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These musicians stayed popular longest, according to 6 decades of Billboard chart data

Adele Performs At MEO Arena, Lisbon
Adele won Billboard's Top Artist award at Sunday night's awards show.
Photo by Pedro Gomes/Getty Images

Adele, the 28-year-old British pop star, overtook some of the top names in pop music this weekend — Drake, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, the Weeknd — taking the Top Artist award at Sunday's Billboard Music Awards.

Unlike other awards, the Billboard Awards are determined strictly by chart performance, rather than a vote from a guild, for example. And since she made her US chart debut in early 2009 with "Chasing Pavements," Adele has stayed at or near the top of the music world.

But how long can it last?

To get a better idea of which musicians have had the most staying power, I analyzed the weeks between the top 50 Billboard artists' first and last "peak" in the Hot 100, with peaks referring to the date a song reached its highest point in the Hot 100.

I found that top artists can survive for upward of two decades — but that staying power varies significantly by genre and time period.

A ranking of what artists stay relevant longest Josh Rosenblat/Vox

Longevity in the music industry is fleeting, an aspect that impacts artists from different eras and genres differently

The Hot 100 charts are a general measure of a song's popularity. Starting in 1958, Billboard has published the charts each week, ranking singles on a shifting list of criteria. Right now the list is derived from radio airplay, sales, and streaming data. While not perfect, the Hot 100 gives an adequate picture of the most popular songs at any given moment and has adjusted its criteria over time to account for changes in how Americans listen to music.

So I took the top 50 artists from Billboard's "Greatest of All Time" list and measured the length of time between their first peaks and most recent peaks to get a rough view of how long they stayed popular.

One thing that became immediately clear combing through the data is how greatly musical lifespans vary by genre. Rappers have the lowest average musical lifespan — 12.24 years — whereas those in R&B and rock tend to stick around much longer.

R&B artists stay popular longest Josh Rosenblat/Vox

"In hip-hop, anything that’s more than a couple years old starts to be kind of corny," says Steven Hyden, author of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, a book on the history of pop music rivalries. "There’s an expectation in that genre where you have to do something different all the time. That makes it really exciting, but also makes a lot of artists disposable."

What that generates is a variety of artists making fewer hits over a shorter length of time.

But with R&B and rock, for example, artists and bands such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles have years of making hits for a large, consistent audience.

Stars from those genres, then, have become more and more entrenched in the ears of the music-listening public, to the point where almost anything they put out is classified as a "hit."

Producing hits isn’t the only standard of a long, successful music career

Taylor Swift already has more weeks with singles in the Hot 100 than any other artist besides Madonna and Elton John. But a lot of that stems from her ability to release entire albums on streaming services that people use constantly, allowing more of her songs to reach the Hot 100 chart.

Streaming services make it easier for listeners to cycle through entire albums, Hyden said. For instance, Drake, who put out his album Views a matter of weeks ago, has 17 songs in this week's Hot 100. The album has 20 songs. The same phenomenon applies to Swift whenever she puts out a full-length album.

For Madonna and Elton John, though, the non-hit singles on their albums didn't receive that streaming boost.

The most famous artists last longest Josh Rosenblat/Vox

"When people use the word relevant, they mean this person is hip or has some cachet with youth culture," Hyden said. "If we’re just talking success or popularity, there are lots of bands who do really well on the road that haven’t had hits in decades."

Specifically, Hyden mentioned the Grateful Dead, a band that produced songs totaling just 43 weeks on Hot 100 charts, yet toured and sold out huge shows from 1965 through 2015.

Even so, producing hits is often the only way bands and artists can stay relevant from a cultural and economic perspective.

Take Billy Joel, who hasn’t produced a Hot 100 single since 1997. Yet he’s touring throughout 2016.

Oftentimes, it’s the hits that keep musicians relevant in the minds of popular culture, even if they were released decades prior.

"The power of a hit song, even if it’s 20 years old, it’s pretty powerful," Hyden said. "It’s amazing how people hang on to that shit for so long."


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