Taking the lead in music

First-mover advantage may be key to success in the music industry

May 21, 2024

Researchers studying the science of cultural evolution have conducted a comprehensive study of the role of 'first-mover advantage' in music, the power of being first, mirroring the concept's proven importance in the business world. Data collected from nearly one million songs across 110 music genres supports the hypothesis that pioneering artists and bands who lay the groundwork for new genres achieve greater popularity than their later contemporaries. The study provides valuable insights into how success is cultivated in culture and suggests that the first-mover advantage may be a key factor in the evolution of art and culture that has so far been overlooked.

Why do some works of art and artists become successful and others do not? For example, the Beatles became part of the 'canon' of Western music, while many of their contemporaries who made very similar music - and often had very similar names, like the Tyrtles, the Monkees or the Byrds, did not become as iconic. Questions like this - about the mechanisms of success in the arts - are part of the emerging data-driven science of culture.

In a new study, a team of scholars of cultural evolution from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, Stony Brook University, and PSL University addressed this topic from a new angle. They tested the hypothesis about the role of first-mover advantage in music. In business, companies that enter new market niches early on, enjoy various first-mover benefits: think of Apple, which was the first mover into the emerging niche of smartphones. Is there first-mover advantage in the arts too?

Dataset of nearly one million songs

“The study tested whether early representatives of new music genres tend to be more successful,” says first author Oleg Sobchuk, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “To find out, we collected a massive dataset of almost one million songs, together with their genre labels and popularity metrics, on two online services: Spotify and Every Noise at Once. In total – 110 music genres, of varying size and varying geographies. For example, gengetone, a kind of Kenyan hip hop, or gqom: new electronic dance music from South Africa; but also – many genres with worldwide recognition, like emo rap.”

The authors found strong evidence in support of the first-mover advantage. Innovative bands and artists standing at the foundation of genres are consistently more popular than their late-mover contemporaries. At the same time, the genres that underwent a history of suppression, like grime – a brand of UK hip hop that was actively suppressed by the London police – do not show the first-mover advantage.

Success is not just a matter of luck

But what is the secret of success in culture and the arts, and what are the underlying mechanisms? One explanation is that success is a matter of luck, reinforced by effects such as the "rich-get-richer" effect. Another explanation is that success is due to the quality of the artwork. In this case, it would not be random, but predictable and deserved. The consensus is that the truth lies somewhere in between: both luck and quality contribute to success in culture and the arts.

But there are other mechanisms at work as well. "Our paper provides large-scale digital evidence for an entirely different mechanism that has so far been overlooked by scholars of artistic and cultural evolution: the advantage of being the first to establish a genre," says Sobchuk. "Our study thus paves the way for investigating the first-mover advantage in a much broader range of cultural phenomena, such as movies, paintings, or literary fiction."

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