A recent Guardian Music article discussed the evolution of payola for the social media age: companies who promise Facebook friends or Twitter followers to musicians in exchange for cash, or pay people to download songs:
One of the worst examples of a company taking advantage of desperate artists is a new Australian venture called Chartfixer (the clue is in the name). For $6,000, Chartfixer will crowd-source 1,000 downloaders to each buy a digital copy of an artist’s track from iTunes. After purchasing the track, the downloader can claim the cost back and obtain a reward of one dollar. In Australia, 1,000 sales can get you into the top 80, whereas 5,000 sales (which would cost $25,000) can buy you a potential top 20 hit.
While this makes any music lover fume, here’s the problem: it might work.
Earlier this year, Clive Thompson wrote an article for Wired describing the work of Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik, at Yahoo Research, who performed a series of elegant experiments to address the question of whether songs in a social environment become popular due to their intrinsic merits, or due to luck. Briefly, they created a pocket universe: a music site to which they uploaded 48 songs by unknown bands, which participants in the study could rate and download. They ran the experiment repeatedly, with new groups of people (nearly 13,000 in total) listening, rating and downloading the songs. Watts and Salganik found that certain songs would often rise to the top, and certain would fall to the bottom, but for most songs, their final ranking was unpredictable: the swirl and flow of ratings and social pressures would deposit them high for one test run, and low for another. They concluded that about half of a song’s success could be attributed to its intrinsic appeal, but the other half was due to it randomly quirking up or down, which was then amplified by the social environment into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Where does this leave Chartfixer and a band who hires them? Well, for a market as small as Australia, a relatively modest amount of money might be enough to nudge the song upwards. Assuming the song isn’t completely terrible, this kind of pay-for-download scheme might bring it to the attention of listeners, at which point the self-fulfilling prophecy of success can take over. Whether this is the case in practice, of course, has yet to be shown. And the body behind the Australian charts has, unsurprisingly, already come out against the scheme.
Interestingly, Watts and Salganik followed this study with an even cleverer one that suggests that manipulating the ‘charts’ in this way does kind of work, but results in fewer downloads in total. As Clive put it: “If you lie about the merits of your product, you might suppress demand across your entire sector.” Gee, I wonder if that’s ever happened in music…?