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Why Your ‘Greatness’ is Missed

As music artists seek notice from fans and the industry, it’s vital to observe a key factor concerning peoples’ ability to recognize talent, even greatness.

You may have already read about the social experiment the Washington Post conducted two years ago with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. It was actually Bell’s idea to perform undercover as a street musician for a day at a Washington Metro station. What many don’t know is that the Gene Weingarten story earned a Pulitzer Prize that year for feature writing. What many do recall is the fact that a venerated violinist went virtually unnoticed, unappreciated and unrecognized.

What the public took away from the story — rightly so — is the fact that people pass up life’s jewels, even when they’re right before their, well, ears. But this tale holds a much greater meaning for artists of all stripes.

Center stage for artists sits the concept of context. What does that mean? For decades, I’ve observed that people, music industry pros included, often don’t recognize greatness in its raw form. When it comes to music, listeners need to have a song or an album framed for them in a validated form.

There are many examples, but here’s a case in point from my own experience as a songwriter and recording artist. In the late 1980’s, I began a ten-year stint as a Nashville songwriter. The first two years were rough, but when I got the hang of it my material and demos became street-ready, as they say. A number of those demos were sung by Trisha Yearwood. Then, she was known as Trisha Latham (her name from her first marriage), and was unsigned and unknown. The first demo I heard her sing on left me slack-jawed, and not just because of the material, which did eventually get signed to what was then PolyGram. By the time she hit the first chorus, I knew I was hearing a major star in the making.

But here’s the point. As I played those demos for music publishers and A&R execs, it amazed me that not a one commented on the singer. So I started what was to become an experiment of my own. I’d ask, “so what do you think of the singer?” They’d invariably say, “who is she?,” to which I’d reply, “Trisha Latham.” Then, they’d say something like “never heard of her,” and that was the end of it.

The reason they never heard of Trisha is because she was being developed privately through Garth Brooks’ camp. A&R in any music town expect to see upcoming talent in the clubs, so the assumption (as it was with Trisha) is: “if I don’t know her, she can’t be any good.” Again, it’s all about context.

Several months later, Trisha’s first single – “She’s in Love with the Boy” — came out, making Music City history for duration at number one for a female artist. By then, she had returned to her maiden name, Yearwood. I made the rounds of many of the same offices again, playing those Trisha-sung demos. This time, by the third note, I’d hear, “That’s Trisha Yearwood!,” to which I’d reply, “yeah, so where were you last year?”

Of course, we’ve all heard the stories of how most famous artists have their walls lined with record-label rejection letters, and, if you’ve paid some dues in the biz, you likely have a collection of your own.

So what’s the point of all of this? People – pedestrians and pros alike – miss greatness all the time. Even in the biz, there aren’t that many John Hammonds, Ahmet Erteguns and Russell Simmonses. If it were that easy to spot top talent, A&R would be a cinch.

So how is this study of use to the music artist? Simply as a point of reference, to understand why some audiences, some pros have been missing your best stuff. Maybe you’ll never write or produce a truly great song. But, if you work hard for a long, long time, chances are very good that you will come up with one, maybe more. For that reason, it’s vital to be armed with such perspective.

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Allen Shadow is a rock artist, songwriter and PR pro. For more, check out his blog.

Reader Comments (24)

Great article ! I think I've got another example: in the progressive rock scene, there is this rather new band named Demians. They had a demo available on their manager's website back in 2005 or 2006, I found some dudes discussing it on some random forum, "hey check this demo - yeah, not bad". Then the manager achieved a clever move: he got prog-guru Steven Wilson to talk nicely about the upcoming album. That was it, the next comments I saw were "I will buy it because Wilson said it's good". People rely on experts to decide what is good for them.

September 3 | Unregistered CommenterFrancois

Great article. FYI: Russel Simmons passed on Nas and Maddona ( I had to put that out there.)

September 3 | Unregistered CommenterHeronDemarco

Good point on Simmons passing on Nas and Madonna. Certainly no one's perfect, and just goes to show how hard it is to recognize everyone in the raw, so to speak. In fact, I'll throw myself in, too. Just because I recognized Yearwood's talent right away, doesn't mean I haven't missed people along the way. Also, a there are a number of artists I've met over the years who I thought would go much further than they actually did. My friend Billy Montana, for one, was a brilliant artist and writer who was a Nashville darling in the 80's and 90's. All the top execs came to his shows and showcases. He was signed to two record deals during that period, but nothing hit real big. He did become very successful as a songwriter though. Last year, he penned a number 1 hit for Garth Brooks.

September 3 | Registered CommenterAllen Shadow


Great post. Beautifully stated. Changing the context paradigm - giving professionals and consumers new and trusted places where they would expect to find 'hits' where they never found them before is a challenge for sure.

Thanks for this post..


September 4 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila


One of the best articles I've read on discovery, awesome. I'm now following you on twitter and your blog is in my RSS, great stuff.

My own experience along this lines is with Larkin Gayl, a singer I've worked with. She has an album out, it's GREAT, but success eludes her. Who the hell knows why? Argh.

Again, killer prose, thank you.

Jeff Shattuck

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

Reminds me of Badly Drawn Boy videoclip for his song "all possibilities", he played anonymously in a street in the middle of London, and they filmed him with a hidden camera.
The guy has winned awards for his music, made songs for hollywood movies, and as a busker he made something like 1.50£!

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

Good article indeed, thank you. Consider though the other side of the fence:

A&R people are like baseball players, if they are batting .300 they are heroes. The trick to that gig is getting up to bat often and getting a "hit" early in the career trajectory. Everyone who has that gig misses and in defense of that gig it is not uncommon for artists to write their big single or singles in pre-production or in the studio when their first major release is being made. Also consider how many submissions an A&R person gets daily and how many they can actually pull the trigger on... If an A&R person signed everything they passed on and passed on everything they signed- all of them would be more successful (This goes for Ahmet, Hammond & Simmons too). Remember they pass on 99% of the material that comes their way.

I say it often - you make your own luck. If you want to be presented in good context you build a business on your own- nothing presents you in a better light than having built a local or regional following on your own. I was told a story by the head of A&R at a major company about the signing of a multi-platinum act on the label (an act he freely admitted he didn't like musically). He said he was bored out of his mind at their show but he wandered around their show and talked to the capacity crowd at the club they were playing. Everyone there swore they were the next big thing, the second coming of Christ. When he figured that in with some local support on radio, a request profile at retail (where they had no product) and a string of sold out shows he figured the consumer knew better than he did and signed them.

Love or hate the A&R person if you will, it's a gig based on having or at least appreciating very common taste in music. Finding talent... well if only raw talent was the only factor that determined commercial success it would be a different game indeed,

I have found that if you listen or work with music for a living or play music at all- there is a profound shift in how you relate to music and you are less like the common consumer.

Oh and on a hopeful note - EVERYONE passed on the Beatles.


September 5 | Unregistered CommenterRick Goetz

Thank you for the great examples: Badly Drawn Boy (love their name), Larkin Gayl. It's a good conversation. Like the baseball analogy on A&R. Nevertheless, I believe the best thing artists can take away from all this is the sense of perspective, keeping in mind there's a reason you meet with great resistance, even when you present great material, especially when you have corroborating evidence of the latter. What I'm getting at is protecting the artist's psyche as he or she navigates the stormy seas of this biz. I'll post more on this subject. I've had my nosed pressed up against the window of the music biz and have made it to the other side. Along the way, I've learned some good ways to deal with it all.


September 5 | Registered CommenterAllen Shadow

That is an excellent perspective. I saw the Joshua Bell video and was just astounded that people didn't stop to listen.

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterAlyzabeth

Great post!

For us artists who know we have talent but lack the essential business and sales skills to get ourselves in the doors, this is hopeful. I think the basic tenant is a bit deeper though. It's root is a core belief in yourself and your ability to trust your own thoughts and decisions. Us humans are kind of like mindless robots when in a public situation. The thought is, "God forbid I should stand out or do something no one else is doing." Like, stopping to check out the music of a busker and droppin' some cash in the case.

When I go to A&R listening panels I am always amused at these top A&R peeps telling me I should try to sound like such and such band or artist. Why? I thought they wanted something different than all the clones already out there? Go figure. It all goes back to stepping out of your own box of limits and fears and thinking for yourself no matter who is watching.

~Atrum Lux Lucis (The Artist formerly known as Cheryl Hill)

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterAstrum Lux Lucis

Music markets the artist while the artist must market the music... every band should add a marketing consulting/specialist; if they play an instrument or sing the more the merrier.

September 8 | Unregistered Commenterf0n3nyc

Any1 who dares to trailblaze will it a very lonely road to success but a crowded path to failure if one doesn't remember the struggle.... f0n3nyc

September 8 | Unregistered Commenterf0n3nyc

I was 18 in San Francisco, lunching with a music publisher (for those old enough, Original Joe's was the haunt and guy's name was Alan Dote, to the best of my recollection, the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks). The publisher said "diamond in the rough" and said I sounded like Bob Dylan. He said the only problem I had was people could still buy Bob Dylan. I guess that's what happened to me for the past 35 years.

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterBob Graham

This is reassuring, but contrary somewhat to something Derek Sivers has said, which is that if people aren't talking about you than you haven't honed your art well enough and you need to keep shedding rather than pay for marketing. But I do agree that people often want expert opinions or context to drive their sense of taste. Also, as someone else commented, originality is a hard row to hoe, because by definition you don't sound quite like someone else so you don't inspire a Pavlovian response to your music. Your thoughts?

Also, I'm intrigued by the comment about how when you work in music your taste changes from that of the average consumer. I believe it's a question of the average consumer reacting to music on a purely emotional/contextual level, while the music professional reacts to that PLUS an awareness of the technical/artistic skill and originality that has gone into a song.

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterAlexa Weber Morales

It's always been about who you know, who you've played with, etc. I see it every weekend in the Detroit music scene. Even tougher here w/the economy. Lots of folks vying for same gigs.

September 9 | Unregistered CommenterAmericana_Mama

The Joshua Bell video gave me great hope and inspiration.I have observed that people tend to give great credit to artists that have achieved success through sales,although it seems like a lot of those people are not that good.On the other hand if you are good and have not achieved great sales you may be treated as though you have nothing to offer.So the trick here is to realize this and keep plugging like the Beatles and all these other people.and thats exactly what Iam doing intensifying my efforts in all areas.

September 9 | Unregistered CommenterMacarldie

Great post! It is amazing to me that so many good folks in the contemporary, rock, etc. scene were inspired by the Joshua Bell story. I agree that context is everything. For some reason, if anyone in the industry ("they") say it is good then people (the other "they") are more likely to take notice. As a classical musician who just made her first solo CD after performing professionally for 15 years in local venues, I am constantly amazed at how much further along the commercial music industry is for Indy artists than the classical system in all areas related to creation and promotion of new artists and music. To call myself an Indy Artist in the classical world is all but unknown and even laughable to some. All these contemporary and rock posts in response to an experiment with a classical violinist seems hopeful to me that our industries are really not that different and that I can still take support and advice from blogs like this one!

September 9 | Unregistered Commentersmkane

Nice reading this perspective - many thanks.

September 9 | Unregistered Commenterdavid elias

I completely agree with your point - but I think it misses the piece, so what's an artist to do?

If you've honed and polished your craft - so you are the best you can be, in the talent, skill and performance area - and you're still being missed. Then you need to look at how you're presenting yourself or the context.

Most often artists get missed because they're presenting themselves in the "context" of a stadium full of other artists all screaming their own message. Easy to miss. Niche marketing is the context that allows your greatness to find its audience and Multiple Streams of Music Income is what allows you to develop that niche market into a full blown business.

Stop trying to stand out in a crowd. Find your niche and make your own context with just you making music and everybody else happily listening.

Your Coach,
Debra Russell

September 9 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Russell

Quality of music isn't as important as exposurej kind of like politicians don't care about your quality of character since every vote is judged equal. There is no problem except the reluctance of music purists to expand their knowledge into that of business. The "monster" known as the industry is really the mouse, artists, in the closet making noises that can pass, in a child's ignorant imaginitive mind as something scarier than it really is. The internet has increased the competition. But also has increased the playing field. Every artist is capable of fair market share but that doesn't make the MOST talented MOST deserving. In this day and age the great thinkers and artists are consumed by consumerism, coupled with the greed of "salesman" trying to appease and increase the marlet for more profit. Businessmen dabble in music so why not musicians dabble in business? My opinion: the ego of mankind is seen most clearly in the works of musicians, who clearly having mastered the art, become amongst the most arrogant of beings. Humility , compromise and initiative will bring balance to "aesthetics" marketwise and quiet the hostilities brought on by progress...... the skyz fallen f0n3nyc holla n get at me

September 10 | Unregistered Commenterf0n3nyc

Great article.

One minor quibble, though, speaking with my licensed London Underground busker hat on - busking and making it work is a whole separate skill unto itself, as different from normal concert performance as studio recording is. That's the real reason why Joshua Bell didn't do as well as he 'should have done', just as Badly Drawn Boy didn't. If Bell had dressed up in a bow tie and tails (rather than deliberately dressing down), maybe taken an electric violin with an amp (so people could actually hear him) and played material appropriate to the crowd (not just what he fancied playing himself), he'd probably have done a lot better.

Of course, then there wouldn't be a story.

September 17 | Registered CommenterWayne Myers

Good point on the art of busking. Yet think about Bell's prodigious talent singing out from a $3.5 million violin. Might even trump a bow tie with polka dots. The idea that it would be the novelty of a get-up that would break through to passersby vs. heart-piercing notes may only prove the point further: folks often don't notice genius unless it's framed, by heavy radio rotation or by a rotating bow tie.

September 17 | Registered CommenterAllen Shadow

Good article. Although, I think it's easy to spot talent if you are looking for it. The problem is that A&R people over look talent and focus only what they think will sell. The average consumer will generally seek out only what they like and close themselves off to much else. Both will generally miss out on talent that doesn't fit neatly in their box. The music industry has gotten too compartmentalized. If you don't fit a certain image that corresponds with a specific style of music, you are likely to get ignored or marginalized.

Oversaturation is also a problem. The garbage tends to rise to the top and everything else gets held down. As a DJ, Remixer, Producer, Composer & Musician, I hear great songs and artists all the time that get overlooked because people only focus on what's popular. These days you have to go out and search for talent, it won't fall in your lap.

September 24 | Unregistered Commentervsound

As far as A&R stuff goes, part of deciding to work with an artist is if they will be able to make it as a professional musician. If someone just records & has never done a live show, it'll be hard to know if you can push them out on the road. It is certainly easier to make a great live performer into a competent studio musician than the other way around.

As far as context for a band being important, why do you think so many bands are doing reunion tours? No one cares about their solo material just because it lacks certain branding.

February 23 | Unregistered CommenterBrian John Mitchell

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