Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

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What is the book “Hit Makers” about?

Journalist Derek Thompson has committed himself to an ambitious task – to write a book that would explain the tastes of many people, who determine the success or the failure of a product, be it a song, a painting, or a film. Commercially successful products and ideas that are becoming deeply rooted in the pop-culture and mass media, where do they come from?

At first glance, everything happens automatically with a little bit of luck involved in the process. It seems that all popular songs, TV shows, blockbusters, and memes are born accidentally due to the overall cultural disarray. This is not the case. Derek Thompson believes that laws of popularity are linked to the rules of psychology and the economy of cultural markets.

One of the questions that the book raises is how to figure out the general secret of “making” hits within different cultural frameworks. The second issue is why some talented art pieces (in music, painting, literature, cinema and many other cultural areas) become hits, while others do not.

According to Thompson, the products and the means of making them have been changing throughout centuries, but the structure of the human mind has stayed the same. It preserved our basic needs to this day: to possess something, to flee from danger, to strive for improvement, to understand and to be understood. If the creators of the product hit those marks, and their viewers or listeners felt it, only the product had a chance to become a hit.

Thompson believes that there is no such a thing as a blueprint for hits. He cites from one of the books by Italo Calvino, where Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo if there is a single stone that supports the bridge because it should be reliable enough to support its weight. Polo says that the bridge is stable not because of a single stone, but an arc, which is formed by lots of rocks. There must be a combination of factors that produce a hit. There is no clear law on the development of human tastes; a single concept doesn’t manage them.

Thompson says that one of the real hits was and still to this day is Brahms’ Lullaby, which his mother sang to him when he was little. This melody has been around for more than a century, and millions of parents all over the world sang it to their children. It is beautiful, melodic and rhythmic, but why exactly has this motif of the XIX century became one of the most popular on the West Coast of the USA?

Johannes Brahms, born in 1833 in Hamburg, was one of the most famous composers of his time.  He wrote “Lullaby” in 1868; its full title is “The Lullaby to an Old Friend.” Soon it became a hit in Europe, and then in the United States.

Brahms traveled a lot across Europe studying folk songs, sometimes borrowing choruses that he liked for his compositions. Throughout his work, many recycled folk tunes were used.

Not long before writing “Lullaby” Brahms fell in love with a young singer by the name of Bertha, who performed many of his musical pieces. After few years of acquaintance and creative collaboration, Bertha married another man and named their son Johannes, in honor of her mentor. As an appreciation Brahms wrote “Lullaby” for the boy, taking clues from an old Austrian song, which he heard from Bertha.

The lyrics to “Lullaby” were taken from a collection of German folk poems; it was a particular poem called “Guten Abend, Gute Nacht”. The “Lullaby” was first performed in 1869 in Vienna and had tremendous success. It was an original composition, but at the time it sounded surprisingly familiar as if it had incorporated something long forgotten.

But how did it spread all over the whole world? Nowadays, this song is everywhere: on the radio, on the TV, it’s all over the Internet, it sounds in every smartphone. In the 19th century, everything was far more complicated. The only channels of distribution were the concert halls, and before that, they still needed to be reached first.

As Thompson explains it, German families were distributing the “Lullaby” instead of radio waves. Brahms was on the peak of his popularity in Europe of the 1870s, at the time of Central Europe being in chaos, at war, and in general poverty. German immigrants fled to America: for ten years, between the 1870s and 1880s, more people arrived from Germany to the US, than for all of the 20th century.

They moved to the northern region of America, where most of them had settled down. They were singing Brahms’ Lullaby to their children, a gentle melody reminiscent of peace and their family homes. That’s how it got to America, and then it was translated into English and began to enjoy great success there. The familiar melody of the Austrian folk song ended up in an original historical setting and, thanks to that, it became immortalized. It was translated into many languages and is still popular to this day.

Some new ideas and products come as if after a long wait, says Thompson, and they seem already familiar. For example, “Star Wars” was a huge success in its time, and 20 years after the release of the first film, this success was repeated with “Episodes”, which were elaborating on the backstory of the previous films. The classic animated TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” was based on a top-rated book.

Perhaps, today nobody remembers it, but it has created a recognition effect, as if the audience had already seen or heard something similar, despite that they’re being offered new things. This is called an “Aha! The moment”, an effect of recognizing something old, while perceiving something new.

Since the ancient times, a human being was concerned about the idea of something new. But when we see something new, and they can recognize something familiar in it, then it stops being frightening – now it’s becoming attractive. Thompson believes that most consumers are simultaneously both neophiles and neophobes, and if a new product is accommodating both of these characteristics, it will succeed. The best producers create “moments of meaning” by combining new and old, concern and recognition, the so-called familiar surprises.

And so, Brahms’ Lullaby became a familiar surprise for the German audience. But to make it a real hit, they needed additional conditions, like the migration of Germans, caused by wars in Central Europe. After all, the ideas and products are distributed by groups of people and among those groups of people. A song, no matter how beautiful it is, will die without an audience, especially if it isn’t on the radio or the Internet. A lovely short story or an essay published in a little-known magazine is doomed to oblivion, no matter how brilliant it is.

At first, Brahms’ Lullaby was known only to a few thousand people. Today, it’s known to millions. With the help of families, friends and social media worldwide, the song has spread far beyond Vienna State Opera, where it was first heard. Therefore, to create a hit, it is essential to find a proper distribution channel and your target audience.

Many creative people prefer not to dwell on problems of distribution and marketing. But they are the roots the product is being born out of, getting to the surface where other people can notice it. The product’s content and its distribution are inseparable from each other, akin to a king and his kingdom – there is no kingdom without a king.

Summary and 10 Ideas of “Hit Makers”:

Idea №1 People love new art, provided it has an element of recognition, the effect of something already seen.

Idea №2 All of us are in power of the “effect of getting familiar with an object”. We prefer familiar objects, landscapes, consumer goods, songs and human voices.

Idea №3 The success of a contemporary song largely depends on its distribution.

Idea №4 With the rise of alternative media sources, the political elite has lost the ability to control the flow of the political information.

Idea №5 People are attracted by the easiness, the fluency of perception, and simultaneously, the opportunity to explore, to search for a deeper meaning.

Idea №6 Attention is the tug of war between the love for new and the preference for old.

Idea №7 People respond to a product that teases them with its unusual novelty but also isn’t challenging to them.

Idea №8 For a musical hit repetition is very important, but don’t forget about improvisation

Idea №9 The impact of good stories is akin to magic.

Idea №10  A hit story is composed of thousands of other stories, and its hero must overcome severe trials and emerge victoriously.

Review “Hit Makers”

Derek Thompson did a great job exploring the principles of popularity. His book is full of rich stories and examples that are a blast to read through. It is the impressive coverage of history, from Brahms to blockbusters, from impressionists to Facebook, from vampires to “Star Wars”.

The question of what exactly turns a product into a hit torments any producer, any creative person who wants to advance their craft. This book can help while not giving any blueprints, but indicating the direction, they should move in, and suggesting many useful ideas along the way.

Pros and Cons

  • Interesting examples and stories; the ease of presentation.
  • Recurring repetition ideas.

About Author Derek Thompson

Author of the book "Hit Makers"Derek Thompson is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the weekly news analyst for NPR “Here and Now. In 2008 he graduated from Northwestern University with a triple specialist in journalism, political science, and legal studies. He did not do much with the last two. In 2015, he wrote the cover “The World without a job” about the future of jobs and technologies. “Hit Makers”, his first book about secret stories of hits of pop culture and the popularity of science, is published in February 2017. He appeared in the list of “30 to 30” Forbes and “140 best channels Twitter” Time. He lives in Manhattan.

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