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It's about time we reconsidered what we mean by talent: how it is defined, who gets identified as talented, and how they are developed, recognised and rewarded. Is talent the product of 10,000 hours of devoted practice, or the reward of cultivating 10,000 followers?

Definitions of talent are diverse, and influenced by the company we keep and influences we subject ourselves too. For example, the expectations of our teachers have been shown to have a particularly strong influence on our future success. What we mean by 'talent' depends on the networks of information that we participate in.

Our expectations of what talent looks like matter ever more in an age of accelerating access to visual communication tools. In the last decade talent competitions became a new force on our TV screens. As contestants are driven towards established categories for their music product, ask yourself whether David Bowie or Prince would have made it through X-Factor open auditions A new study from the RSA captures 8 distinct perspectives from the music industry. It is clear from looking deeper into the music industry that talent always has a social context.

As the music industry faces dizzying decades of change, it is clear that ideas of talent are changing. We're in an era when the internet is a vast host for new sprawling new feedback networks - and music, of course, is still playing out the mother of all internet disruptions. Napster would have been 15 this month. iTunes is younger still. YouTube hasn't yet celebrated its 10th birthday. Spotify launched in 2009 in the UK and now we stream 260 million songs per week and judge our music charts by this measure.

Music is changing for artists as much as consumers. Recent work by our partners at the University of Manchester has highlighted the importance of social networks in determining career paths in music. They point to evidence of the powerful role of social networks (online and offline) on creativity and success from hip-hop beef to the last night of the Proms. Other studies provide further proof of the value of 'who you know?' We can see this in data on who wins awards. Statistical analysis of IMDB showed that being more connected is related to success at the Oscars when your connections are prestigious rather than simply more numerous.

Networks matter because they channel talent to our screens and headphones

Why should we be surprised, and why should we care? Labour markets in well-functioning economies have millions of people with different talents, and allocate talent to appropriate jobs. So we should be concerned with how this allocation is made effective - in music and all sectors. There are real implications from the networks that allocate and the exposure networks give us; for example, young children are more musically able and better able to distinguish musical tones and pitches having been exposed to many different types of music. We've always developed taste through recommendations, but most of us now listen to music through online platforms which actively suggest further music to us, based on algorithms which compute the tastes of others.

How we identify and support talent is an issue which extends way beyond music to impact on education and career opportunities. Half of 18 year old women from the most advantaged neighbourhoods entered university in 2013, compared to one in seven 18 year old boys from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Do we really believe academic potential is distributed this way? Other studies have shown that women get labelled "talented" in work appraisals, while men are considered "skilled" when exhibiting the same traits. This has impacts on how workers are valued, their pay and career progression. A study earlier this year at the RSA highlighted that 43% of the UK workforce have skills they aren't using at work.

Channelling Talent concludes that ability is more evenly distributed than the resources to develop it,and talent is distributed more widely than the concentrated financial rewards enjoyed by superstars and executives. As DJ, producer and entrepreneur Elijah puts it:

"it's not a democratic system and there's no element of fairness...It's not about that...What it is is what it is."

Elijah 500

We should challenge the assumption that social connections will always provide a shortcut to success. We have a right to demand better, especially when public and charitable funding is involved in developing talent. Our report contains recommendations which start with a simple challenge: for educators and executives in music to make explicit their definition of talent.

We are only just scratching the surface in understanding the science behind our attraction to music and the commercial forces that influence our exposure to songs. We also need to better understand the intrinsic benefits of practising and performing music in an age of digital production, digital publishing and engagement with others through online networks.

The RSA has been working with a range of partners to help Human Resources professionals and organisational leaders to establish better ways of measuring and valuing talent.

As thousands of aspiring future stars head back to school and entertain dreams from the music room, the RSA will push to broaden the power to create, and ensure our networks are efficient channels for talent - for everyone's benefit.

A version of this article was first published on Huffington Post. Jonathan Schifferes is the lead author of the report, and producer of the Channelling Talent film. Follow Jonathan on Twitter.


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