The Real-Life Power of a Hit Podcast Episode

PJ Vogt, Photo by Samantha Appleton
PJ Vogt, Photo by Samantha Appleton

When Reply All helped Tyler Gillett identify an elusive song, they scratched his itch and turned a spotlight on a deserving musician.

Spoiler alert: This article contains details about The Case of the Missing Hit episode on Reply All. If you haven't listened to it yet, check it out.

These days, identifying unknown songs you hear is as easy as searching online for lyrics or using music-identification apps. But what happens if you vividly remember a song you heard decades before—including elements of its melody and lyrics—but can't figure out who sings it, much less verify if it actually existed?

That's the premise of the Reply All podcast episode "The Case of the Missing Hit," in which cohosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman try to help a filmmaker named Tyler Gillett identify a mystery tune he heard sometime in the late '90s. Gillett is so determined to find the song lodged in his brain, he's even recorded a version of the song himself, substituting a combination of whistling, humming, and singing in an attempt to emulate what he remembered.

A relatable problem

For Vogt, trying to help solve this quest was a no-brainer.

"I really, really identified with the problem Tyler was having," he says, noting that he also has the type of personality prone to single-minded obsession when trying to crack a tough question. "The fact that he had already gone and recorded his own version of the song, I was like, 'This is an interesting person, and I would like to help this person.'"

The hosts had little to go on in their quest; the biggest clue was that Gillett had found part of the song's lyrics on a message board for Fender Stratocaster users, written by someone who lived in Trinidad and Tobago who was also looking for the song.

"I very much take for granted the idea that any stupid question I have should be one search, maybe two away," Vogt says. "Like there's little bits of trivia that I've now Googled so many times. The fact all of a sudden that system would break was very weird and frustrating."

The episode came together over the course of a month and unfolds like an internet treasure hunt. The duo speak to guests—music journalists, former Barenaked Ladies member Steven Page, and onetime Prince sound engineer Susan Rogers—in order to gain insights into the music industry at the time and eliminate potential song possibilities. Reply All also enlisted musician Christian Lee Hutson to do a version of the tune, as Gillett remembered it, to try and jog people's memories. The crew eventually figured out the song was "So Much Better" by the musician Evan Olson—whose email was very easy to find, and perhaps even more importantly, he was happy to discuss his song.

The satisfying resolution

"When [PJ] first got me on the phone, he was like, 'I can't believe I'm finally talking to you!'" Olson says with a laugh. "[He said] 'I've been searching for you for so long.'

"[PJ] told me that he was working on a story about the song, but he didn't really give me the specific details about how they were going crazy trying to find it," Olson says. "It was really, really amazing how in-depth they went—all those interviews. I couldn't believe it. It was great."

Olson is an experienced musician who had stints playing in the power-pop band Majosha (which included Ben Folds and current Counting Crows bassist Millard Powers) and also had his own group, Bus Stop, that released several albums in the '90s. "So Much Better," however, was a song from Olson's 1999 solo album, One Room. Incredibly enough, the tune coalesced in just a few hours. "[It] wasn't the kind of song that I had written beforehand and worked out and then recorded like you would normally do," he says. "I actually wrote that song in real time, as I was recording it."

At the time, Olson was pleased with how the song turned out. "I was really happy with it," he said. "I thought it was a really quirky song. It had a lot of unusual sounds that weren't really typical in pop music. I didn't really think anything would ever come of it."

Keep on keepin' on

When "So Much Better" was released, it didn't set the charts aflame, but it also wasn't obscure: According to archival data, the song received radio airplay upon its release, especially in Olson's hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, and he received several mentions in Billboard. But, as he discusses in the podcast, One Room was difficult to find in stores at the time, which was frustrating, and he soon returned to being an independent artist for subsequent solo releases.

Post-One Room, Olson also returned to his pre-"So Much Better" work: doing music commissions for movies and television shows. (Most notably, his song "Another Sunny Day" was featured in the 2010 movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid.) He kept playing live, and today frequently performs shows with AM rOdeO, a musical duo with his girlfriend, Jessica Mashburn.

Since the Reply All episode aired, Olson has seen increased interest on Spotify for his own music. According to his Spotify for Artists data, the streams of "So Much Better" have soared —and he's drawn international press attention. Fans of the podcast also came to see one of his weekly shows in the Greensboro area, he adds—and he's been receiving comments from all over the world, with most noting what an earworm "So Much Better" is.

Welcome attention on all sides

Vogt says this episode of Reply All has had a "bigger response" than the show's typical episodes. "I think a lot of people are discovering the show through it, which is really exciting," he adds. As to why this particular episode resonated so broadly, Vogt has a few theories.

"I think the story does a good job of doing to a listener what the experience of recording it did to us—the whole world for a month became this mystery," he says, and points out that the team's success in unearthing the song certainly helps the episode's appeal. "At first, it's trying to give you a very bad itch—and then hopefully at the end, [the episode] scratches it for you."

Olson, meanwhile, is grateful that the episode has brought him renewed attention. "I'm just really happy about people being able to have access to the song and this podcast being what brought the attention to it," Olson says. "It's really great to see the song getting a new life after two decades."

—Annie Zaleski