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Commentary

Sugar Man's lesson for markets and politicians

Bloomberg News
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:02 PM

"Searching for Sugar Man" is a stunning documentary about an unsuccessful Detroit singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez, who released two long-forgotten albums in the early 1970s. Almost no one bought his albums, and his label dropped him. Rodriguez stopped making records and worked as a demolition man.

What Rodriguez didn't know, while working in demolition, was that he had become a spectacular success in South Africa — a giant, a legend, comparable to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Describing him as "the soundtrack to our lives," South Africans bought hundreds of thousands of copies of his albums, starting in the 1970s. "Searching for Sugar Man" is about the contrast between the failed career of Detroit's obscure demolition man and the renown of South Africa's mysterious rock icon.

The film is easily taken as a real-world fairy tale, barely believable, a story so extraordinary that it gives new meaning to "you couldn't make it up." But it is a bit less extraordinary than it seems, and it offers a profound lesson not only for music and culture markets, but for business and politics, as well.

We like to think that intrinsic quality produces success, and that in free markets, quality will ultimately prevail. To be sure, quality is usually necessary, but it's not enough.

Social dynamics — who is conveying enthusiasm to whom, and how loudly, and where, and exactly when — can separate the rock icon from the demolition man, and mark the line between stunning success and crashing failure. An understanding of those dynamics tells us a lot about the role of serendipity in cultural markets, business, politics and other domains — and about why success and failure can be impossible to predict.

Consider some evidence. A few years ago, social scientists Matthew Salganik, Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds created a large-scale version of the tale of Rodriguez, in the form of an artificial music market on a website. More than 14,000 visitors to the site were given a list of 48 unknown songs from unknown bands. The experimenters randomly sorted half of the visitors into an "independent judgment" group, in which they were invited to listen to brief excerpts, to rate songs and to decide whether to download them. The other half were sorted into a "social influence" group, which was exactly the same except in just one respect: They could see how many times each song had been downloaded by other participants.

People in the social influence group also were randomly assigned to one of eight subgroups, in which they could see only the number of downloads in their own subgroup. You might expect that in the end, quality would always prevail — that the popularity of the songs, as measured by their download rankings, would be roughly the same in the independent group and in all eight of the social influence groups.

That isn't what happened. The identical song could be a big hit or a miserable flop, depending on whether a lot of other people were seen to have downloaded it. True, the songs that did most fabulously in the independent group rarely did very badly, and the songs that did most horribly in the independent group rarely did spectacularly well — but otherwise, almost anything could happen.

Social dynamics made Rodriguez in South Africa and broke him in the United States. Every day, social dynamics make or break books, movies, art and countless other products. Plenty of best-sellers, made possible by bandwagon or cascade effects, could easily have switched places with books that you have never heard of.

Actually, the implications are far broader than that. On Election Day for the 2010 congressional races, certain Facebook users received a social message, a clickable "I voted," including six pictures of randomly selected Facebook friends who had previously clicked that "I voted" button. Presented with those pictures, people were more likely to vote, and as a result of the experiment, hundreds of thousands of Americans who would not otherwise have voted ended up doing so.

We could easily imagine a parallel experiment with the message, "I didn't vote," and it would almost certainly depress voting. In fact, we could easily imagine many influential clickable messages on social media ("I bought a fuel-efficient vehicle," or "I stopped smoking," or "I love the Chicago Bears," or "I bought a Sixto Rodriguez CD").

Successful entrepreneurs, social movements and politicians benefit from the same dynamics that produce best-selling albums. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were immensely talented and appealing, but countless people voted and worked for them only because they saw that other people were doing so. Other immensely talented and appealing politicians go nowhere, only because they fail to catch an early wave. Science fiction's "parallel worlds," exploring how differently history might have turned out, are not as far-fetched as they seem.

True, we can always try to reclaim inevitability by generating after-the-fact explanations of both success and failure. It is tempting to think that Rodriguez did well in South Africa because his songs spoke especially well to that nation's citizens in the apartheid period. Maybe Rodriguez did poorly in the United States because of anti-Hispanic prejudice (as some have speculated).

Maybe, but it's doubtful. With a few twists of fate and the right social boost at the right time, Rodriguez could have become a big star in the United States. And without some serendipitous word-of-mouth at the early stages, he wouldn't have become an icon in South Africa.

History is only run once, so we will never know for sure. What we do know is that social dynamics play a big role in the marketplace and democratic politics — and help to explain why success and failure can be predictably unpredictable.


Cass R. Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of "Nudge" and, most recently, the author of "On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread."

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