Four years ago, I mistook John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin for a mandolin-totin' nobody... at best, I thought him a member of Widespread Panic.
It all happened when I was sitting in a tent backstage at Bonnaroo, sneezing incessantly and waiting for my allergy medicine to kick-in. It was hot and I was miserable. That's when Jones walked in. He politely and unassumingly introduced himself as "John" while I tried not to sneeze in his face. Then he walked into the other part of the tent to play the mandolin for a camera crew from CNN.
A handful of people rushed in to see this legend play his instrument, while others (like me) went about business as usual.
I recognized neither Jones' star power or musical prowess, despite the presence of CNN. I guess I just wasn't looking (or listening) hard enough.
I thought of this encounter during our last HBS session of Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries, when Professor Elberse challenged me and my classmates to predict whether people can identify true talent without marketing cues or signals. As an example, she referenced an experiment that took place in 2007:
What happens when world-renowned violinist, Joshua Bells, plays six difficult pieces on his $3m violin... at a DC Metro station during rush hour?
Some classmates guessed that there would be a mob (as did The Washington Post initially expected), whereas others said he would go unnoticed.
Here's what happened...
Talk about a humbling experience. Bell made $32.17 that day, whereas he normally earns $1,000 per minute for a performance.
The Jones and Bell examples hint at a question underlying the entertainment industry: Can people recognize quality without cues?
The contextual factors are certainly important, like time, day, location and competition. My classmate, Luis (a chart-topping musician in South America) also brought up accessibility. Pop songs are, not surprisingly, more recognizable than those crafted for the violin (or mandolin). When you have only a few seconds to catch someone's attention, this is especially critical.
To support Luis' point about accessibility, here is a video of Bruce Springsteen performing on a street in Copenhagen some twenty-odd years ago. While The Boss didn't cause near riots, he certainly drew more of a crowd than Bell did...
I think we would all prefer pure talent over manufactured fads -- the show without the business. But if Springsteen can't make it on the streets, who of us can?