Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Path to Hit-Making: How Early Music Variety Helps Music Artists

The creative arts are full of one-hit wonders who produce exactly one famous hit and are never heard from again. Most famously this happens in music, but it is also true for authors, visual artists, and performing artists. Is it possible to predict which creative artists can have multiple hits? The usual answer is, “Of course not!” But if it were possible, such knowledge would be useful outside the arts as well. Organizations of all types often need to develop novel and creative products, and even those products that involve engineering or science ultimately start with creativity.

Actually, we are making some progress in understanding how multiple hits are created. Research by Justin M. Berg published in Administrative Science Quarterly looked at musical artists and discovered that a key factor in becoming a multi-hit artist is the music made before the first hit. This sounds strange but is easy to explain. Before the first hit, artists are generally ignored and can freely choose what to create, and they may end up making choices that differ a great deal from each other. After the first hit, they are under the magnifying glass of the world (and themselves) and typically try to stay in tune with what their audience wants without changing too much from their past production. Problem is, what their audience wants keeps changing.

This is where the production before fame becomes important. Some musicians make very novel music, some musicians make a great variety of music, and some musicians make music that lacks novelty and variation but hits exactly what the audience wants at the moment. Who can repeat the hits? When the question is phrased this way, it seems clear that variation is a good thing because it lets the musician adapt to new trends without changing too much from past work. That’s exactly what the research found. But interestingly, novelty before becoming popular also let the musician produce multiple hits. Maybe that’s because it creates a sense of freedom and an audience expectation of some surprises?

But wait, before we worry about how a musician can get multiple hits, maybe we should think about how to get the first hit. So here is some bad news: Novelty is great for multiple hits but bad for getting the first one. Fortunately, the same is not true for variation, which helps the chances both for a first hit and for multiple hits. Of course, if you are an artist, you know that variety is a very hard thing to achieve, maybe even harder than novelty. In fact, the main driver of variety seems to be repeated failure when doing the same thing over and over again, illustrating that it is not just hard to accomplish but also hard to attempt. Cost and benefit…

What do these findings on musicians tell organizational decision makers? More than you might assume. First, we know that creativity has similar effects on innovative work across a wide range of products, so we can actually learn about product design from successful musicians. Second, these findings directly tell us what resumes should look like when hiring someone to do development work – look for variety! It is valuable and costless, because job applicants will come with a great variety of variety levels.

Finally, and this part could be costly, the findings also tell us what type of workflow a development team should have. Unlike musicians and other creative artists, who are forced by their audiences to stay relatively close to their past production, development teams will maintain a variety of projects if they are told to do so. And we know that variety increases the likelihood of success.

Berg, Justin M. 2022. One-Hit Wonders versus Hit Makers: Sustaining Success in Creative Industries. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.