May 20, 2024

Survivorship bias in the music industry, an underestimated phenomenon

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Survivorship bias in the music industry, a underestimated phenomenon

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Survivorship bias. Most have never heard of this term, but it really does impact the music industry where a striking 90% of artists, even the talented ones, fail to achieve major success. Over the years, many have questioned me why certain bands with strong music and substantial label support do not become significant acts.

Time and again, I have pointed to survivorship bias, or survival bias, as a key explanation. Yesterday the question also came up in a conversation with my colleague Nele Bonte with whom I run the social media consultancy FOX DS.

Survivorship bias is the logical error of focusing only on the entities that have passed a selection process while ignoring those that did not. This can lead to incorrect conclusions due to incomplete data. In the music industry, this manifests when people only consider the artists who have achieved fame and visibility, neglecting the vast majority who have not. This bias can result in overly optimistic beliefs by overlooking multiple failures, such as excluding bands that left the roster of labels, or simply stopped playing music altogether. It may also foster the false belief that the successful few in the industry possess some unique qualities, rather than acknowledging the role of chance or misinterpreting correlation as causation.

It’s a logic you do not need to explain to most label owners. They know very well that successful bands are not born using just a magic formula, it’s a mix of things, and luck is often one of them. It also explains why many indie labels usually have only one or two well performing bands, while other bands on the same label – who get the same support – do not perform as well. If you look at Mute for instance, in their most successful years there were only a few bands keeping the label afloat: Depeche Mode, Erasure and Nick Cave. And that’s fine.

An Example of Survivorship Bias from the Military

An Example of Survivorship Bias from the Military
An Example of Survivorship Bias from the Military (Wikipedia illustration)

A easy understandable example of survivorship bias can be found in military history. During World War II, statistician Abraham Wald incorporated survivorship bias into his calculations when determining how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Working with the Statistical Research Group at Columbia University, Wald examined the damage on aircraft that had returned from missions and recommended adding armor to the areas that showed the least damage.

The rationale was that the bullet holes in the returning aircraft represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still fly well enough to return safely to base. If the aircraft was reinforced in the indicated areas, it was a result of survivorship bias because crucial data from fatally damaged planes was missing; those hit in other places did not survive.

Survivorship Bias in the Music Industry

To reiterate, 90% of all artists fail to make it big, a fact underpinned by the reality that 45.6 million tracks on Spotify had zero streams in 2023, and 158.6 million tracks received less than 1,000 plays.

The music industry is highly competitive, with countless individuals aspiring to become successful artists. However, only a small fraction achieve noticeable success or become household names.

We often also forget that there’s a vast middle ground of musicians who manage to make a living from their art but aren’t widely known or considered “successful” by mainstream standards.

Survivorship bias often leads to the overlook of these careers, even though they might offer valuable insights into sustainable practices within the music industry. The stories we often see and hear tend to homogenize the narratives about success, emphasizing certain themes like overnight success or the importance of never giving up, over more nuanced or less glamorous but equally valid experiences.

Here’s a video which was posted by Haulix a few years ago. Although it only garnered 470 views in 4 years, it’s worth it to check it out.

And then There is Failure Bias and the Underdog Effect

On the flip side, the opposite of survivorship bias is often referred to as failure bias or the underdog effect. While survivorship bias focuses only on the successes, thereby overlooking failures or those who did not make it, failure bias emphasizes the failures or the unsuccessful attempts, possibly at the expense of understanding the full range of successful outcomes.

This could demotivate musicians by presenting an overly pessimistic view of success rates. However, focusing on failures provides an opportunity to learn from mistakes. Understanding why things didn’t work out for some can provide valuable lessons that can be applied to avoid similar pitfalls. However, without a balanced view that also considers success stories, the lessons might be incomplete or misdirected.

Balance and Perspective

The most effective approach to understanding success and failure, whether in the music industry or any other field, is to maintain a balanced perspective that considers both survivorship and failure biases.

Recognizing the successes and understanding the failures, while also taking into account the various factors that contribute to these outcomes, offers a more nuanced and realistic view of what it takes to succeed or fail in a given endeavor.

This balanced perspective is crucial for setting realistic expectations, making informed decisions, and fostering a healthy and realistic ambition. But never forget, the core of your carreer should always be that you love creating music. If your music gets traction, the better, if it doesn’t you at least can blame it on… survivorship bias.

PS: The eighties really weren’t better, you just remember the best songs and bands, whereas you have forgotten the vast amount of very bad synthpop that got released back then.

author avatar
Bernard - Side-Line Staff Chief editor
Bernard Van Isacker is the Chief Editor of Side-Line Magazine. With a career spanning more than two decades, Van Isacker has established himself as a respected figure in the darkwave scene.

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