June 8, 2018

The Musician and the Entertainer

Way back when I was studying music at Berklee, Madonna was at the peak of superstardom. At the time, it was not uncommon to hear my classmates scoff at Madonna’s success. They would say things like, “She sucks!” or “She can’t even sing!” or “She lip syncs at her concerts!”

This sort of behavior always struck me as asinine. How could these fledgling musical artists look at Madonna’s massive success and dismiss it out of hand?

I would typically respond by saying:

“Sure, maybe she’s not a great musician, but she’s an incredible entertainer.”

Nobody ever disagreed with me about this. What they would< disagree with me about was the relative merit of being a musical virtuoso vs (merely) being a world-class entertainer.

To my music school friends, the only valid measure of a musical artist was how good they were at their instrument. As a result, they played music that was designed to impress other musicians<. They idolized virtuosos like Jaco Pastorius and Kenny Aronoff and Steve Vai.

Entertainers, on the other hand - like Madonna or U2 or Justin Timberlake - are focused on delighting the audience.< The entertainer exists to serve. They judge their success by the reaction of their audience, not the judgement of their peers.

When an entertainer has a bad show, they’ll usually blame themselves (e.g., “I bombed tonight!”). When a musician has a bad show, they’ll often blame the audience (e.g., “Why don’t they see how great I am?!”).

To be clear, this is not an either/or proposition. It’s not a spectrum with musical genius on one end and world-class entertainer on the other. It’s two different meters. Two different ways to measure progress.

I’m not saying U2 are bad musicians. And I’m not saying Steve Vai is a bad entertainer. You can be both. Prince, for example. He was both a musical genius and a world class entertainer.

The value of this exercise to you as an independent professional is in considering separately where you rate on the “musician” meter (i.e., mastery of your craft) and on the “entertainer” meter (i.e., your client satisfaction levels)

If you’re not getting the kind of success you want, you might be working to move the needle on the wrong meter.