new hits. 

While it’s not even halfway through 2024, the new-release calendar has already been packed with high-flying albums — a pair from Future & Metro Boomin, double-LP-sized releases from Beyonce and Taylor Swift, plus full-lengths from Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, J. Cole, and more A-listers. Kendrick Lamar and Drake didn’t put out albums, yet they still commanded everyone’s attention for weeks with diss records. “The quality of new music that’s come out this year is so high that there hasn’t been the need to bring back old records to use on TikTok,” says Mike Weiss, vp of music and head of A&R at the distribution company UnitedMasters. 

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This sentiment was echoed by R Dub, director of programming at Z90, a top 40 station in San Diego: Playing rejuvenated oldies “is a little easier to justify,” he says, “when there just isn’t enough top-tier current product coming out.” 

This matters because when catalog hits are on the verge of being massive, radio functions as a closer. After these songs have gone bananas on short-form video platforms and seen a similar bump on streaming services, then it becomes radio’s turn to blanket the rest of the population. Not only did “Die for You” and “Sure Thing” top Pop Airplay, “Cruel Summer” spent longer at No. 1 on that chart than any of Swift’s many other hits.  

But a track doesn’t typically make it big at radio without a big label push, and right now, with so much current-release firepower, labels don’t feel the need to dust off old records and present them to program directors as if they’re fresh. “It’s exciting to be at top 40 again, because of all these great new singles,” says Jay Michaels, brand manager for Y101, a pop station in Mississippi. “They’re different styles, from pop to country to hip-hop to alternative; they’re big, and they’re legit.” 

Importantly, these songs aren’t just coming from the usual suspects among the pop elite: First-time acts also appear to be breaking through at a steady clip, after several years of stagnation. 

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In 2022, executives described the landscape for important new artists as “abysmal” and “dry as f–k.” In recent months, however, Shaboozey, Sabrina Carpenter, Sexyy Red, Chappell Roan, Benson Boone, Tommy Richman, and other newbies have all been vying for chart real estate simultaneously. Their approaches vary widely: Richman’s “Million Dollar Baby” is a falsetto-smeared homage to underground Memphis hip-hop; Shaboozey’s “A Bar Song (Tipsy)” is a country club-wrecker; Boone prefers heaving pop power ballads. 

The emergence of all these artists in close succession over the course of a few months is a welcome sign in the music industry. Artist development suffered “because of the pandemic,” according to Weiss. Now, he says, “it feels like we’re over that hump, there’s been enough time to really make great records, develop artists and put the work in” – building the type of foundations that can lead to sustained breakthroughs.

This means that new music has enjoyed a surge of top reinforcements as it battles with legions of oldies for eyes and ears. At the same time, catalog has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back for many months. 

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First, retrenchment and belt-tightening in Hollywood – combined with dual strikes in 2023 – slowed the flow of new TV shows and movies. Netflix plans to reduce the amount of original movies it makes by nearly half, according to Variety. And Deadline noted in December that while 2023 “counted 124 wide theatrical releases (opening in 1,000-plus theaters), the dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes forced a bulk of tentpole delays that are leaving 2024 with only 107 wide titles.” That leaves fewer opportunities for the synch soundtrack moments that often jolt catalog records to life. 

At the start of this year, catalog was hobbled further when licensing negotiations between Universal Music Group and TikTok crumbled. “Many of the titles that ‘come back’ do so via TikTok — they just explode out of nowhere,” R Dub notes. That process was impeded when UMG and TikTok failed to reach an agreement at the end of January. 

Most of the labels’ official recordings were then yanked from the platform. After a month, most recordings featuring contributions from Universal Music Publishing Group’s songwriters were pulled as well. 

As a result, a large swath of popular music was much harder to stumble across on the app that plays an outsized role in music discovery — especially for younger listeners. And those listeners are more likely to hear a catalog track and experience it as new, simply because they’re younger and have heard less music. An 18-year-old TikToker was around four or five when “Sure Thing” first came out. 

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Despite this turbulence, several executives believe that catalog hits are just experiencing a temporary downturn. Mike Biggane, a former UMG and Spotify executive, predicts that “older music will continue to be rediscovered outside of the release moment.” 

The star-packed release schedule can’t continue at this pace forever, leaving more room for rediscovery. And UMG and TikTok reached a deal in May. 

“As long as people have a platform like TikTok where they have a viral mechanism for sharing their own interpretation of their favorite songs, you’ll continue to see these moments [where old tracks] pop up,” says Benjamin Klein, a manager who also runs Hundred Days Digital, a TikTok marketing agency.

The question is: Now that the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, when these throwback singles re-emerge, will they look more like “Die for You” or “Murder on the Dancefloor”?

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