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Is this the death of the “Tipping Point”?

So says the argument of Duncan Watts.

His case is the opposite of the Tipping Point argument which brought us the notion of mavens or “influentials” or whatever we want to call the scarce group of trend-setters presumably responsible for launching all trends because of the wide network of folks they can influence.

This truly excellent piece in Fast Company does a great job of illustrating Watts’ argument, which is based on network theory.

Watts says flat out that the notion of creating a phenomenon – or a “hit,” if you will – by targeting the trendsetters is dead wrong.

Are certain people more influential than others in creating hits? Sure, says Watts. But you can’t tell who those people are going to be before they end up being influential. And they will be different impossible-to-identify people in every case.

Says Watts:

It just doesn’t work. A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.

And as Fast Company puts it:

Trends, it suggested, aren’t merely hard to predict and engineer–they occur essentially at random.

What does this suggest about what makes a song “hit”? Brace yourself for this:

Watts explains, only about half of a song’s success seemed to be due to merit. “In general, the ‘best’ songs never do very badly, and the ‘worst’ songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible,” he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Did you notice this…”only about half of a song’s success seemed to be due to merit”? In other words, songs people like won’t necessarily become hits unless they’re already hits because people like them. This one little tidbit should rattle the way you pretest all your music, if you do so at all.

Further, says Watts, the secret to having your flames fanned is getting that first spark, and that spark strikes largely at random.

Well, if the spark strikes randomly, then targeting the “mavens” or “influentials” is misguided. In fact, the net should be thrown as broadly as possible in the hope of finding a “match” to strike.

So what does this mean for the music business?

It means that mass marketing – in the form of radio – will remain a critical component in their arsenal of hit-creating tools, no matter how many micro-niches are enabled by new media.

Whether the labels like it or not.

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