As of this week, Ellie Goulding’s blissed-out dance track “Lights” has sold over a million copies in the United States. It’s a great song, so… you know. Good on America.
But what’s interesting is how quietly “Lights” became a hit. It was released in England in 2010 and to American iTunes last May. Last May. Granted, Goulding’s record label didn’t start promoting it to radio until January, but even that seems like a long time ago. By now, Goulding must feel like she recorded that song in another life.
But even though it has never become a massive hit, “Lights” has never quite stopped. Goulding has performed it for SNL (last May!), David Letterman (this January), and Ellen (last week.) And this week, it’s at a new Hot 100 peak of #54. That’s not a stellar ranking, but it says something that a song can still be climbing the charts over a year after it was released. It says that slow and steady can still win the race… that reaching a few people at a time can still result in massive success.
Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible for “Lights” to become such a slow-burning hit. Before we could pass each other videos on YouTube, we had to count on the radio or the television to let us know a song existed. Before we could download a track whenever we wanted, we either had to buy an entire album just to own it or buy one of the limited number of physical singles that were released to stores.
Chances are good that 10 years ago, “Lights” would’ve been yanked off the shelves months ago, long before a million people had had a chance to find it. But now, since it doesn’t cost much to leave something in a digital store—and since it doesn’t hurt anyone to leave a video on YouTube—people can come to Ellie Goulding on their own time.
Obviously, “Lights” is not the first song to benefit from this “one step at a time” success. Off the top of my head, I remember that Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher” took an equally long time to reach a million copies, and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples I’m forgetting.
But that’s great, you know? It’s great that in 2012, so many artists can take an unusual path to success that I can’t remember them all. That’s one of the best things about loving music in the digital age. If the song is good, you have to believe that eventually, we’ll all get to hear it.
Mark Blankenship has written about pop music for The New York Times and NPR. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship. He expects “Lights” to hit number one in 2014.