The music industry has always been notoriously unpredictable, and the old A&R maxim that cream always comes to the top is far from fact. For any band that makes a living from their music, there are at least a thousand who never will, and the proportion of musicians who actually get rich through their work is even lower. However, there is a general feeling (if not a real consensus) that the musicians who pull it off are there because somehow they are inherently better than the sheer number of artists left in their wake.
This is reminiscent of Robert M. Pirsigs’ question about quality: what makes something good? Is there really an objective standard by which that quality can be measured? Most people would say yes as they can easily tell if a band is awesome or a bunch of gimmicks without talent, but when it comes down to it this is nothing more than personal taste and opinion. Although certain technical qualities such as musicality, structural complexity, and production values can be pointed out, music is more than the sum of its parts – the Sex Pistols cannot be dismissed for not having Mozart’s technical genius, no more than the Sex Pistols can be effectively classified. Stockhausen’s music above or below that of Willie Nelson. It seems that when it comes to music, you have to instill in it a Philosophik Mercury that is as intangible as it is unpredictable. The only barometer by which we can judge is whether we like it or not. Or is there something else?
Recent history is littered with examples of works and artists that are now considered classics (or at least have become hugely popular) that were initially turned away on the spur of the moment by talent scouts, agents, or industry executives. Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Beatles – they all fall into this category, as does classic Pirsigs work. Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which was rejected 121 times. If phenomena of this magnitude could be overlooked, what chance do moderately talented artists have of ever being noticed? On the other hand, the entertainment sphere is teeming with artists who could never hope to be anything close to moderate talent. So does the entertainment industry really know what it’s doing, when many of its predicted hits fail miserably and the rejected unknowns keep popping up at the top of the charts? Recent research seems to suggest not.
Now that Web 2.0 is in full swing, social media is changing the way we access and perceive content. The age of digital music is upon us, and the ease with which new music can be sourced from unsigned bands has created a new economic model of distribution and promotion. Buzz itself is the latest buzz, and blogging / IM / email has become a very powerful tool for aspiring artists. Combined with the fact that individual downloads now count towards a position on the official song list, the cycle of promotion and distribution of new music can take place entirely online. But does such interwoven convenience make it easier to predict what will turn out to be a hit?
The standard approach of major labels is to emulate what is already successful. At first glance, this seems like a perfectly valid strategy: if you take a woman who looks a bit like Shania Twain, give her an album of songs that sound the same, a similarly designed album cover, and spend the same amount of money. . money promoting it, then surely this new album will also be successful. Often, however, this is not the case; instead, another woman who possesses all these characteristics (with music of a similar quality) appears out of nowhere and continues to enjoy a spell of pop stardom.
This approach is clearly flawed, but what is the problem? It is this: the assumption that the millions of people who buy a particular album do so independently of each other. This is not how people (in the collective sense) consume music. Music is a social entity, just like the people who listen to it: it helps define social groups, creates a sense of belonging, identity and shared experience. Treating a group of such magnitude as if it were just a compilation of discrete units completely eliminates the social factors involved. While a single individual, removed from social influences, may choose to listen to Artist A, the same person in real life will be introduced to artists through their friends, either locally or online, and instead end up listening to Artists C and K, which may be of a similar (or even lower) quality but that’s not the real point. Music can have as much to do with image as it does with sound.
This raises more questions about quality: Is a song’s popularity based on some kind of chaos theory, all things being equal? Certainly, there is a cumulative advantage effect at work when promoting music: a song that is already popular has a better chance of becoming more popular than a song that has never been heard before. This is clearly seen on social media sites like Digg and Reddit, where an article’s popularity can steadily grow until it reaches a certain critical mass of votes, at which point its readers suddenly explode and go viral. Such snowball effects have been known to bring rather robust servers to their knees with incoming traffic.
Duncan J. Watts and his colleagues recently conducted a fascinating study on the effects of social influence on an individual’s perception and consumption of music. The process was described in a NY Times article. Using their own Music Lab website, they studied the behavior of more than 14,000 participants to determine what factors influenced their selections.
Participants were asked to listen, rate, and if they wanted to download songs from bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the song and band names, while others also saw how many times the previous participants had downloaded the songs. This second group, in what we call the social influence condition, was further divided into eight parallel worlds so that the participants could see the previous downloads of people only in their own world. We did not manipulate any of these classifications, all artists on all worlds started out identically, with zero downloads, but because the different worlds were kept separate they subsequently evolved independently of each other.
Although the article does not provide information on the demographic details of the sample audience, given the nature of the medium (an online music site that assesses user behavior on online music sites) and the size of the sample, probably be fair to assume that the results are reasonably indicative. Turns out, the study produced some very interesting revelations:
In all worlds of social influence, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the less popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. Yet at the same time, the particular songs that became hits were different on different worlds, just as the cumulative advantage theory would predict. The introduction of social influence into human decision-making, in other words, not only made the blows bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.
According to these results, an individual evaluation of a song is a much less significant factor in its success than social influencing factors. The intrinsic quality of a song, if it is truly measurable, is overwhelmed by cumulative advantage, meaning that a few key votes at an early stage can radically alter the course of the overall selection process. This has some important implications for musicians, producers, and promoters. Essentially, it means that no amount of market research can allow you to accurately predict which songs will be successful. The behavior of a few randomly chosen individuals early in the process, whose behavior is itself arbitrary in nature, is eventually amplified by cumulative advantage in determining whether a song advances to the next level. The randomness of such a process means that unpredictability is actually inherent in the