Does Luck Play a Role in an Artist’s Success?

luckWhy is Starry Night considered an amazing work of art? Why is the Frozen movie’s song, “Let it Go” so popular? Why do some artists make it and some don’t, even though they have similar talents and background?

It’s easy to say that Starry Night is popular because it is a unique masterpiece, that “Let It Go” is an unusual mix of profound lyrics and enchanting melody, and that some artists just want it more than others.  But is it true?

A recent study says that luck plays more of a role than we think when it comes to what becomes popular and is considered to be great.  Matthew Salganik, a Princeton professor, created nine “worlds” online where unknown music from unknown bands was available for listening and downloads.  Each “world” contained the same music, and over 30,000 teens were assigned to a world and encouraged to listen and download the music.

What happened next was unexpected.  The top music downloaded varied greatly from world to world.  Some songs that had been top downloads in one world were hardly downloaded at all in other worlds.  Salganik determined that luck played a bigger role than talent when it comes to popularity.

But that’s not the full story.  You see, in 8 of the 9 worlds, the teens could see what other teens had downloaded.  It was clear that many followed the group mentality of what is good music.  This could mean that popularity and success have less to do with luck or talent, and much more to do with getting an early following.

We see this happening in all forms of art.  The song “Let It Go” for example, may have never been so popular if it weren’t featured in a Disney animated movie.  Before the song was even heard, it had an automatic following by those who love anything Disney-related.  From there, the fan-base grew.

So it appears that the old adage is true after all – It’s not what you know (or talent or luck), but maybe it’s who you know.  Getting that early following as an artist may be tricky, but it certainly seems essential to get the notoriety artists hope for.  And after that, it never hurts to have a little luck on your side. To learn more about this fascinating study, visit npr.org.