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14 February, 2006

Herd taste - or not?

This is a bit sad: a US study reported by the BBC found that music fans are more likely to listen to a song if they think other people admire it.  People who visited a new songs website gave higher ratings to tunes which had been frequently downloaded.

I'm not sure whether the phenomenon stated is really the one observed. Given a choice of 48 previously unknown songs, it's only natural to start with those that others have already rated highly, then perhaps those rated worst (which probably really will be the dross, perhaps with technical inadequacies). It's quite an investment of time to listen to 48 songs, and one will become tired after the first dozen or so, so those in the mid to low range won't receive the same freshness of attention, or mightn't be heard at all if one gives up.

That's the sampling process, which I suppose could influence one's critical choices, but listening to a song because it's already popular isn't quite the same as liking it because it's already popular. Existing popularity undoubtedly increases the chance that a song will be heard, but once heard, I think the chance of liking it is less deterministic.

I know that I've made a point of adding several of the IMDb top 250 films to my DVD Rental queue, partly to catch up on acknowledged classics which have somehow evaded me until now, and partly to discover what others think I should see. That's 'following the crowd', and choosing films because they're already popular, but it doesn't mean I'll like them.

That seems to be supported by the findings described in the latter half of the BBC article. When the subjects were split into eight groups, and could only see the rankings generated within their own groups, songs achieved very different popularity ranks in different groups. However, quality ratings were less influenced by peer grouping, and the same songs did well (or not) in all groups.

Hence, "success was not relative to the quality of the music" or, the depressing converse:

"It also suggests that even if an act creates high quality music, it might not be successful."

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