The researchers created an artificial music market among 14,341 participants who were visitors to a website popular with a young audience. Participants were given a list of unknown songs by unfamiliar bands, then asked to listen to any songs that interested them, decide which songs to download (if any), and assign a rating to songs they chose. The control group, which comprised half the participants, based their decisions only on their own judgments. The remaining participants were divided into eight “worlds”; within each world, participants could see the how many times each song had been downloaded.
In each of the eight worlds, people were far more likely to download songs that had been previously downloaded in significant numbers, and far less likely to download songs that had not been as popular. Songs that performed well in the control group often performed quite differently in the socially influenced worlds. And while, in general, the “best” songs never did terribly (nor did the “worst” songs every do really well), almost any other result was possible for the majority of songs in between.
In a related study, the sociologists attempted to manipulate the outcomes by falsely telling people that certain songs had been downloaded in large numbers even though the songs had proven to be unpopular. The result? False perceptions of popularity produced actual popularity over time.
This is disheartening news to most of us who would like to believe that worthy music will always find an audience. On the contrary, the majority of listeners make decisions based not on musical factors but on perceptions of what is “popular” or “successful.” And while we knew this was true at the level of, say, Britney Spears, it’s sobering to realize that it applies across the board.
[Photo based on public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]