Open Ties and Deep Success in Jazz Recording Sessions, 1896-2010

Balazs Vedres, Tunde Cserpes


Innovative teams face the paradox of relying on experience to generate novelty. We argue that network openness – the lack of closure with strong ties – helps teams to recognize and implement successful novel combinations, more so than brokerage, and closed ties. Prior scholarship has neglected the creative potential of open and strong relationships because it assumed that strong ties are always closed, and only weak ties bridge diverse structural locations. To understand innovative success of teams, we define two measures of network openness: the density of strong, open triads, and the depth (relative tie weight) of strong, open triads. The first measure captures the number of innovative possibilities, distinct opportunities to recombine collaborative practices. A team that has more strong, open triads will have a better chance of finding a novel combination that is also a viable novelty. The second measure captures the depth of innovative opportunities, the length of collaborative histories that has come to a generative contact. A team’s network might have a small number of strong, open triads, but if these are built of high weight ties, the novelty of their combination can be especially high. By formulating these two distinct measures of network openness we can put our theory to a stronger test. We contrast network openness – the density and depth of strong, open triads – with brokerage. Both are concepts of structural diversity in networks, but they represent different mechanisms. Openness is about opportunities to recognize and implement novel combinations of dyadic experiences. Brokerage frames structural diversity as opportunities for control and privileged access to information. When a team faces the challenge of innovation, brokerage gives an answer to only part of this challenge, that concerns the recognition of a new idea, while brokers lack the embeddedness needed to implement novel ideas. Our case is jazz: a uniquely innovative field where bands succeed by novel sounds, and a field that has offered many lessons to scholarship on organizations in general. Jazz is a strategic field to understand team network processes, as teams are assembled often, they deliver a product quickly (in a recording session typically finished within a day), and jazz musicians readily join various collectives to experiment with new sounds. From a product perspective, a jazz band operates with high complementarity, as every musician is heard on the record: everyone’s contribution is critical. We use data on 175 064 jazz recording sessions – the complete population – spanning the entire history of recorded jazz, using the Tom Lord discographic database. We find that jazz recordings are more successful on several dimensions (what we define as deep success) if the bands’ collaboration network features a higher proportion of strong, open triads. As a comparison, brokerage is not a consistent predictor of various forms of success, and is a negative predictor of deep success, underscoring the importance of considering structural diversity of strong ties.

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