For all those parents wondering why their teens are so devoted to scantily clad pop stars, take hope: It's not really the music that they like. They just want to fit in, according to new research. The news isn't so encouraging for aspiring artists, though. While talent might distinguish good from bad, social pressure and pure dumb luck are also big influences on which bands gain the most fame, sociologists report in the 10 February issue of Science.
Music industry professionals would dearly love to figure out what makes some bands skyrocket off the charts while equally--or more--talented musicians wallow in relative obscurity. Obviously, they haven't been able to pin it down. (Neither have book publishers or movie producers, for that matter.) Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University, and colleagues wanted to know whether peer pressure contributes to which bands go platinum. Can science do a better job of picking pop idols than the cold calculations of capitalists?
Watts started by collecting 48 songs from unknown but real bands listed on a garage band Web site (including tunes such as Beerbong's "Father to Son") and creating an experimental music site. Visitors to the site were randomly assigned to a particular Web page. On one of these, they could listen to any of the rock songs and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, then download them for free if they liked. Some songs were downloaded much more than others, and because all the visitor's judgments were independent, the researchers defined these as good songs.
Other visitors ended up on one of eight Web pages that looked the same except for numbers next to each song listing the number of times previous visitors to that page had downloaded the song. After tabulating the whims of 14,000 visitors, the researchers learned that there was some accounting for taste: Good songs always ranked high, and bad songs ranked low. But when visitors had access to information about what other people were downloading, they were much more likely to download songs with high download rates, even if they weren't the highest quality, and pushed the highest-ranked ever closer toward superstardom. This indicates that knowing what other people thought of the music influenced what people downloaded.
Moreover, success was random. Even though the eight Web pages started with the same 48 songs, different tunes hit the top 10 list in each. The researchers could not predict which songs would reach success in one Web page by examining the results of another. Stardom is indeed a crap shoot, Watts concludes. So if the independent rankings show that there actually is some accounting for taste, why does it lose out to popularity? "There's a social function to all of us liking the same thing," he speculates. "It's not the thing that's important, but having something to share."
Calling the experiments "pathbreaking," sociologist Michael Macy of Cornell University says the findings illustrate how a small advantage can snowball, making popularity hard to predict. Economist Robert Frank, also at Cornell, says the work shows "we're all susceptible to the herd mentality."