If you see a lot of live music in small clubs, you've probably had the experience of being blown away by a band that hardly anybody else knows about. Once in a great while, your instincts are validated by the masses--the band becomes popular and you get to brag about how you knew them back when. But more often than not, the law of averages kicks in, and the band continues to toil in obscurity for a few years before breaking up because the bass player's pregnant or the keyboardist got a high-paying corporate advertising gig. You ask yourself, "How come they get no love at all when [insert no-talent star band here] are famous? Is it all just luck?"
Yes, in fact. Duncan Watts proved it.
He's a former network theory researcher at Columbia University who now works for Yahoo. An article about Watts in the February issue of Fast Company is getting some attention because he strongly disputes the theory, put forth by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and beloved by marketers, that a select group of so-called "Influencers" are the main force behind fast-moving trends. But to me, the most interesting part of the article is when he discusses an experiment he set up at Columbia in 2006, and which he wrote about last April in The New York Times Magazine. In this experiment, he set up a site featuring downloadable music from unsigned or otherwise obscure acts. 16,000 participants signed up and downloaded all the songs. He divided them into several groups. The control group was asked to rate the songs with no input from the other members. Seven other groups were also asked to rate the songs, but were allowed to see how other members of their group voted.
Two findings emerged. First, the variation in popularity in the control group was much smaller than in the other groups. In the groups where they could see their peers' opinions, people voted for the same acts that other people voted for, suggesting that popularity breeds more popularity, which should be no surprise to anybody who's been through high school.
The more interesting finding was the complete randomness of the songs that became popular in each group. There was almost no connection between "objective quality" (as measured by the control group) and popularity--the song "Lockdown" was ranked number 26 in terms of quality, but its popularity in the other groups ranged from number 1 to number 40. True, the very bad songs almost never finished near the top, and the best songs seldom finished near the bottom. But overall, finishing in the top five in quality only guaranteed a 50% chance of finishing in the top five in popularity in any given group.
Record company executives and marketers hated the study because it seemed to invalidate their genius at picking hits. But it's great solace for the countless talented songwriters and musicians who've received little reward apart from the music itself.