How Social Factors Influence Our Choice of Music

The music industry has always been notoriously unpredictable, and the old A&R maxim that the cream always rises to the top is far from a given. For any one band that makes a living out of their music, there are at least a thousand that never will – and the proportion of musicians that actually become wealthy through their work is smaller still. There is, however, a general feeling (if not an actual consensus) that those musicians who do make it are there because they are in some way intrinsically better than the swathes of artists left in their wake.

This is reminiscent of Robert M. Pirsigs interrogation of quality – what makes something good, and is there really any objective standard by which such quality can be measured? Most people would say there is, as they can easily tell if a band is amazing or a bunch of talentless hacks – but when it comes down to it, this amounts to nothing more than personal taste and opinion. Although one can point to certain technical qualities like musicianship, structural complexity and production values, music is more than the sum of its parts – one cannot dismiss the Sex Pistols for not having the technical genius of Mozart, no more than one can effectively rank the music of Stockhausen above or below that of Willie Nelson. It seems that when it comes to music, it must be instilled with a Philosophik Mercury which 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 more?

Recent history is littered with examples of works and artists that are now considered classics (or have at least become enormously popular) which were at first rejected offhand by talent scouts, agents or industry executives. Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Beatles – all fall into this category, as does Pirsigs classic work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was rejected 121 times. If phenomena of this magnitude could be overlooked, then what chance do merely moderately talented artists have of ever being noticed? On the other hand, the entertainment sphere is packed full of artists who could never hope to be anything close to moderately talented. So does the entertainment industry really know what its doing, when so many of its predicted hits fail miserably and rejected unknowns keep popping up with chart-toppers? Recent research would seem to suggest not.

Now that Web 2.0 is in full flight, social media networks are changing the way we access and perceive content. The digital music age is upon us, and the ease with which new music from unsigned bands can be obtained has created a new economic model for distribution and promotion. Buzz itself is the latest buzz, and word-of-blog/IM/email has become a very powerful tool for aspiring artists. Combined with the fact that single downloads now count towards a songs official chart position, the promotion and distribution cycle for new music can take place entirely online. But does such bewebbed convenience make it easier to predict what will become a hit?

The standard approach of major labels is to emulate what is already successful. On the face of it, this seems a perfectly valid strategy – if you take a woman who looks sort of like Shania Twain, give her an album of songs that sound just-like, a similarly designed album cover, and spend the same amount of money promoting her, 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 simlar quality) appears from nowhere and goes on to enjoy a spell of pop stardom.

This approach is clearly flawed, but what is the problem? Its this – the assumption that the millions of people who buy a particular album do so independently of one another. This is not how people (in the collective sense) consume music. Music is a social entity, as are the people who listen to it – it helps to 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 removes the social factors involved. Whilst a single individual, removed from social influences, might choose to listen to Artist A, the same person in real life is going to be introduced to artists through their friends, either locally or online, and will instead end up listening to Artists C and K, who may be of a similar (or even inferior) quality but that isn’t the real point. Music can be as much about image as about sound.

This raises further questions about quality – is a songs popularity predicated on some sort of Chaos Theory, all else being equal? There is certainly a cumulative advantage effect at work when promoting music – a song that is already popular has more chance of becoming more popular than a song that has never been heard before. This is clearly seen on social media sites such as Digg and Reddit, where an articles popularity can grow steadily until it reaches a certain critical mass of votes – at which point its readership suddenly explodes and it goes viral. Such snowball effects have been known to bring fairly robust servers to their knees with incoming traffic.

Duncan J. Watts and his colleagues recently conducted a fascinating study into the effects of social influence on an individuals perception and consumption of music. The process was described in an article in the NY Times. Using their own Music Lab website, they studied the behaviour of more than 14,000 participants to determine what factors influenced their selections.

participants were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants. This second group, in what we called the social influence condition , was further split into eight parallel worlds such that participants could see the prior downloads of people only in their own world. We didnt manipulate any of these rankings – all the artists in all the worlds started out identically, with zero downloads – but because the different worlds were kept separate, they subsequently evolved independently of one another.

Although the article gives no information about the demographic details of the sample audience, given the nature of the medium (an online music site assessing user behaviour on online music sites) and the size of the sample it is probably fair to assume that the results would be reasonably indicative. As it turns out, the study produced some very interesting revelations:

In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didnt just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

According to these results, an individuals independent assessment of a song is a far less significant factor in its success than the social influence factors. The intrinsic quality of a song if indeed measurable is overwhelmed by cumulative advantage, which means that a few key votes at an early stage can radically alter the course of the selection process overall. This has some significant implications for musicians, producers and promoters. Essentially, it means that no amount of market research can enable you to accurately predict which songs will become successful. The behaviour of a few randomly-chosen individuals at an early stage of the process, whose behaviour is itself arbitrary in nature, eventually becomes amplified by cumulative advantage to determine whether a song progresses to the next level. The randomness of such a process means that unpredictability is actually inherent to the