Friday, June 19, 2009

The Evolving Definition of Talent

I just ran across this blog entry.

The Economics of Creativity, Ooga Labs, July 12, 2008.

The author explores how musicians with different skill sets have been rewarded over the years. In the 1800s, the classical artists who played live in front of the European elite were the rock stars. Then radio lessened their value. Once recorded music hit its peak, those who did well in a recording studio moved up the value chain.

He doesn't discuss the shift to the video age, but as many musical history writers have noted, that's when appearance became especially important. Janis Joplin would probably not have been signed to a major label contract had she tried to make it in the MTV era.

And now, social media and the ability to create communities around your art have become important "creative" skills.

While music has been important for centuries, what elevates a subset of artists into stardom has been in flux. As technology changes, so does the definition of desirability. Within any given culture, what becomes valued are qualities perceived to be rare.

Let me start by illustrating my point with some non-music examples. Back in the day when commoners worked in fields and could barely get enough to eat, the upper classes were pale and plumb. That's what people aspired to.

Then when the lower classes turned pale from working inside factories all day, the status look was to have a tan, signaling that its owner had spent time at the pool, on the golf course, or on the tennis court. Thin became the desired shape because the poor were eating cheap food that made them overweight.

In terms of music, there was a time when being able to play and sing on key was important. That became less of an issue with the introduction of studio tricks which could fix flaws. So then, when everyone could do a decent recording, appearance became the determining factor setting the top stars apart from everyone else.

But now that we have an overabundance of sound-alike, great-looking performers, we're shifting back to artists who exude more authenticity. Amy Winehouse is distinctive because she is the antithesis of the pretty, packaged pop star.

Currently the new technology in music isn't in recording or performing, but in marketing and distribution. Those who excel at using those tools may be the next rock stars. It isn't that music performance has become less important. It's that we're looking for different filters to separate the good from the great. Talent now includes being able to relate to your fans in a more intimate way. Think of it as a new version of stage presence.

Suzanne Lainson
@slainson on Twitter


  1. I agree with this completely.
    But do note that there are so many
    people being unheard of the gorgeous
    We might seem normal looking, your everyday
    teenagers and adults, but some of us have
    more heart to give then anyone who can wear
    spandex or something elegant and look good.

  2. Great ruminations and reflections. Another notable change: we once expected composers to be performers as well. Over time, in the classical realm, we began to accept that to become a truly great performer required a discipline and focus that precluded developing compositional skills. More recently, as popular music matured, we moved in the other direction. Performers who were expected only to perform (not to write or compose) gave way to The Beatles' model of artist/composer/performer. And today the artist is being asked to become conversant with almost every element of the value chain from writing, to production, to engineering/recording, to marketing and distribution. Will the stars of tomorrow come from the ranks of those who are able to assimilate each of these elements and roll them all into something unique and compelling?


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