Internet brings word-of-mouth to a whole new level

March 12, 2006


The elusive quality of "buzz" is one of the most sought-after in the music industry, though few insiders have ever perfected the formula for garnering it. Simply put, buzz means a lot of people are talking about a band -- and supporting it commercially by buying its albums and selling out its concerts. But how does this excitement begin in the first place?

The Arctic Monkeys and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are two of indie rock's biggest buzz bands. The former is a barely twentysomething quartet that formed in Sheffield in 2003 and scored the fastest-selling debut in the history of the British charts when it released "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" late last year. An English take on the Strokes' New Wave of New Wave dance rock, the Arctic Monkeys have sold 550,000 records in England, and they shipped 100,000 to the United States on Feb. 21.

Based in Brooklyn and named after a bit of evocative graffiti, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah also attempts a modern update of New Wave-era sounds, closely emulating the danceable art-rock of the late-'70s Talking Heads. The quintet's self-titled debut was released in October, but as with the Arctic Monkeys, the buzz had been building long before the album reached stores.

Both of these groups initially floated their home recordings for free on the Internet, where the music was discovered by fans who told other fans, and so on and so on, until the record companies noticed the interest and engaged in spirited bidding wars. Because of these and other recent examples, many in the music business are now convinced that the Net is the ultimate weapon for creating buzz.

Of course, there's no way to prove that. Or is there?

A group of social scientists at New York's Columbia University recently conducted an ambitious study to chart how buzz grows exponentially via downloading, and their findings were published in the journal Science. Setting up a simulated online music store stocked with 48 songs by unknown bands, they recruited more than 14,000 teenagers and carefully tracked what they downloaded. Half the group flew blind, choosing songs simply based on what they liked. But half could see the number of previous downloads for each track.

The sociologists found that in the second group, teens flocked to the songs their peers already had singled out.

"You assumed that if other people liked it, you may like it, as well," said Dr. Duncan Watts, who conducted the study. "In the world where people could see what other people liked, the popular songs became more popular, and unpopular songs were less popular.

"You might think, 'Oh, the popular songs were more popular because they're better, and everybody figures out who's good and that's who we want to listen to.' But at the same time, it became more and more difficult to predict which particular bands would be in that slot of most popular bands."

In other words, the scientists proved that oft-repeated music industry saying that nobody really knows what makes a hit. But there was also a more significant finding: The nice way to view it is that listeners' enthusiasm is contagious. The other way, as Watts told me, is that "people are sheep" -- and how else, really, to explain the multi-platinum success of Mariah Carey?

"It's not just that people like certain kinds of songs and not others; they like what other people like," Watts said. "If we look across the different worlds that we created, we can see that there is a positive relation between quality and success. The nutshell version of this is that the very, very best songs never do terribly, and the very worst songs never do really, really well. But anything else is possible: The best songs can just do OK, and the worst songs can also do OK, and the OK songs can do really, really well or really, really poorly."

It is now, therefore, a scientifically proven fact that there is no accounting for taste.

As a scientist, Watts singles out the Artic Monkeys and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as excellent examples of downloading spurring more and more downloading. As a critic, I'll note that while the debuts by both bands are not without their charms, these are certainly disproportionate to the buzz.

In the end, the Columbia experiment proves that people herd behind other people when choosing the music they buy, but it's still a crapshoot as to whether that music will be any good. Thanks to the Web, more music is now more readily available than at any time in history. But if I may be so bold, we still need discerning critics to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to steer us toward the music that's most deserving of our time.