What's the secret behind a song’s success?

woman listening to music

Talent, fashion, understandable lyrics, physical appearance, innovation and dancing skills all seem important factors for a musical theme to reach the top of the charts. It is unclear, however, which of the aforementioned factors is the most determinant.

Sometimes it seems that the difference between a band that succeeds and another that fails is very subtle. What if Madonna or the Rolling Stones existed in an alternative universe where a few tiny adjustments were made to arts and culture? Would they have achieved the same success?

The universe of chance

To find out the answer, Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts conducted an experiment in 2006 to draw up a series of different worlds or digital scenarios in which there was an online music player, similar to Spotify, called Music Lab.

A total of 14,341 music fans were invited to listen to songs and classify them according to their tastes. All visitors were diverted to eight parallel websites, each of which had the same set of 48 songs performed by famous artists.

In the same way that happens in Spotify or other social platforms, Music Lab allowed users to see what music the other users listened to, as next to each song there was a figure that indicated the number of downloads.

All platforms were exactly the same, with the same songs and the identical functions. The only thing that changed was the people who joined each of them. There was just a slightly different scenario in which some users couldn’t see the number of downloads and as a result they were unaware of the success of a particular song.

Some songs triumphed on all stages while others failed. In other words, there seemed to be intrinsic virtues to the music itself that led to its success. Some songs proved popular by pure chance, just as others failed for the same reason.

In the scenarios where you could verify the success of a song on a social level there were more cases in which popularity was generated by popularity itself.

As Hannah Fry explains in her book Hello World: “Perceived popularity became real popularity, so that eventual success was just randomness magnified over time. There was a reason for these results. It’s a phenomenon known to psychologists as social proof. Whenever we haven’t got enough information to make decisions for ourselves, we have a habit of copying the behaviour of those around us.”

This tendency occurs in any idea or cultural feature and not only in music, but also in cinema, theatre or literature. That is why people are hired to applaud in theatrical performances or money is paid to appear in the list of the best-selling books. “We use popularity as a proxy for quality in all forms of entertainment,” notes Fry.

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