Bob Baker's Indie Music Promotion Blog

News, notes and ideas on music marketing, self-promotion, artist empowerment and more

February 01, 2007

The Talent Myth

Who knew that my last blog post, a simple list called 14 Things I've Learned About Indie Music Success, would cause such a firestorm of comment traffic?

It once again stirred up those age-old, evergreen debates about making money vs. having talent, and doing music for the love of it vs. a financial payoff. I've addressed these issues countless times over the years, so admittedly, it's easy for me to lose sight of the fact that people reading my writings for the first time will make assumptions about my true meaning.

So, to clear the record ... again:
  • Yes, you should be motivated to play music just for the love of it. It would be dumb to drag yourself down a music career path if your primary goal is to make money or be popular.

  • Yes, I agree that no amount of marketing will overcome music that doesn't connect with an audience.
The Unanswered Question

Okay, I feel better now. But there's still this gnawing problem I have with some of the comments surrounding this well-intentioned but misguided notion that talent carries more weight than popularity.

I get where the idea comes from. We all see amazing musicians who don't have much of a following; then floozies or pretty boys with little or no "talent" who suck up all the limelight.

Fine. Life and the distribution of wealth and fame can seem unfair. If that's hard for you to bare, wear a helmet.

But let's take a closer look at this talent thing. The pontificators talk about it like it's some absolute quality that only certain artists possess. When in reality, being "talented" is a purely subjective opinion.

Consider this quandary: If a guitarist played a smokin' lead solo in the woods and nobody heard him, should he be considered talented? The only way he could in that situation is if he decided for himself that he had "talent."

So, is it an artist's opinion of his own talent level that makes it so? Most people would not agree with that.

If Joe Satriani Jammed in the Woods

Now let's take the same guitarist and his smokin' solo and add 10 people to the forest. Seven people describe him as "talented," three people aren't that impressed, and let's say the guitarist himself is not happy with the way his fingers were moving that day.

Is he talented, or not? Who decides?

Consider Bob Dylan and Neil Young, two hugely popular and "successful" artists. Millions of people love them, but I've never tapped into that affection. I don't get what people see in them.

I have, however, admitted that I respect their place in rock and roll history. I admire the impact they've made on music, which took place because they connected with an audience and reached great levels of popularity.

Oh, there's that evil word again: popularity.

Here's the problem with the Talent Myth. You can only be perceived as "talented" by one person at a time. It's an individual choice. What makes your mouth water may make my insides shudder. And who is ultimately right in the "talent" label competition? Do you win if you can get a greater percentage of the population to deem you talented?

Ah, but if you did that, you'd be right back to playing the ugly popularity game.

A New Perspective

So let's reframe the subject. Instead of saying Artist A is cheesy and Artist B is truly talented and "deserves" this or that, let's think of it as each artist's ability to connect with an audience.

It really doesn't matter how you rate on the Talent Meter, because you'll have as many different scores as there are people in the room (or in the forest). But it does matter if you can connect with an audience that's sizable enough to give your musical effort meaning.

The more people who like you and your music, the better you feel about your craft, and the more options you have for career development.

Does this make sense, people?

It's not about good and bad, or talented and untalented. It's about who can touch people through their music in meaningful ways.


posted by Bob Baker @ 3:34 PM   14 comments


At Feb 1, 2007 5:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you are saying that Neil Young and Bob Dylan were popular only because they connected with a certain audience? It had nothing to do with their talents as songwriters? Talent can only be applied to "singing" voice?

At Feb 1, 2007 6:49:00 PM, Blogger Bob Baker said...

Regarding Neil Young and Bob Dylan, I made no reference to my opinion of their talents as songwriters or singers or anything else. You are merely assuming that. For the purposes of this particular blog post, it doesn't matter.

Bottom line: For these two icons to become popular, it took a lot of individual somebodies who each determined that they were "talented" -- at whatever.

The opinion that an artist is "talented" can be applied to any criteria the opinion-maker wants to use.

So YES, Neil Young and Bob Dylan are popular because they connect with a certain audience of people who each have their own opinion on what makes them "talented."

It has everything to do with their "talents as songwriters" -- to those people who have determined they are great songwriters. And it has everything to do with their "singing voice" -- to those people who believe they are good singers.

For other fans, it might be their lifestyle or what they wear or how they spend their free time, etc.

And who decides which criteria is more valid?

Of course, YOU DO. And billions of other YOU's are deciding the same thing with their own opinions.


At Feb 1, 2007 8:17:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Hirst said...

Bob, here's my encouragement for you for the day... What you do is awesome, and I have greatly benefited from your blogs and artist empowerment podcasts.

Don't listen to people who just like to argue for the sake of arguing. If people don't like your stuff, they'll find every reason they can for why they don't like it and try to drag you down.

I think I've barely ever disagreed with a thing you've said.. its all very logical and encouraging and motivating.

Whatev, just thought I'd give ya a hand and hopefully help ya forget all the punches. :-)

At Feb 2, 2007 1:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.
G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936)

At Feb 6, 2007 4:18:00 PM, Blogger carms said...

No Bob,

Talent isn't only subjective. Neither only objectice of course.

This is (partly) because people are similar as well as different.

It is also because in any trade there are things to be learnt that can be done better or worse ('objectively'). But these don't necessarily make for popularity. In any art there are those who take the easy crowd pleasing way, they are not the major talents.

Evan Hadkins,

At Feb 6, 2007 4:28:00 PM, Blogger Gary Johnston said...

If musical talent was the only driving force behind art then it follow that only classical and jazz artists would be listened to because they have the most in-depth working knowledge of music, it's application and performance. Three chord rockers who solo only pentatonic scales, no matter how well, how fast or how long couldn't possibly stand up to the talents of Horowitz or Coltrane.

Silly argument isn't it?

I agree with you Bob. I don't get U2, for instance. So there. But I recognize that there is "something" that is appealing to the masses.

Personally, I feel this kind of appeal is built on the bell curve. The very best musicians and most complex of music is at the top far end listened to by the few. The very worst is lumped together at the other end, also listened to by the few while the majority of "popular" music is listened to by the people in the middle of the bell, the majority with "average" tastes neither poor in their musical understanding nor well versed in musical complexities. That leaves talent where exactly?

No answers. Just food for thought.


At Feb 6, 2007 4:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know a lot of incredibly talented guitarists who will never leave their front porch.

And then there's me; who should be 100 times better than I am, considering the number of years I've played the guitar. I am definitely not a "talented" guitarist. I've had to struggle and practice for years to become proficient enough to play an hour long gig.

That said, I left the small town, moved to the biggest music centre, started a band who's toured the country several times, got plenty of press in dailies, weeklies, monthlies, etc. etc and actually got a record deal with an American indie label.

So, even though I know there are thousands who are more talented than I am, the fact is if you don't get off your front porch, nothing is ever going to happen in your music career.

It proves to me that talent means very little if you don't add it to a lot of other parts of the whole package.

And even though I love Dylan, Young, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, I would hardly say they are "talented" singers. IMHO talent really has very little to do with it.

At Feb 6, 2007 4:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Unanswered Question", isn't that by Charles Ives?

He IS the answer: completey ignored and despised during his lifetime (so much for connecting with your audience), he now is universally recognized as America's most important composer, and rightfully so.

Did he feel desperate at times? Yes. Did he whine about it? No. He took a day job and actually ended up a millionaire, while following his own muse to continued rejection in the weekends and in the evenings.

That's my hero: do what you need to do and take the consequences.

Epilogue: Near the end of his life, after not having composed for 25 years, Ives was awarded a Pulitzer Price. Recognotion!! Flowers !! Ives said: "Prizes are for children" and refused. There's a wise man for you.

Another inspirational thought I'd like to share comes from the great composer Henry Threadgil: "Artists look up to people, entertainers look down on people".

I hope you find the same encouragement in these words of wisdom as I did.
Jochem van Dijk

At Feb 6, 2007 4:55:00 PM, Blogger asher said...

I'm with Mike Hirst! Bob, you are a VALUABLE commodity in marketing my husband. (

When I came into this crazy music busines I found millions of books, blogs, ideas of the weeks, and so many opinions and paths to choose from, I was overwhelmed! Your materials (I think I own them all) are simple, effective, motivational and keep me focused on getting TMoody heard!

I'm sorry you must deal with obnoxious people like "Anonymous", but the good news is that 'enemies' make us stretch, dig deep and grow. If this person really understood how much you help so many of us, he (or she) may be able to listen, learn and advance thier own career.

People who know everything can learn nothing! The rest of us are grateful and think you are GREAT!...and thank God...I finally found someone who feels EXACTLY as I do about Bob Dillon and Neil Young! :-)

At Feb 6, 2007 5:53:00 PM, Anonymous Bret Talbert said...

Hi Bob. It boggles my mind how a few people writing here (thankfully not most of them) take a word or 2 that you say and forget to read the rest, or interpret it so disproportionately from what you meant.

Talent is belief. Belief in yourself, and others believing in you too. You have given a lot of great advice to give artists some kind of edge for the "getting others to believe in you" part. Little things that make someone stand out a bit more than the majority.

And some people throw around the "success" word much the same way they do the "talent" word. You have put this into great perspective for me / us in some past writings. Setting a goal, planning how you will reach that goal realistically, and following your plan. I am not a millionaire. I play 3-4 gigs a month in various Central Mass towns, sell CDs of my original music at almost every show, and have to turn a few gigs down here & there because I'm too busy. To me, I am talented and successful because I have reached the goal I set. Sustaining it or expanding on it will be up to me. I won't blame YOU Bob if things dry up.

Thank you for lot's of worthy advice, and some of you Anonymouses out there--read between the lines a bit more. If you are that artistic, then you'll be able to step back and look at the big picture. Thanks.

At Feb 6, 2007 8:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have 2 words to sum up what you're saying here.....RAP MUSIC!! It's a perfect example of what you mean. Some of the stuff I hear on BET rap hour, I have to wonder if they are serious, or is it some kind of Weird Al parody, but people like the stuff, young urban kids eat it up, does that make it good? NOT TO ME, but if you like rims and naked chicks, it's perfect!!

At Feb 6, 2007 10:12:00 PM, Anonymous Tania Rose said...

My kids watch a great video called MUMFIE. He's a little elephant who lived on his own in a little house in the wood, and every day he looked in his mailbox, hoping to find an adventure, but one never came. It was only when he considered that maybe aventures didn't come via mail, that he packed himself off to find an adventure himself.

Get out of the woods, people!...i think that be the message.

Thanks Bob, for another great read!!

At Feb 7, 2007 1:30:00 AM, Blogger Morris said...

My view on talent is this:
Talent consists of 5 components:
1. Intrinsic talent: the 'pure' talent, let's say for the instrument
2. Character: the talent for maintainging the intrinsic talent; having a form of discipline, some kind of structure.
3. Social communication: talent to 'sell' your message and not being locked in you room alone, with 'all this talent'.
4. Emotional stability: talent for dealing with criticism and failure
5. Spiritual dimension: the talent to be profound and have artistic integrity with the interaction with the audience.

Talent is so much more than the common view most people have of it. Being succesful is being able to balance these 5 components. When is say "he or she is talented', I look at all the pieces of the pie.

At Feb 7, 2007 6:00:00 PM, Anonymous Molly Myles said...

Bret said it best. Success is very subjective too. No matter how much talent anyone has, some things are more important than art or money. Who wants to be the most talented, most artistic, and most successful, while also being the most miserable?

Each person has to answer these questions for him/herself. And make decisions based on their own beliefs and goals.

In the long run, if you're happy (whether you're famous or obscure) the rest doesn't matter.

Molly Myles


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