The Yahoo MusicLab Experiment: The Complexity Of Success In The Music Industry

Parker Theory

Mohamed Kamal

CEO and Cofounder of Unbias

I am going to share a landmark experiment by the masterminds of Yahoo’s MusicLab, Matthew Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan Watts, that examines the relationship between popularity and accomplishment in music. The results show the complexity of “success” in the music industry.

The experiment began by recruiting 14,000 music-savvy youths, primarily in their teens and early twenties. They were then separated into nine virtual rooms.  In the control group, participants ranked 48 unfamiliar songs by unsigned bands, with the choice to download any song that piqued their interest. The remaining groups were given the same task, but with one crucial difference: they were able to see to the download counts of the others in their group.

This minor difference affected which songs were ranked the highest within each group. However, when comparing the top choices across groups, there was a remarkable lack of agreement. The favorite song in one group might be different from another group. 

The results of this experiment highlight the unpredictable nature of success. Social influence has a powerful impact on outcomes, as individuals latch onto early crowd favorites and amplify their popularity, often without regard for the song’s inherent quality.

Conversely, the experiment also showed high quality songs can defy social influence. For example, the control group’s favorite song was “She Said”, by Parker Theory. This song was initially ranked lower in the socially influenced groups, but the song made a steady climb up the charts over time, and it eventually became a top ranked track. This shows the quality of a song still matters.

Furthermore, the journey of “She Said” showcases the intricate dance between a song’s quality and the social forces that drive success. While crowds can elevate a mediocre song, they are rarely swayed by a terrible one. When quality and social preference harmonize, as they did for “She Said,” they are perfectly positioned for success.

The takeaway I took from the MusicLab experiment is two folds: A) when we’re faced with multiple “good enough” options, we tend to defer our judgment in favor of the crowd’s. B) a song or product’s long term success is determined by its quality, even if it starts with low visibility, it will find its way one listener or customer at a time. In darwinian terms, the fittest survives. 

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