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Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

In business, affiliating with high-status colleagues often gives newcomers a professional boost. But less so in the creative industries. Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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