How music streaming and TikTok are fueling the rise of the Track 1 hit

Do albums still matter in the music industry?
Do albums still matter in the music industry?
Image: AP/Joel C Ryan
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On the week ending April 2, 2020, the pop singer and songwriter Dua Lipa had three songs among the US’s top 40 most streamed on Spotify. They were Tracks 2 (“Don’t Start Now”), 4 (“Physical”), and 9 (“Break My Heart”) from her recently released album Future Nostalgia. Track 1 of her album couldn’t even crack the top 100. But Dua Lipa is an anomaly.

In 2020, nearly 50% of the top 40 Spotify hits in the US were the first track on a release, according to an analysis conducted by Quartz. Among these Track 1 hits are Lil Mosey’s “Blueberry Faygo,” Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin,” and Arizona Zervas’s “Roxanne.”

For a song to be designated as Track 1, it either indicates that the song was only released as a single at that time, or it was the first track on an album. When albums are released, singles are often removed and placed in albums. These songs are then counted as their track number on the collection of songs.

The Spotify data suggests that Track 1 hits are increasingly the norm. In 2017, the first year Spotify published song streaming data, only about 40% of top 40 songs were the first on a release. That number reached almost 50% from May 2019 to April 2020. During that period, the share of Tracks 2-4 declined, while the proportion of Tracks 5 and above stayed about the same. (We analyzed Spotify charts data because, unlike Billboard, it is relatively simple to connect top 40 Spotify songs to track numbers).


It’s possible that the recent rise of Track 1 song is just a statistical blip, but it may also represent a larger trend. As streaming has become the music industry’s most important source of revenue, the importance of the album has declined. People are no longer forced to buy music in bundles, and can pick and choose their favorite songs when streaming. As a result, many musicians are releasing more singles prior to album releases, according to a report from Rolling Stone.

This appears to be showing up in the Spotify data. The share of top 40 songs that were singles at the time they charted, rather than part of an album, rose from about 30% in early 2017 to nearly 40% in early 2020.

If we exclude singles, Track 1 hits no longer dominate. For releases with 8 or more songs, top 40 songs on Spotify were most likely to be the second track.

Another reason the single could be cresting is TikTok. Increasingly, the most popular songs in the US, and globally, get their start on the short-form mobile platform. Songs often go viral on TikTok because they’re part of a dance challenge. For example, “Roxanne” by Arizona Zervas became a viral hit on the back of TikTok memes. The song has been near the top of the Spotify Charts for months, even hitting number two at the end of last year. Unlike most hits of the past, the song’s release was not part of a planned album launch, meaning the song has remained a single for over six months.