Column | Artists, arbitrariness, and investors

Column by Arjan van den Born

Just imagine that all of the world’s population of 7 billion people would enter into a game. Each and every participant would pay 10 dollar to enter and so a price pool of 70 billion dollar would be created. All the money would be granted to the winner of a very simple game; namely, the one who keeps tossing a coin on tails all the time. Every week we toss a coin at a fixed time, say, Sundays at noon. The ones tossing tails continue to the next round, the others who tossed heads are out and cannot reenter again. Probably not much will happen during the first weeks of the experiment. But, after about 20 weeks, according to probability, only an estimated 5000 people have remained playing. At that point the media will probably start to engage. The people will be made famous; they’ll be the talented “coin-tossers”. Radio and Television broadcasters will ask: How are you able to toss tails all the tim?“ Books and Apps will be published and launched with titles like: “How to toss tails” and “How God helps me to toss tails”. This game will be even more exciting when, after half a year, only a few dozen have remained in the game. These people will be crossing the streets like real celebrities and will be admired by many. The ultimate winner will, finally, be attributed almost magical skills.

I didn’t create this experiment myself. It was penned down by Burton Malkiel in his world-famous book “A Random Walk down Wall Street”. In this book, he writes that investors are just “coin-tossers”. Just like the just described game, you’ll find that some investors are glorified and receive bonuses of sometimes several millions of dollars; because they are definitely very special. Though, according to Malkiel, these investors were just as lucky as any of these coin-tossers.

How is all this related to art? Probably, more than you would think. In 2008, Matthew Salganik researched the effect of social environments on success of music, art, and books. HE and the co-authors launched an ingenious experiment: they created a website on which people could listen to music of unknown artist. Participants were randomly assigned to different virtual rooms. Eight parallel rooms were created accordingly to enable the researchers to find out what the role of the social environment was on the formation of hits. The result? People listen to songs others in their room listened to. Most diverse hits arose in the different virtual worlds. A top hit in one of the virtual worlds could be a complete flop in another world. Salganik observed that it is impossible to predict the popularity of art. What we like is mostly dependent on our social environment. The rising of hits is complete random. Yet, investors and artists do have more in common than you may like. Success mostly comes at random. Well, keep that in mind, when you’re reading the next interview with any successful artist.