Does a hit song have to give 'em the old razzle dazzle in Chicago or join Meat Loaf in search of paradise by the dashboard light? Does Beyonce need to check on it, or can it simply walk the line to success with Johnny and June?
The mystery of what makes a hit has perplexed song writers and marketers as long as there has been popular music.
And in the end, the next hit song may be — like love — unpredictable.
But a new study has come up with an intriguing clue: People will select a song if they think others like it.
In other words, at least one key to musical success is the buzz, or bandwagon effect.
The same is true for books and other products, says Duncan J. Watts, an author of the study appearing in Friday's issue of the journal Science. "Successful things tend to be more successful," he says.
Once an author has a best seller, the next book he writes is likely to also become a best seller, and once a brand name has recognition it is more likely to do well.
It's unpredictableThe possibility that musical popularity may be unpredictable could, in a way, be comforting to music marketers, said Watts, a sociology professor at Columbia University.
"The fact they have such difficulty predicting what's going to be popular doesn't mean they are incompetent," he said. "There are all these stories of famous acts that weren't picked up by someone," he noted. "It's just inherently unpredictable."
"The (study) results are certainly consistent with the motivations for payola. ... Getting it out there and getting it on people's radar screens increases its likelihood of it becoming popular," said Watts. Payola involved marketers bribing disc jockeys to give their records more air time.
In their search for what makes a song a hit, Watts and colleagues Matthew J. Salganik and Peter Sheridan Dodds recruited 14,341 participants through a teenage interest Internet site, asking them to listen to music, which they were asked to rate from 1 to 5 and could then download. The researchers provided a selection of 48 songs by up-and-coming bands that the participants were unlikely to be familiar with. The music was selected from http://www.purevolume.com, a Web site where bands can create home pages and post their music for download.
The study was done twice. Each time, young people were divided into groups, with about 1,400 of them in an "independent" group and about 700 in each of eight "social influence" groups.
In the independent group each participant was on his own, while those taking part in the social influence groups could see which songs others were choosing to download and keep.
The participants didn't all check out every one of the 48 songs, some listened to a few, some to many of them, Watts said.
Following the treadIn the social influence groups, once some songs started to be downloaded, others would try out those songs too, sort of the way a best seller list gets people to try out a new book, Watts commented.
In the independent group, with no guidance from others, each person had to make his own decision.
Some songs proved more popular than others, but not always the same ones that became popular in other groups.
"The best songs never do very badly, and the worst songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," the researchers concluded.
For example, the song "Lockdown" by 52metro was ranked near the middle — 26th — by participants in the independent group who had no knowledge of others' opinions. But in one of the social influence groups, it came in first, while in another the same song came in 40th out of 48.
"The findings are of considerable sociological importance," Peter Hedstrom of Oxford University in England said in a commentary on the study, saying that it provides added evidence that social influence is a major factor in explaining people's actions.
"Popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs became less popular when individuals influenced one another, and it became more difficult to predict which songs were to emerge as the most popular ones the more the individuals influenced one another," Hedstrom observed.
The study, "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market," was funded by the National Science Foundation, the McDonnell Foundation and Legg Mason Funds.