The popularity of the Beatles, informational cascades, and culture developed by champions and conditions

Explaining the rise and fame of the Beatles is complicated but there may still be new arguments to be made:

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So how did the Beatles make it? Obviously, they had talent that was going unrecognized. But they had something else: early champions. They had a fanatically committed manager in 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in the music publishing arm of EMI who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a recording contract. When “Love Me Do” was released in late 1962 with little support and low expectations from their label, a different kind of champion — fans back in Liverpool — helped build up a wave of support for the song.

I take this example from a paper by Cass Sunstein that is awaiting publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a celebrated Harvard Law professor who studies, among many other things, how informational cascades work…

In his paper, Sunstein cites a study done by Matthew J. Salganik and others that illustrates the immense power of social influence. The researchers recruited about 14,000 people to a website where they could listen to and download 48 songs. Some of the people were divided into subgroups where they could see how often other people in their subgroup downloaded each song. Sunstein summarizes the results: “Almost any song could end up popular or not, depending on whether or not the first visitors liked it.” If people saw the early champions downloading a song, they were more likely to download it, too…

These findings support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the view that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating other people. If we see someone wanting something, then that can plant a desire in us to want it, too. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote…

If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key. The better questions for the rest of us may be: Who am I an early champion for? Who are the obscure talents I can help lift up? How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

This could be the start of a joke: “How many famous researchers does it take to explain the rise of a set of adolescent celebrities from Liverpool?”

Or, perhaps this simply illustrates Marx’s idea that (paraphrased) “people make choices in circumstances not of their choosing.” The Beatles did their thing but operated within a particular system and time.

More broadly, explaining significant cultural and social change can be complicated. Creativity often builds on the work of people that came before (as the Beatles did). Artists may be creative but not find an opening in the existing system or not be recognized in their time. Even “successful” change can take a long time to develop and be adopted. The Beatles has many things going for them including champions, changes in technology, the rise of teenagers, an ability to put together music and lyrics, etc…but, as noted above, they did not control the whole process nor survive the subsequent pressures.

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