The Kate Bush Effect

The marketing boost that comes with having a track licensed for a TV show or film has been established for a long time. But it wasn’t until a year ago, with the inclusion of Kate Bush’s 1985 track ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ in the fourth season of The Duffer Brothers’ ‘80s retro Netflix hit Stranger Things that the sheer power of sync placement was fully realised. Particularly when it came to a song that was almost four decades old, and which had previously only reached Number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its original release.

            Over multiple episodes of Stranger Things, ‘Running Up That Hill’ featured heavily: less as a mere soundtrack inclusion and more as an essential narrative device. One of the central characters, Max Mayfield (played by Sadie Sink), has become a Kate Bush fan, and repeatedly plays the song, on a cassette of Bush’s Hounds of Love album, through the headphones of her Walkman. In the fourth episode, Dear Billy, she is possessed by a supernatural serial killer named Vecna, whose perilously entrancing spell is broken only when her friends press ‘play’ on Mayfield’s tape machine, and she escapes back to the real world. From here, ‘Running Up That Hill’ became a protective sonic totem for the character.

            Stranger Things music supervisor Nora Felder had approached Bush for potential clearance of the track to be used in the series, unaware that the singer was already a fan of the show.

            ‘Kate Bush is a true artist who is well-known for being very particular about the way her music is used,’ Felder told Forbes magazine. ‘She wants to make sure her songs fit with a story. My clearance coordinator and I wanted to give her as much context as possible, so we spent a lot of time fleshing through the scene descriptions.

            ‘We were on the edge of our seats waiting for her feedback,’ she added. ‘As you might imagine, we were beyond thrilled to finally hear that she not only approved of the usage but had been a huge fan of the show.’

‘Actually, we watched it right from the word go, from the first series onwards,’ Bush told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in a rare interview. ‘And I thought, What a lovely way for the song to be used in such a positive way, y’know, as a kind of talisman almost, really, for Max.’

Introduced to an entirely new generation of listeners, ‘Running Up That Hill’ provided an example of how inventive, empowering and plainly weird pop music could be in the 1980s, and sent the track skyrocketing back up international charts.

The statistics were staggering. Throughout June 2022, on Spotify alone, ‘Running Up That Hill’ was achieving 6 million streams daily. Over last summer, it became the most-played track in the world, twice topping Billboard’s Global 200 chart. In the UK, it reached Number 1 and stayed there for three weeks, eclipsing its initial 1985 chart placing of Number 3. The song also hit the top spot in Australia, Ireland, Belgium, Lithuania, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden.

In America, streaming activity for ‘Running Up That Hill’ increased by 9,990%, catapulting it to Number 4. Music sales data company Luminate calculated that in 2022 alone the track had earned Bush upwards of $2.3 million.

Meanwhile, the internet virtually exploded. Kate Bush memes started appearing everywhere, as millions of young fans discovered not only ‘Running Up That Hill’, but also other classic Bush tracks such as ‘Babooshka’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. ‘The whole world’s gone mad!’ Bush exclaimed in her BBC interview.

Exploring the phenomenon in a chat with the Hollywood Reporter, Matt Duffer said, ‘I’ve seen articles that are like, “What will be Stranger Things’ next Kate Bush moment?” There won’t be another one! I’d be lying if I said I knew it was going to resonate in the way it did. It feels very modern. And so kids are hooked on it.’

‘Running Up That Hill’ may be an outlier in terms of its resurgent success, but it’s by no means alone. Following the use of Nirvana’s ‘Something In The Way’ in The Batman movie in spring 2022, Spotify streams of the song multiplied by 1200%. This year, Linda Ronstadt’s haunting 1970 country hit ‘Long Long Time’ featured in HBO’s post-apocalyptic TV series The Last Of Us and its streams increased by 4900%.

Of course, by its very nature, a phenomenon can’t be planned or controlled, and so it’s very difficult for anyone to easily repeat the ‘Running Up That Hill’ trick. At the same time, the beneficiaries up to now have been established artists, meaning that new artists are less likely to enjoy a similar surge surrounding a track.

Having said that, sync is so hot right now that licensing fees are rising, meaning that acts in the early stages of their career can sometimes find their lesser-known material replacing hit songs in soundtracks due to their comparative cheapness, as rights holders suggest alternatives to film and TV producers. Ultimately, then, it’s good for everyone. Talk of ‘the Kate Bush effect’ within music publisher and record company synchronization departments is clearly set to go on. – Tom Doyle

TOM DOYLE is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in MOJO, Sound On Sound and the Guardian. His book, Running Up That Hill: 50 Visions Of Kate Bush, is published by Rowman & Littlefield on July 15.