Evidence of first-mover advantage comes together

Record player with The Beatles album in background. | Newsreel
The Beatles benefited from first-mover advantage to become an iconic band. | Photo: Enzode Bernardo (iStock)

First-mover advantage, a proven concept in the business world, is also a factor in the success of musical artists, according to new research.

Data collected from nearly one million songs across 110 music genres showed pioneering artists who laid the groundwork for new genres achieved greater popularity than their later contemporaries.

A team of cultural evolution scholars from Max Planck Institutes, Stony Brook University and PSL University said the study provided valuable insights into how success was cultivated in culture and suggested the first-mover advantage may be a key factor in the evolution of art and culture that had so far been overlooked.

First author Oleg Sobchuk, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said the researchers investigated why some works of art and artists became successful and others did not.

“For example, The Beatles became part of the ‘canon’ of Western music, while many of their contemporaries who made very similar music – and often had very similar names, like The Turtles, The Monkees or The Byrds, did not become as iconic,” Mr Sobchuk said.

“Questions about the mechanisms of success in the arts are part of the emerging data-driven science of culture,” he said.

Mr Sobchuk said they tested whether early representatives of new music genres tended to be more successful.

“We collected a massive dataset of almost one million songs, together with their genre labels and popularity metrics, on two online services, Spotify and Every Noise at Once.

“In total – 110 music genres, of varying size and varying geographies. For example, gengetone, a kind of Kenyan hip hop, and  gqom, new electronic dance music from South Africa, but also many genres with worldwide recognition, like emo rap.”

He said they found strong evidence in support of the first-mover advantage.

“Innovative bands and artists standing at the foundation of genres are consistently more popular than their late-mover contemporaries.

“At the same time, the genres that underwent a history of suppression, like grime, a brand of UK hip hop that was actively suppressed by the London police, do not show the first-mover advantage.”

Mr Sobchuk said the reasons and mechanisms behind the success of culture and the arts remain poorly understood.

“To date, scholars have empirically identified several mechanisms, such as the ‘rich-get-richer’ effect or various cognitive biases that can drive the popularity of cultural products.

“Our paper provides large-scale digital evidence for an entirely different mechanism that has been overlooked by scholars of artistic and cultural evolution _ the first-mover advantage,” Mr Sobchuk said.

“In doing so, it opens a path to studying the first-mover advantage in a much broader range of cultural phenomena, such as movies, paintings, or literary fiction.”