Book review: ‘Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular’ by Derek Thompson

How technology can help identify which ingredients together make a recipe for success.

One of the great pleasures of watching the repeats of classic TV music show Top of the Pops from thirty-odd years ago, now a weekly fixture on BBC4, has been the repeated evidence of the British public’s appetite for the out of the ordinary.

Recent weeks have seen a string of performances, for example, by ventriloquist Keith Harris and his fluorescent sidekick Orville the Duck, ‘duetting’ on the saccharine ‘Orville’s Song’ to a bemused audience of youngsters who’ve turned up expecting the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

In the days when charts were based on customers handing over hard cash for physical records, getting enough sales to make the charts and qualify for a slot on TOTP was no easy feat. Yet some record company executive was so confident that Harris could manage it that they gave the nod to recording and releasing the song.

Along with the men and women behind every other novelty hit record or unexpected hit movie that ever came shooting out of left field, they would probably credit the decision to some kind of gut feeling, an instinct for what the public want without even being aware.

Taking his title from the vernacular of popular music and films, in ‘Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular’ (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 9780241216026) Derek Thompson takes a timely look at how the people we have to get used to calling ‘content providers’ have attempted to make a scientific discipline out of that instinct and, based on it, a fool-proof technique for engineering guaranteed successes.

There’s nothing new about this. It can seem like we’re living in a cookie-cutter age in which producers work on the simple principle of pushing out more of whatever the public currently likes. As Thompson points out, the fact that in all but one of the past 16 years the biggest-grossing movie in US cinemas has been a sequel or adaption from an already popular book or TV show points to how risk averse the entertainment industry is.

This technique can only work in the short term, though. Whether it’s music, cinema, television, books or apps, enduring success depends on finding the sweet spot known in marketing terms as ‘familiar surprise’. This is a finely judged balance of what we’re used to, comfortable with and know we like, plus the unexpected.

Writers and composers may have been unconsciously aware of this for centuries, even if they didn’t attempt to cynically exploit it, but an explosion in the ability of technology to capture and analyse data has made an unprecedented level of insight possible. At the same time as pulling apart the content itself, analysing how products are shared in real time lets the creators tweak and adapt them to make them ‘optimally new’.

As the detailed analysis of the gradual information cascade and ‘dark broadcast’ strategies behind the success of ‘50 Shades of Grey’ shows, so-called viral hits rarely come out of nowhere and depend on much more than word-of-mouth recommendation.

Thompson’s example-packed review of the world where creative industries meet big data will be an informative read for anyone who’s turned on the radio, picked up the latest bestseller or turned on the TV and wondered, in an ‘I could do that’ way, how this song, book or show became so successful.

Reassuringly, although the ability of technology to generate content that in theory is ‘optimally new’ can appear to make the job of crafting a hit more akin to engineering than art, human nature means there will always be a place for tunes that fail the algorithm test but strike a chord with listeners. Call it the Orville Factor.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles