White Swan Event: why success is impossible to predict

Although the term had been floating around for a while, the phrase “Black Swan Event” only recently reached general usage. It’s a random, unpredictable and catastrophic event – so called because of the Old World presumption that all swans were white, which was scuppered when Willem de Vlamingh found a black one.

What anyone writing a blog or playing in a band (etc) will encounter are White Swan Events: random, unpredictable and fortuitous events. Why white swans? Because even though we don’t think of swans as being particularly rare, most people could go a number of years without seeing one. So imagine that you are on a boat and you see a white swan. That’s the kind of serendipity you can expect when being creative: things that you can reasonably expect to happen, can happen at any time, aren’t particularly weird, but are surprising and unpredictable nonetheless.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Skrillex that I didn’t put much time or effort or thought into, but has had more views each day than all the other posts that day combined. I quipped to Him Indoors that this post had more readers than the magazine in his hand – in fact, double – and it would be easy to see the now-consistent traffic charts as being the new average. But then, what happens when people tire of Skrillex? That there will come a point when the freakishly high hit count for that one post tails off, and with it, the traffic for the site as a whole. It’s not the first time it’s happened, either – there was a massive spike, for example, when I live-blogged my Radiohead review, or mentioned the Pottermore website.  I’ve seen the phenomenon elsewhere, too. At Collapse Board, it’s Shut Up About Kreayshawn Being Racist, at Brainwashed, it’s the Peter Christopherson interview. Posts that are phenomenally popular in comparison to the rest of the site. It’s not just blog posts, either. The most obvious white swan event is the one-hit wonder. 

Whatever the KLF might have told you, you cannot guarantee a number one hit. If record companies are the bad guys of the music industry, it’s because they spend most of their time losing money. Most albums don’t chart, or if they do, they don’t get very far. One statistic from a couple of years ago was that out of 20,000 albums released that year, only two thousand sold more than one thousand copies. Single sales are even harder to predict – especially in the age of downloads, when an old song can suddenly chart with no fanfare because it was featured in a film or TV show and people wanted to hear it again. Even a few years ago, it was just as impossible to guess which songs would be in the top 10 – such as Aswad’s Don’t Turn Around, which made number one after they’d been going 14 years, or Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping, which peaked at number two in the band’s 16th year.

Of course, sometimes it’s fairly predictable: I recall setting the VCR for Top of the Pops in 1991 because I’d heard Blur’s debut single There’s No Other Way the previous week and it was inconceivable to me that it wouldn’t be in the following week’s charts.

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But on the other hand, I recall Take That! being launched two or three times before they were successful – the first time I saw them, I thought they were some gay stripper act.

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I was honestly surprised when they finally broke into the charts. There was a sort of arrogance, I felt, with the hitmakers of the time in that they thought they could foist any old crap onto the public, and we had just reached the point where people were just not buying it any more. Everyone remembers Kylie and Rick Astley, but Stock Aitken Waterman had plenty of flops, too. Kakko’s debut single got to 101 in the charts, and the second failed to chart at all. (Honestly, watch the clip – it’s hilarious.)

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It does make you wonder when the Idol/X-Factor stranglehold will subside. I had presumed that Emeli Sandé was a contestant on one of those shows, until I found out that actually she’s been writing the hits for those acts instead, including tracks for Susan Boyle.

SuBo’s a white swan event in herself – at least as far as she’s concerned. The predictable path is that every so often you get a pity vote in these shows, just like every gloating, self-congratulatory fashion rag has a “body image special” featuring “plus size” models that are still skinnier than most people, everyone pats themselves on the back, and then they’re back to glamorexia the following month. The frumpy contestant has an OK voice, they have their fifteen minutes of fame, and are never heard from again. Susan Boyle had her moment in the spotlight … and didn’t go away. That’s the most unpredictable factor: you never know how long the event will last.

Something is popular for as long as it is providing something that the public wants. I remember investing once in an environmentally conscious retailer that went out of business because the major retailers upped their ethical game. (I don’t think anyone was really unhappy about that, even after losing money.) Even if you have a solid plan, events outside your control can change and make your output irrelevant. In music terms, Limp Bizkit’s fanbase disappeared the minute Linkin Park came along – who were providing the same thing in less obnoxious packaging. It was impossible for Limp Bizkit to compete because that would mean that Fred Durst would have to stop being a dick, which is technically impossible. You have to be able to adapt.

Adaptation is ultimately the key to surviving the whirlwind of a white swan event. It might be a band changing their style – for example, like NIN changing their sound after the unexpectedly popular Pretty Hate Machine to follow it up with the Broken EP. They couldn’t expect a repeat of the previous popularity because it was just the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time with the right sound. Their only option was to be making the right sound at the right time a few years later when everyone had moved on. You have to view it not as one event (band gets big) but two: band has a hit record and then has another hit record.

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I don’t write in order to attract readers – if I did, I might as well just stick up some nude pics of Kim Kardashian and be done with it. Most of the bands I like view sales as an afterthought – they make the record and then try to sell it to fund the next one. A lot of the films I like were made on shoestring budgets and many never even got a theatrical release. It’s not about pandering cynically in the search for popularity. But that said, when you put effort into something, it’s worth trying to promote it in order to get the maximum number of people who may enjoy it have access to it. I don’t really promote this blog in any way beyond putting it in my signature/profile page on a few forums and tweeting links to my posts. I like to let the content speak for itself.

But …

there’s a part of me that never switches off from my dayjob, and if there’s something I’ve learnt from my job it’s that if you have one product that is suddenly, irrationally successful, you should be more scared than you are happy. Scared because if you don’t understand why it was popular in the first place, you can’t hope to begin to replicate it.

Of course I’m not scared of the popularity of the Skrillex post – I don’t even have much of a vanity buzz, since it wasn’t something I put much effort into and thus not something I value – but I do have to keep in mind that the freakish high of the traffic stats will eventually tail off and less traffic to that post means that fewer people may be exposed to other posts that I put a lot more time and energy into creating. So, I’m reacting to it exactly the way I’ve learnt at work: through diversification. Just as the savvy business pushes its other products so that when the one-hit-wonder fades its other products can shine, I make a point of blogging every single day.

Most of the most popular actors, musicians and writers aren’t famous because they’re more talented than everyone else, but because they’re harder-working and luckier than everyone else. If you wonder why one Hollywood C-lister never made it bigger, it’s almost certainly because there’s someone just like them who was more professional. Matt Damon made about eight films in one year until – as he put it – “even I was sick of me”. Terry Pratchett had a two-books-per-year schedule on the Discworld series. Rihanna has released an album every year (except 2008) since she started, funding them from her own money when the advances ran out. This scattershot approach risks oversaturation, but so long as some of what you’re putting out is what the public wants at the time, it’s enough to keep you in business. Ubiquity never did Pete Postlethwaite any harm.

Not everyone has the time or energy to be prolific, and that’s fine – especially if your music or writing or game designing is a hobby. It shouldn’t feel like work, or be some obligation that you dread. Even if it is your dayjob, you’re only going to be doing your best if you’re passionately committed to whatever it is that you’re doing – whether it’s ironing out that bug or finding that perfect shade of blue for that brochure. It’s really just a matter of being realistic – that just because this post is wildly popular today doesn’t mean that anyone will be interested tomorrow, or even interested in the next one. It’s easy to become complacent, to rest on your laurels and think that people are paying attention to what you are doing.

That might be the case or it might not; it could be the start or it could be a blip. It’s out of your control.

Even if you’re not pursuing popularity, you need to be aware of your niche – that unique space you occupy in whatever you’re doing. My niche in most things is “reliable and prolific” – yours might be “high quality” on a less frequent scale. You have the potential to hit greater heights, but the stakes are higher with each release. Neither approach is right or wrong, but you should bear in mind that if you have a white swan event with the latter, it might be a very long time before it happens again.

Whatever you’re doing, aim to do it well and as regularly as you can manage. Doing so will not guarantee that you’ll get an audience, but not doing so will guarantee that you won’t.

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