Hit Makers, Derek Thompson. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.
Summary: Explores what makes a hit, and explodes some of the myths around hits such as the idea of something going “viral.”
How does something become a “hit?” Anyone creating a work of art, propounding an idea, promoting a candidate, launching a new product would like to know. Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, was curious about this phenomenon and out of his research come countless stories about everything from Brahms Lullaby to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Brahm’s Lullaby is a case in point of the kinds of things Thompson explores in this book. It sounds very much like an Austrian folk melody–familiar elements with a gentle surprise and a “hook.” Thompson observes that it has both the novel and the familiar and that this combination is crucial for a hit. Thompson explores the MAYA rule of designer Raymond Loewy, MAYA standing for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. He implemented this principle on everything from mimeographs and trashbins to bullet-shaped train locomotives, Coldspot refrigerators, and Lucky Strike cigarette packs. Advanced yet familiar–and they all sold like crazy. Thompson goes on to show how this applies to music, movies like Star Wars, the rise of vampires and cable news, and phenomena like Taylor Swift and the laugh track on comedies.
The other crucial element is distribution. Brahm’s Lullaby became a global phenomenon because of German migrations to North America and elsewhere in the second half of the nineteenth century. Thompson explodes the myth of something going “viral.” Instead, what often makes the difference is when a few figures who already have an audience promote something, millions here and then it takes off. And there is a hidden side of “dark broadcasters” whose unseen influence helped build the awareness of people like E. L. James of Fifty Shades fame. On the flip side, success is sometimes isolating the particular audience with an affinity to your product–homophily. What may be critical is knowing who are the friends of your audience. And sometimes, it is plain chaos, where Rock Around the Clock becomes the first rock ‘n roll hit when a young boy, Peter Ford, buys the record, and a few months later through his father, Glenn Ford, plays the record for a director filming a movie titled Blackboard Jungle. The rest is history as a record (a “B” side!) that had gone nowhere suddenly became the anthem of a generation.
What makes this book fascinating is that Thompson is a prolific story gatherer, introducing us to everyone from an obscure, but wealthy Impressionist artist, Caillebotte, whose collection became the Impressionist canon, to the people who have launched our social media blockbusters. He explores the backstory behind Game of Thrones and Mickey Mouse and the evolution of reading from books to the News Feed. He also raises profound questions about the transforming influence of the little plates of glass we carry about with us that connect us to the world, that both inform us, and constantly transmit information about us to those trying to shape the next “hit.”
It is here that I thought Thompson was at his most thought-provoking. He describes in the chapter “Interlude: 828 Broadway” visiting Chartbeat, that gave instantaneous feedback about reader behavior on websites. Downstairs from Chartbeat was the venerable Strand
Bookstore. He asks “Does great art begin with feedback, or does it start with the opposite–a quiet space, devoid of distractions, where creators can turn the spotlight inward and make something mostly for themselves?” As both bibliophile and a new generation writer fluent with the online world, he wrestles with the implications for himself:
“I’ve come to see that I need the feedback loop, the standing ovation and devastating silences that can greet an online article. But when I circle a pile of books at the Strand, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that perhaps the best writers also knew to just do the work and forget, for a moment, that anyone would ever read their reverie. They mounted a stage production in their minds, but just for them, something palatial and private, like a daydream” (pp. 280-281).
The irony I’m struck with as I read Thompson’s work is that excellence and originality in writing, art, music and innovation are not always what is rewarded. He observes the absence of good taste, and that the biggest hits are often re-boots of the familiar. The challenge today is that instantaneous nature of the feedback. Was it easier to practice artistic integrity when most likely you wouldn’t be famous, a “hit,” until after you were dead? You might struggle with poverty as you “did the work and forgot.” But were you tempted so greatly to bend the work to the feedback loop? Maybe this has always been the tension in which artists live. Perhaps it is a good thing that there is an element of randomness in all this or we might all be tempted too greatly, and all art and endeavor be reduced to pursuing the “hit.”
[Derek Thompson will be speaking on “The Future of Work” at the Ohio State University on March 7. Details may be found at https://steam-osu.com. Copies of Hit Makers will be available for sale.]