Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
By Derek Thompson
Penguin Press, 2017
A staff writer for The Atlantic, Thompson pulls together a slew of fascinating stories and anecdotes to try and explain what makes things popular. The trick with a book like this is there is no singular way that phenomenon reaches critical mass. So, in that way, the overview approach to the material works well, as it does in magazine articles. The downside is that the variety dilutes the utility of a strong throughline or highly actionable advice. If you read it like you are going to move through lots of material and that will find nuggets to inform your worldview, you’ll be satisfied when you’re done.
- We like what we are familiar with.
- Exposure (or repeated exposure) is one way we get more familiar
- The impressionist painters we know today all came from a single collection.
- James Cutting, at Cornelll, found you could change preference just by showing students obscure paintings with a higher frequency.
- Music publishers in Tin Pan Alley agressively pushed new music to musicians playing in clubs in New York City and gather feedback about what to further promote.
- Music prediction services like HitPredictor or SoundOut can explain part of the success of some songs, but exposure and airplay also play a huge factor.
- The familiar needs to be balanced with the new
- Industrial designer Raymond Loewy called this “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” – MAYA
- “People like a challenge if they think they can solve it. [Claudia Muth] calls this moment where disfluency yields fluency the aesthetic aha.”
- Example four chord music, cable news focus on headline topics with endless viewpoints, Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature needed new and known songs
- The balance can be found in patterns
- The longest time to create surprise with the fewest number of musical notes is BBBBC-BBBC-BBC-BC-D
- Rhetorical devices like epistrophe (repetition of words at the end of the sentence), anaphora (repetition at the beginning of the sentence), tricolon (repetition in short triplicate, and my favorite antimetabole (AB;BA – do onto others as they would do onto you)
- This leads us to another pattern – STORY
- Joseph Campbell’s ingredients: inspiration, relatability, and suspense
- “…[T]ake twenty-five things that in any successful genre and you reverse one of them. Reverse too many and you get genre confusion. Invert all the elements, you get parody. But one strategic tweak? Now you’ve got something that is perfectly new.”
- Popularity is always being shaped by choice, economics and marketing
- Industrialization is followed by the rise of fashion
- “Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.”
- Researchers Balaz Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey found that winning awards actually produces lower ratings from readers
- Possible cause – higher expectations for those titles
- Duncan Watts studies information cascades
- Everything starts at zero
- And 1 in 1000 is still 1 in 1000 and very hard to predict
- Al Greco calls the entertainment business “a complex. Adaptive, semi-chaotic industry with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics and Pareto law characteristics with dual-sided uncertainty.”
- Virality is a myth; broadcasters that share with millions make the difference in hits
- “Items spread wider and faster when everyone can see what everybody else is doing.”
- Sometimes it is not really about the product, but that someone “buys” popularity of the product.
- Even people who produce lots of product can’t predict what will be a hit (i.e. Vincent Forrest on Etsy)
- Duncan Watts studies information cascades
- “Ideas most reliably spread with the piggyback off an existing network of closely connected and interested people.”
- “The paradox of scale is that the biggest hits are often designed for a small, well-defined group of people.”
- “Artists and teams produced their most resonant work after they had already passed a certain threshold of fame and popularity. Perhaps genius thrives in a space shielded ever so slightly from the need to win a popularity contest.
- Random facts
- One percent of music artists earn eighty percent of all recorded music revenue.
- Music companies use Shazam to see where songs are being searched and find small places to launch into bigger markets
- NBC uses 40-40-20 test for new programs
- 40% of people say they are aware of the show
- 40% of that (16% of total) say they want to watch it.
- And 20% (3.2% of total!) of that say they are passionate about the new show
- FX’s Nicole Clemens: “I am looking for a 90 hour movie. It is a Trojan horse for a deeper question: Who is the character becoming? What is he or she going to do next?”
- Kat Kamen, first head of merchandising at Disney: “The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere.”