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Why Are Songs Featuring Guest Artists More Successful?

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In 2018, a song called Girls Like You credited to Maroon 5 featuring Cardi B stayed at the top of the US chart for seven weeks. Two other songs with featuring credits reached no. 1 last year: Havana by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug and Psycho by Post Malone featuring Ty Dolla $ign.

And they are only the tip of the iceberg. Combinations between rock artists and R&B singers or between pop stars and rappers has become extremely popular.

There is a reason for this: combining artists helps boost a song’s popularity, according to a new study by Andrea Ordanini (Bocconi University) with Joseph C. Nunes (University of Southern California, visiting professor at Bocconi) and Anastasia Nanni (PhD student, Bocconi University).

According to the analysis based on data from Billboard’s Hot 100 music chart, songs featuring other artists have a greater likelihood of making it into the Top 10 than songs not featuring other artists. The greater the difference between the genres of the artists involved, the more likely the song is to reach the top of the charts. Heterogeneity pays off.

Featuring is one of the biggest phenomena in pop music. It is an asymmetric creative collaboration that involves one artist (host) integrating another artist’s (guest) contribution into his song.

It appeared in the 1980s in the context of the hip-hop culture. It boomed in the mid-1990s. In 1996, slightly more than 20 songs with featuring credits appeared on the Hot 100. In 2017, they were 150.

Professor Ordanini has studied the phenomenon in the light of the co-branding literature, in particular of the stream of research that looks at ingredient branding in which one attribute of one brand is incorporated into another brand. “Under certain conditions, consumers rate co-branded products more positively than either individual brand”, he says.

Does the same thing happen in music? To provide an answer, the authors looked at the songs with a featured artist that appeared on the Billboard’s Hot 100 between 1996 and 2018. Their likelihood of entering the top 10 is 18.4%, significantly greater than the 13.9% likelihood for songs that do not include a featured artist.

Not all featuring are alike, though. For instance, collaborations between rap and R&B artists are more frequent than collaborations between rap and country artists.

“As genre distance between host and guest increases, the likelihood of reaching the top 10 increases, albeit at a decreasing rate”, professor Ordanini says. This effect is moderated by the boundary strength of the host’s genre. When it comes to genres with stronger boundaries, such as country music, the audience may not appreciate extreme deviations from existing conventions.

Featuring is an innovative practice. It owes its success to the ability to broaden the audience bringing together fans of both artists and omnivorous listeners.

“Some 83% of songs with featuring credits since 1996 are unique combinations of artists”, professor Ordanini notes. “This allows artists to maintain their original positioning and to avoid the risk to dilute their brand”.

The success of a featuring song does not depend on past popularity of the host, which indeed can use the collaboration with a younger guest to update his image. In order for a featuring to be successful, the authors notes, artists must be careful to highlight the innovative and the non-permanent nature of the collaboration. Smart consumer communications help enhance a song’s popularity.


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