Saturday, November 30, 2013


Of all the things that have been most enlightening but also annoying in the journey of music in my lifetime, it's the delicate issue of judging talent. What truly makes an artist "talented"?

We watched the movie "Moneyball" with Brad Pitt playing ex-baseball player Billy Beane who was the General Manager of the Oakland A's. In one scene of the movie, college recruiters and pro-baseball talent scouts visited his home when he was just a teenager. During that scene, the talent scouts shared some realities about their job of finding potential players for the MLB. What struck me in particular was their explanation of the obvious versus the intangibles that make up the best players in the game. As memory serves, there were 5 characteristics they used to judge pro potential. Their statement to Beane's family was that "MOST" players in the pros possess several of the 5 to some degree, but rarely do they find one single player who possesses all of them at a high level (as they were referring to Billy).

The same can be said about the music industry as I've come to learn. We've all watched reality singing shows and heard the various comments from celebrity judges about the X-Factor or IT factor. There will always be something more than pure vocal skill that an artist and parents must consider.

Sadly, many artists and parents of young artists are convinced that if they sound like an existing artist or have vocal skills that are advanced, they just need to wait for the MONEY TRAIN to come through so they can jump aboard. Well, these same artists and parents need to spend some time outside their local community and travel a while to see what "talent" exists in the market already. They should visit Nashville for a week and see the thousands of out of work artists that are amazingly talented and have a live show that is simply amazing. Or they should spend some time touring from show to show and watch artists find the energy to put on another show after getting very little sleep and still trying to use phone and laptops to maintain some sort of home life.

There is FAR more to becoming a professional artist than skill alone.

One of the most intriguing "reality checks" we have learned from our talks with veteran industry music professionals and executives, it's the stuff that most eager artists and parents don't focus upon when preparing them for a life in music or even being SIGNED.

Although every label executive has their personal "wish list" for talent they would back, there are other industry people who have their own check lists as well. In fact, the media itself has their check list. But I'll just touch on a few key comments I've been given about what former A&R's from Sony have considered to be more important than just vocal skill alone.

    • This one is quite tough for younger artists who find it difficult to find family friendly venues in their geographic region. As a resort, attendance numbers are hard to gauge.
    • This is important to venue owners who want to know what kind of income they can generate from an artist. It's also important to a label who wants to understand the REAL fans of an artist versus the CYBER FOLLOWERS of an artist.
    • The ability to get bookings is a HUGE indicator on an artists true value. Again, what an artist does online versus offline is a distinction of the commercial viability for that artist.
    • Like it or not, doing cover songs is just not going to make a career (unless you're Michael Bolton). Having the ability to create music is very important to determining the authenticity of an artist.
    • Most labels we have spoken to are keenly interested in knowing that the artist is the driver of the career and not the stereotype stage parent. This, of course, is the same in athletics with young people.
    • Because under 18 artists need a parent or guardian involved, it makes it difficult to sort through the blurred lines of motivation.
    • Spencer had a talent producer in L.A. speak to him about his auditioning for X-Factor and America's Got Talent. One of the intriguing comments from this 50 year old veteran TV casting director was how the music industry has dramatically changed because of REALITY TV. Her comment was basically this. "I see and audition hundreds of highly talented artists every season I'm casting a new show. One of the most frustrating things I encounter is their inability to simply answer a question or talk like a regular human. It's like they have spent all their time focused on the music and forgot that being in the public life is more about what they do off the stage."  What this told me is that having an artist that understands how to deal with media and public speaking is highly important. She went on to explain that it used to be that a musician could be amazing on stage and who cared what they did off stage. Now, with social media, media coverage being so widespread, an artist needs to handle their public life with as much professionalism as they try to do the music.
    • Sadly, labels don't have the budgets to invest in developing new artists like they used to. One of the areas would have been media training. Many labels are interested in picking up artists that aren't gun shy in front of a camera and actually have intelligent and thoughtful things to say. A label is putting money into them and what they have to say in public can effect sales... so it is extremely important that the artist have that aspect of their career well developed.
    • Working with iShine and Spencer, we've had first hand exposure to what it's like dealing with young artists and their families. Some are amazingly humble and well-balanced. Some are extremely arrogant and carry themselves that way.
    • The character of an artist (especially young ones who have not proven anything to industry people yet) is important. We've already come across venues, producers, labels, management companies and a whole myriad of other industry related people who have shared their opinions of working with certain artists and their families. Trust me, humility goes a long way.
    • Because the door to get into the industry may be small, having an artist with other skills in their belt is quite handy. Maybe they aren't keen to become an actor, but having some acting experience helps them become more marketable when an opportunity arises. Maybe it isn't acting, but it's dancing. Maybe it's playing an instrument. In addition, maybe it's being able to perform different genre's of music.
    • One thing we've learned quickly is that what Spencer likes to sing and listen to isn't what his managers in Nashville are necessarily pushing to promote him as an artist. Having the ability to lay down your preference of something artistically and consider an alternative in order to get exposure is important. Even if it's a matter of experimenting to find a niche in the crowded market of sound-alikes.
    • This seems obvious, but a lot of younger artists are more interested in looking like their hero in music than developing their own style and image.
    • Imaging mostly involves what the artist does off the stage as well. Do they volunteer in their community? Are they a spokesperson for a cause that matters to them? Are they dressed appropriately for their age? Are they connected with people or organizations that will reflect positively on their image.
    • Imaging may also have everything to do with whom they hang out with in the artist community. Projects they may collab on has a lot to do with their imaging. I recall several times when we have been contacted by talented artists who have their own loyal fan base, but the topics of the songs they sing are not something that blends well with Spencer's image. One in particular was a rap artist who sang mostly about partying and getting physical with girls. They had a great following, but it was simply not in the best interest of Spencer to be affiliated with that.
    • Honestly, having a professional support team surrounding an artist is a great sign that they are able to handle the industry. No professional artist does everything alone. They usually have a team of people that handle various aspects of their career for them. When you're young and just starting out, those support mechanisms are difficult to find or finance. However, being mentored is critical if the artist is going to handle the growth of their career with the best possible advice.
    • When you're talking to various industry execs or people, you are much better positioned to demonstrate that you're "teachable" and being taught by those that have proven experience. Additionally, having parents willing to let their child be taught without being de-programmed later by the parent is a big area needing addressed. Frankly, most managers, label execs, and other key industry people prefer and sometimes insist on waiting until a child turns 18 before they will extend any sort of offer for a professional opportunity. Conversely, a young artist with a good supportive family that is not intrusive and provides a strong balanced lifestyle for the young artists is something that a label may consider to be attractive.
    • Does the artist seem authentic or do they look like a puppet or trained monkey?
      • It's a harsh statement, but one that I have repeatedly heard among the industry people I've talked with over the past 3 years. The phrase "authentic" is just so common to my vocabulary now it seems like an obvious measuring stick I watch for in Spencer and artists we come across. Some may call it "originality" but even if you're covering someone else's song, does the artist seem to do it from a sincere place of artistic expression or does it just seem rehearsed?
    • Touching on the word ORIGINAL is appropriate, because the market is already full of acts that seem similar. An authentic artist can become original if the material they perform is believable coming from them. Having a 13 year old sing about a serious relationship heartbreak is just not authentic. That's where skill disappears behind authenticity.
    • A lot of seriously talented artists can perform well online in a video they've filmed a few dozen times til it is just right. However, there's no substituting a live performance in front of stone faced audience members who can quickly scare any talented audience into a shell. What's more, beyond the performance of the song, what kind of "talking" does the artist do between songs? This is equally important to making the live show more entertaining.
    • Messaging is simply what an artist has studied and thought through about what they want to say before or after the songs they perform. The revealing of the "real" person between songs is as important (if not more) to a highly discerning audience than the singing itself. This is a critical aspect we work on with Spencer on a regular basis. It is what an audience will use to relate to the artist and engage them into becoming more loyal fans.
    • One of the things we hadn't thought about when starting this journey is just that... it's a journey, not a sprint. Things like how well an artist adjusts to being away from their home and friends in order to be committed to their profession. How well they adjust to being booed at a performance. How well they adjust to staying in vocal and physical shape so they can sing one more show that day or week. All of that has everything to do with their career. Passion for music only goes so far. Endurance is more about the "annoying" stuff an artist has to do in order to be a professional artist.
    • Labels definitely appreciate knowing an artist they will consider has proven they can handle the rough lifestyle an artist has to take on. Hearing that they've toured for months away from home and have learned how to stay positive and not get burnt out and want to quit from adverse situations and experiences is something that will make a positive impact on their likelihood of being signed.
    • A lot of young artists crumble under peer judgment or negative feedback. That will sink a career quickly if the artist is unable to deal with rejection and turn it into motivation to get better or perfect their craft.
These are some of the more important intangibles that we've learned make a huge difference in sorting through WHO is talented versus who is skilled. The total package isn't always the look (appearance) or (singing ability) skill of an artist. But it is more about their approach to their career and, honestly, their willingness to keep trying hard.

Parents, especially, should make sure they are observing all these other areas in order to guide their child artist in a way that will serve them well when the opportunity arises for a more high profile career path.

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