Why do some cultural products succeed and others fail?

Graffiti, Port of Alicante

Those who sell books, movies, television shows, and songs often have a great deal of trouble predicting what will succeed. Even experts make serious mistakes. In a paper in construction to be published in a forthcoming Journal of Beatles Studies, Cass Sunstein wonders if a counterfactual world in which the Beatle did not make it would be possible at all.

His analysis suggests that if a song, a novel, or a poem is truly sensational, it will ultimately be recognized as such.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Charles Dickens, and John Keats were bound for success simply because of their quality.

However, the Netflixes and Spotifys of the world are not overcrowded by Beatles like hits. Beyond pure genius, research shows that, to a significant degree, almost any work could end up popular or not. Informational cascades are often necessary for spectacular succes, and everything turns on initial popularity:

Why did the Beatles become a worldwide sensation? Why do some cultural products succeed and others fail? Why are some musicians, poets, and novels,, unsuccessful or unknown in their lifetimes, iconic figures decades or generation after their deaths? Why are success and failure so unpredictable? On one view, the simplest and most general explanation is best, and it points to quality, appropriately measured: success is a result of quality, and the Beatles succeeded because of the sheer quality of their music. On another view, social influences are critical: timely enthusiasm or timely indifference can make the difference for all, including the Beatles, leading extraordinary books, movies, and songs to fail even if they are indistinguishable in quality from those that succeed. Informational cascades are often necessary for spectacular success; in some cases, they are both necessary and sufficient. For those who emphasize social influences and informational cascades, success and failure are not inevitable; they depend on seemingly small or serendipitous factors. History is only run once, so this proposition is difficult to prove. There is no question that the success of the Beatles, and the rise of Beatlemania, involved an informational cascade. But whether and in what sense that success was a product of serendipity, or contingent on factors that are elusive and perhaps even lost to history, is essentially unanswerable. If ‘Love Me Do’ had not been a hit, it is not entirely unfair to wonder whether the Beatles would have enjoyed anything like the spectacular success they had. We may doubt that in a counterfactual world, there might have been Kinksmania or Holliesmania, but research on ‘Lost Einsteins’ suggests that it might be reckless to rule out the possibility that some other band, obscure or unknown, might have taken the place of the Beatles.

Sunstein, Cass R., Beatlemania (January 26, 2022). Forthcoming, Journal of Beatles Studies, University of Liverpool Press, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4018431 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4018431

And no, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that there are lost Lennons, McCartneys, and Einsteins.

One comment

  1. There is no question that the success of the Beatles, and the rise of Beatlemania, involved an informational cascade. But whether and in what sense that success was a product of serendipity, or contingent on factors that are elusive and perhaps even lost to history, is essentially unanswerable.

    I don’t know about ‘unanswerable’ (here’s my take on a possible ‘answer’: The secret to success). ‘Not provable’ might be a better term.

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