Those who do research on social networks, and most of those who are in occupations where contacts with others give ideas, opportunities, and deals, know what a network engineered for success looks like. They are brokers at the center of a web that reaches far, where many of the people they know do not know each other. In such a network, the person at the center can combine knowledge, connect opportunities, and make deals.
So how can one get such a network? The answer is simple – by being successful. Those who have proven success become attractive to others, so they can pick and choose among those who want to connect with them. But of course, here lies the problem for those who want to build a network for success because they don’t have success yet. Can it be done? This is the question answered by Yonghoon G. Lee and Martin Gargiulo in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly. In addition to solving a very practical problem, this research is done in a context that we all know, directly or indirectly: songwriting in the Korean pop (K-pop) industry. Yes, this is research with BTS, not BS.
The problem for people early in their careers, or even later in their careers with no proven success yet, is that it is very difficult to get the spider-web network that combines knowledge. If they cannot benefit from such a network because they are not prominent enough yet, instead they should have a close-knit network of friends who help each other, right? And naturally, these friends will also be unsuccessful – otherwise they would have formed the looser brokerage network. That means having a network of helpful people who cannot offer much help. How can they make the transition into a better network?
The songwriters in this research were more likely to improve their networks in two circumstances: if they had peers who became successful or if they were stuck in a rut of writing unsuccessful songs that were quite similar to each other. Seeing your network contacts achieve success in collaborations not involving you is a signal that you are—or your network is—not good enough. Imagine how it feels to collaborate with someone, maybe even multiple times, without writing a successful song. But then suddenly this collaborator has another project not involving you, and it becomes a success. Feels like a failure? Absolutely – and Lee and Gargiulo show that songwriters exposed to the success of peers would reach out to new distant collaborators. Getting stuck doing the same thing over and over again with no success is also a clear signal that you are—or your network is—not good enough. Songwriters in this research who kept writing songs in the same style with no success would reach out to new distant collaborators as well.
The transition to a larger network with brokerage occurred faster for songwriters who eventually became successful than for those who never succeeded. Songwriters who get these signals that either they or their networks are not good enough—and who more quickly conclude that it is their networks’ fault—seem to have a better chance to make it. It is not easy to become successful in the music industry, and many songwriters fail even after reaching out to new collaborators. But hope springs eternal, and adding a good network seems to help.
Lee, Yonghoon G. and Martin Gargiulo. 2021. Escaping the Survival Trap: Network Transition among Early-Career Freelance Songwriters. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
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