The Science Behind Why People Share Music

As some of you may know, I have a real passion for understanding human behavior, and over the past few years I’ve dedicated a lot of my attention to learning about sharing. In this post I want to explain the science of sharing and how you can use this knowledge to encourage fans to share your music more frequently.

Nothing Goes Viral

To begin with, there is no such thing as viral – songs don’t go viral, nor do YouTube videos of cats – they simply go through ‘compound sharing’. There’s a reason I emphasise this, and it’s to stop people saying ‘we want to go viral’, which does nothing but put ‘viral’ on a pedestal. If you want your song to ‘go viral’ you must have a high compound rate. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say that 1 in 100 people who listen to your song share it, if you initially reach 5,000 people, and each person who shares it exposes it to an average of 50 new people, your song will reach an extra 2,500 people through sharing, and when those people share it you will reach 1,250 people and so on, until your song doesn’t compound any more (it reaches less than 100 new people). In total your song will have reached 10,014 people with an initial exposure of 5,000 people and a sharing rate of 1 in 100.

If your sharing rate was 1 in 10, an initial exposure to 5,000 people would compound and ‘go viral’, because for every 10 people who receive the song, they are sharing it with 50 new people.

There are only two ways to increase your song sharing

1) Increase the initial exposure
2) Increase the rate of sharing

Of course, there are hundreds of factors that contribute to each of these factors, but in the simplest form these are the only two things that determine whether your song gets shared by hundreds of thousands or a hundred people. Let’s look at each one in detail…

Increasing the initial exposure of your songs

If 100,000 hear your new song release, you will have a better chance of ‘going viral’ and reach millions compared to if you just showed your song to 20 people, because a proportion of your initial audience will be responsible for sharing the song.

This is where major record labels have typically had an upper hand in history (huge generalisation, I know – excludes the genuinely awesome signed releases). When a label produces a song that isn’t actually very good i.e. it has a low rate of sharing, they can still get the song to reach millions by funding a huge initial exposure – even if a tiny percentage of that audience shares the song, it’s still likely to reach millions more people.

This is why I think indie music is typically much higher quality than signed releases – because independent musicians usually can’t afford huge initial exposures, they have to rely on creating music with an incredibly high rate of sharing (in other words, awesome music).

Increasing the rate of sharing

This is where things get a bit vague – what impacts the rate of sharing? Well, we’re dealing with art in the form of sound waves, so I can’t tell you which combinations of sound waves works better because to my knowledge things don’t work like that.

A better way of answering this is, what makes it more likely for a fan to pass my song on to their friends? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Ease of sharing (do you have share buttons, clean URLs, copy and paste sharing or do fans need to download a song and burn it to a CD to share it?)
  • Quality of the song – hard to define this, but in general if your song sounds good, more people are likely to share it (no shit Sherlocks!)
  • Fan perception – if fans like you and want to help you get known, they’re more likely to share your releases. This comes down to reputation and fan-artist relationship building.

On a final note, I want to highlight a point that my friend Greg Rollett shared on this blog a few years ago. While it’s important to have decent gear that you like, having a custom PRS, a DW drum kit (drool…), or decent microphoneswon’t really help you when it comes to making it big.

If you want your music to be shared, focus on what makes people share and increase your initial exposure and rates of sharing for your songs.