Diffusion and the Pop Song

(cross-posted here)
I just completed Gabriel Rossman‘s Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation. Basically the question at the heart of the book is what makes a song (or songs in general) popular? As with Fabio Rojas’s take on it, I found the book really interesting, enjoyable to think through and useful to think with. He summarizes one aspect i especially liked about the book:

Rossman has a simple, but powerful, idea. The different stories imply different diffusion curves (graphs that map market saturation vs. time). Each story comes with a different curve. The “lightning in a bottle” story (hot songs diffuse through market networks) has a classical S-shaped curve. Promotion by the record industry has a discontinuous step function…

I agree that’s one of the particular strengths of the book. I also think it’s readily teachable, and will likely make an appearance in a future iteration of intro and/or my undergrad networks class. I have only a couple of minor quibbles with it, which largely stem from my not being in the sociology of culture inner-circle, and may be readily apparent to those who are.

First, an alternative that is not really discussed much at all is the perhaps obvious (strawman?) possibility that songs simply become popular because of their quality. I know that there’s some work elsewhere (e.g., Matt Salganik’s experiments) to address this, and it may be a “settled” enough question in the literature, but i felt some treatment of it in the book would have helped the argument to stand a little more on its own (especially as i’d like for teaching it).

The other is even more minor, and perhaps even more about my ignorance than the book’s shortcoming(s). Late in the book (see section 7.3) Rossman mentions how (1) limited potential bandwidth and (2) how the licensing process works in practice combine to make this in essence a closed, and relatively stable system (in terms of population boundaries). Perhaps this is a (so pervasive) detail that i should have known, but to be frank, i didn’t really have an inkling of it until the closing pages of the book. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that I was definitely reading this book more along the lines of the part of the title coming after the colon than the part before. That’s to say that i was thinking throughout about what this case tells us generically about patterns of diffusion. As such, that we are working with a system with these characteristics is highly influential to what cases this one can (and can’t) speak to, and how the particularities of what’s being examined here may be constrained. As such, it’s a detail i would have liked fleshed out (about as much as it was in the conclusions) a lot earlier. As it is i am left wanting to go back and rethink through some of the earlier ideas in the book with this tidbit in hand, assuming my understanding/interpretation/uses for some of the details in the previous models might be accordingly adjusted.

Neither of these should be read as at all damning critiques of the book. Definitely recommended.

One Response to Diffusion and the Pop Song

  1. Hi Jimi,

    Thanks for both the general praise and the specific critiques.

    On Salganik’s MP3 experiment, I’m also a very big fan of this project. I cite/discuss it several times but it’s mostly in the endnotes so it’s easy to miss. Probably the most extended discussion is note 42 to ch 3. However you’re totally right that in none of these cases am I laying it out on its own terms, more that I’m using it to support or contextualize a specific point in my own argument. This was driven by the choice to structure the book as a positive work rather than a review piece, though of course it’s entirely possible that I could/should have worked a more extensive review into the intro. I do consider the Salganik papers to be incredibly important findings though and the third lecture of my undergrad course is about why quality is only loosely coupled to popularity, just as I have also blogged similar thoughts.

    As for the “essentially fixed population size during the time span of a diffusion episode” assumption, for better or worse I like to hold discussion of assumptions towards the end. Again, a debatable approach. I’m actually not sure though how much it matters. If you look at pp 36-39 of the Mahajan + Peterson green book on diffusion, you see that adjusting the Bass model to accommodate a growing population is fairly trivial. For other diffusion models (especially those that are operationalized at the micro-level as network contagion) this could be a serious scope condition, but as I argue in ch 4 I’m somewhat skeptical of those models anyway.

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