One hit wonder Does a song go viral because it is good, or do we think it must be any good because it has gone viral?

If Avicii can get to the top of the charts, why couldn’t I? The digital technology is there for everyone to score a hit nowadays. Ah but surely not every decent song makes a monster success. People still need to pick it up and spread the word. Your song must go viral to become a one hit wonder. Did it do so then because it was good, or do we think it must be any good because it has gone viral?

In the old days, record companies had an entire A&R – for Artist & Repertoire – division precisely to discover those talented needles in the proverbial haystack. Some scouts have become legendary thanks to their alleged prescience, such as Geffen Records’ Gary Gersh going against the commercial grain and signing Nirvana. But as with stock picking, there might be much more luck than skill (or art) to it. Asked where electronic dance music was heading, the founder of the iconic R&S Records answered: “Honest to god, I have no idea.” How many successful equity fund managers with 30 years of experience would care to admit that they neither had a clue what the next big thing was going to be?

A whole division of gurus may not suffice to identify every winning music⇔context combination. More importantly, even less of them will want to run the reputational risk to simply “feel the groove” only to be proven wrong afterwards. Will we eventually all be watched over by machines of loving grace, by algorithms that sieve through the big pile of data we humans throw off every day in the digital sphere to determine what works in what context. Why do many people skip a certain song in a playlist at times, and let it play in full at other times for instance? The answers to those types of questions must ultimately come from user data, not from some curator.

In the end we may all be listening to music deliberately programmed and produced for the current hype. The visionary curator, the go-to guy, will resemble the winner of Keynes’ famous beauty contest. “It is not a case of choosing those [faces] which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.”

The only royal road to riches if you are an app builder or a songsmith is to have Apple Store “feature” your creation over and above those other gazillion apps. That means chatting up to the cool people of Apple at a convention is worth more than any marketing effort you put in with us, users, out there. Standing out from the crowd has got more to do with how the in-crowd behaves than with how outstanding you are. In 2008 US homes received 129 TV channels, but viewers only took the trouble to watch 17 of those. Last year, there were 189 channels; Americans still watch just 17.

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Nikolaas Bellens