Last night, my friend Clive lent me some music by John Martyn, an outstanding but little known Scottish singer. Martyn's obscurity led us to talk about the influence of chance, serendipity, and randomness on success. Much of what happens in life is influenced by unforeseen (and often unnoticed) events and factors that we do not control.
A nice study by Matthew Salganik and others shows the degree to which musicians' success is hard to predict. The key take away is: "Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible."
Hit songs, books, and movies are many times more successful than average, suggesting that "the best" alternatives are qualitatively different from "the rest"; yet experts routinely fail to predict which products will succeed. We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an artificial "music market" in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants' choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.