Wbo Is The Lead In Sound Of Music Sound Of.Music How Social Factors Influence Our Choice of Music

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How Social Factors Influence Our Choice of Music

The music industry has always been notoriously unpredictable, and the old A&R adage that the cream always rises to the top is far from self-evident. For every one band that makes a living from their music, there are at least a thousand that never make it – and the proportion of musicians who actually get rich through their work is even smaller. However, there is 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 lot of artists left in their wake.

This is reminiscent of the quality inquiry of Robert M. Pirsiges – 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 an amazing band or a bunch of talentless hacks – but when it comes down to it, it comes down to nothing more than personal taste and opinion. Although one can point to certain technical qualities such as musicality, structural complexity and production values, music is more than the sum of its parts – Sex Pistols cannot be dismissed as lacking the technical genius of Mozart, any more than Stockhausen’s music can be effectively rated above or below to Willie Nelson’s. It seems that when it comes to music, it must be infused with a mercurial philosophy 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 who are now considered classics (or at least became very popular) who were initially rejected by talent scouts, agents or industry executives. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Beatles all fall into this category, as does Pirsig’s classic work Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which was rejected 121 times. If phenomena of this magnitude can be ignored, then what chance do moderately talented artists have of ever noticing? On the other hand, the entertainment industry is littered with artists who could never hope to be anything close to mediocre talent. So does the entertainment industry really know what it’s doing when so many of its predicted hits fail miserably and rejected unknowns keep popping up with chart-toppers? Recent studies 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 era of digital music 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 Map to Blog/IM/Email has become a very powerful tool for aspiring artists. Combined with the fact that single downloads are now considered an official position on the song charts, the cycle of promotion and distribution of new music can happen entirely online. But does such square comfort make it easy to predict what will become a hit?

The standard approach of the major labels is to imitate what is already successful. On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly valid strategy – if you take a woman who looks like Shania Twain, give her an album of songs that sound exactly like her, a similarly designed album cover, and spend the same amount of money promoting her, then surely this new album will do as well. Often, however, this is not the case – instead, another woman with all these characteristics (with music of similar quality) appears out of nowhere and continues to enjoy a pop star spell.

Obviously this approach is flawed, but what’s the problem? That’s it – the assumption that the millions of people who buy a certain album do so independently of each other. This is not how people (in the collective sense) consume music. Music is a social entity, and so are the people who listen to it – it helps define social groups, creates a sense of belonging, identity and a shared experience. Treating a group of this size as if it were just a collection of discrete units completely removes the social factors involved. While a single person, away from social influences, may choose to listen to artist A, that person in real life will be introduced to artists through their friends, local or online, and will instead listen to artists C and K, who may be of similar (or even inferior) quality, but this is not The real point. Music can be related to the image as to sound.

This raises further questions about quality – is song popularity based on some sort of chaos theory, all else being equal? There is no doubt that there is a cumulative advantage effect at work when promoting music – a song that is already popular has a greater chance of becoming more popular than a song that has never been heard. This is clearly seen on social media sites like Digg and Reddit, where the popularity of an article can grow steadily until it reaches a certain critical mass of votes—then its readership suddenly explodes and it goes viral. Such snowball effects have been known to bring fairly powerful servers to their knees with incoming traffic.

Duncan J. Watts and colleagues recently conducted a fascinating study of the effects of social influence on individuals’ 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 choices.

The participants were asked to listen, rate and if they chose to download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some participants only saw 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 so that participants could see previous downloads of people only in their own world. We didn’t manipulate any of these rankings – all artists in all worlds started out the same, with zero downloads – but because the different worlds were kept separate, they then 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, it is probably fair to assume that the results will be reasonably indicative. As it turns out, the research yielded some very interesting discoveries:

In all social influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. But at the same time, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as the theory of cumulative advantage would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision-making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; It also made them more unpredictable.

According to these results, independent evaluation of a song is a much less significant factor in its success than the factors of social influence. A song’s intrinsic quality, if indeed measurable, is overwhelmed by cumulative advantage, which means that a few key votes early on can radically change the course of the overall selection process. This has significant implications for musicians, producers and promoters. Essentially, this means that no amount of market research can allow you to accurately predict which songs will do well. The behavior of a few randomly selected individuals early in the process, whose behavior is itself arbitrary in nature, is ultimately amplified by a cumulative advantage to determine whether a song advances to the next stage. The randomness of such a process means that unpredictability is actually inherent to

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