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How to Pick the Hits


The “golden gut.” It’s what separates those who can pick a hit from the rest of us.

But what does the science tell us? Its lesson is unambiguous: Hits are total flukes.

Well not entirely.

A number of years ago students at Columbia staged an interesting experiment, described here by Tim Sullivan at HBR:

[Doctoral student] Matthew Salganik and his coauthors set up an ingenious experiment: they created a website where people could listen to songs by unknown artists, then decide whether they wanted to download particular songs to their private library. Participants were randomly assigned to different virtual rooms. In some rooms, people saw only a list of songs, while in others they could see how many times a song had been downloaded. Altogether the researchers created eight rooms – parallel worlds, really – which allowed them to study not just the role of popularity, but also the role of chance, in the creation of hits.

So what happened?

Not surprisingly, people downloaded songs that others had liked –- in other words, they responded to social influence. But different songs took off in different rooms. As a song’s popularity snowballed, more and more people downloaded it. Eventually the different virtual worlds had created different mega-hits.

In other words, blockbusters are random. But…

Unpredictability is not the same for every song. Higher quality songs, as a group, will outperform the lower quality ones, but which high-quality song is going to break out is impossible to figure out beforehand. In the experiment, we rewound the world and saw the range of possible outcomes that could have happened – and they’re all over the place!

In other words, bad songs do not have the same chance of becoming a hit as good songs, but predicting which good song will become a hit is a game of pure chance.

Do people “follow the leader” when it comes to what songs they like? You bet they do; we all know that. But there’s a different “leader” to follow every time a song is introduced to a “parallel world” – even if it’s the same song in different worlds.

So if you’re evaluating songs or ideas, remember that it may be easy to spot the difference between the good ones and the bad ones, but not between the good ones and the great ones.

If you are judging talent, remember that your expertise may be useful in the “world” in which you gained it, but perhaps not in the “parallel world” you’re living in now. Could this be one reason why so much News/Talk, for example, is in Rush Limbaugh’s image? Not because we know how to spot “hits” but because we know how to filter out the talents that aren’t Rush-like?

Try new and good things and do it often. The audience will determine what the “hit” is. Because you and I cannot.

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