Escaping the survival trap share

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Escaping the survival trap share

Martin Gargiulo
The author is a professor of entrepreneurship and the Shell Chaired Professor of Human Resources and Organisational Development at INSEAD. This piece was co-written by Yonghoon Lee, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

A multi-billion-dollar business, whose performing artists are idolized around the world: It’s no surprise so many people dream of a career in K-pop. But it is an incredibly tough industry to break into for up-and-coming songwriters. For every global hit performed by BTS or Blackpink, there are literally hundreds of songs penned by freelance composers that are never heard.

In fact, only 4.1 percent of all songs released in Korea make it to the top 100. The few songwriters that do succeed have to release an average of 15.5 songs before one becomes a hit. With most songs created by freelance melodists, lyricists and arrangers working in temporary teams, the strength and size of a songwriter’s network of collaborators plays a significant factor in their long-term success or failure.

Research I conducted with Yonghoon Lee on the early careers of 4,387 K-pop songwriters between 2003 and 2012 suggests that the ones more likely to land their first top-100 song were those who ventured beyond their existing network of collaborators. While that was no guarantee of success, those who did not broaden their networks had little chance of a hit.

We had some ideas on why some people are more eager than others to broaden their networks. Detailed information on the K-pop songwriters’ careers and the fate of their songs provided excellent data to test our theories, but we believe that our findings may be relevant to freelancers in other creative fields, to entrepreneurs in the early stages of their ventures, and even to people whose careers evolve in formal organizations.

Life is tough for freelance songwriters, especially those who haven’t had a hit. It’s not surprising that most freelancers have to work a second job to pay the bills.

It’s also not surprising that a freelancer’s early network tends to be a close circle of collaborators who know each other well. Their shared experiences offer comfort, trust and mutual support. Yet, our research suggests that this closed network can delay or even prevent creating the hit song that can truly launch a career.

One danger of repeatedly working with the same people is to end up recycling the same unsuccessful ideas. Having a distinctive sound can help define who you are as a songwriter, but if that sound repeatedly fails, it may be time to move on. This is particularly true in the fast-paced world of K-pop, where artists, producers and audiences are always looking for the next big thing.

Reaching out to new collaborators is a way to learn about different musical trends and ideas, which increases the potential of creating a song that can become a hit. It can also open up opportunities to work on projects that the songwriter would never otherwise have heard about.

And yet, transitioning from a closed to an open network is also risky and challenging. It is risky because it involves leaving behind the safety of a closed, familiar network. It is challenging because one must persuade strangers of the potential benefits of working with someone who has yet to taste success.

In an ideal world, these songwriters could catch the attention of more successful colleagues. They could benefit from the experience of those songwriters. However, those connections seldom happen in K-pop. Established songwriters can pick and choose, and they are naturally wary of working with strangers.

It is therefore not surprising that the songwriters trying to broaden their networks end up collaborating with people at the same early stage of their careers. Although not ideal, this still helps them become familiar with different musical ideas and styles. Indeed, our analysis shows that the songwriters who eventually create a hit song broaden their networks faster than those who do not.

Our analysis identified two major factors that allows some songwriters to transition from a closed to an open network. The first factor is the experience of being stuck. A songwriter who keeps creating songs that sound alike and fail to become a hit eventually realizes that doing more of the same simply won’t work and is more likely to search for new partners.

The second factor is the success of collaborators who are like them in many ways. Falling behind your peers is a powerful incentive to start searching for new ideas. It is also a clear demonstration that success is still possible for someone, which gives the confidence and energy to venture away from their local network and try new things.

My personal experience resonates with these findings. I was fortunate to attend a very good school for the last part of my secondary education. The students came from families with much more cultural and social capital than mine, so I had to work hard to overcome feelings of inadequacy and to avoid falling behind. But like the successful collaborators of the K-pop songwriters we studied in our research, my new classmates gave me the confidence to get out of my comfort zone and broaden my network.

The bottom line is that your network is not something that just happens. It’s something that you manage. People who succeed reach out to people beyond their local network. They don’t wait for things to happen — they make them happen.

This article was first published in INSEAD Knowledge.
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