Millions of aspiring musicians are being denied the chance to develop careers in the creative industries because companies, colleges and the media haven't evolved their understanding of talent for the digital age, according to a new report from the RSA.
The report, Channelling Talent, concluded that "these days David Bowie probably wouldn't make it past the X-Factor auditions" and recommended that during a time of flux for the industry, that executives, educators and journalists would do well to take a critical look at what they mean by talent.
A short film from the RSA, released to coincide with the report, showed that many of the existing channels for talent in music are not serving society well, with concentrations of power amongst certain social networks resulting in a lot of the UK's talent being neglected.
Examining the mechanisms that generate, develop, promote, recognise and reward talent in music, it came as no surprise to many of the research participants that being wealthy, well-connected and good looking provides a fast track to success. Elijah, who runs the independent Butterz record label said, "It's not a democratic system and there's no element of fairness...what it is, is what it is".
Yet others pointed to a worrying set of consequences for young people aspiring for careers in music. One study highlighted that 95 percent of front covers of NME in the last two decades featured men; a former NME editor responded saying there were no women of note. The University of Manchester sociologist Susan O'Shea said that "...gender and ethnic inequalities are perpetuated through the images the music industry relies upon".
The RSA found the potential for financial reward for "bedroom musicians" is limited as live music becomes the only remaining profitable part of the business. This fuels fears that only the already affluent will be able to pursue music as a career - despite growing evidence of the broad benefits to all of participating and practicing music.
The report called on the big and the small players in the music industry to do more to live up to their own standards of supporting creative expression and commercial success, taking steps to ensure that norms of talent are constantly questioned.
Commenting on the research, RSA Senior Researcher Jonathan Schifferes said:
"The internet presents new challenges to understanding how social networks affect industries such as music. For example, many musicians are concerned with what data activists call the "filter bubble" - the algorithms used by YouTube, Spotify, Facebook and others which recommend music based on the trail of data you leave when you listen.
While the internet can make anything and everything available, the filter bubble can serve to limit exposure to the diverse corners of the music world, especially when corporate cash can fund which choices you get presented with at the click of a button. We're being channelled towards consuming certain music online and very few people understand the complex formulae which sit behind."
The RSA film, released to coincide with the report, revealed a diverse range of perspectives on the music industry from aspiring musicians, journalists and senior figures at BBC Radio1 and LiveNation – alongside expertise from sociologists at the University of Manchester.
The film shows that realising success in music involves wider range of skills than ever. Cheaper, broader access to music technology has opened up opportunities, but many bands these days need to provide their own PR, web design and recording well into their careers.
The report, Channelling Talent, warned that huge changes to the music industry are changing the type of artist that we recognise and reward, and called for increased transparency in how key institutions decide to host or promote different types of music.
Networks matter because they not only transmit a definition of talent - they also control the taste of others and determine who becomes a commercial success, the report said. The RSA made several recommendations which aim to help organisations recognise the role that social networks play in defining, identifying, developing, recognising and rewarding talent including:
Music institutions, with their stakeholders, should develop and publish their definition of talent as part of their wider mission statement. They should be able to answer the question "what do we mean when we talk about talent"?
Programmes should be created in various music worlds to bridge professions and sectors. By better connecting music to the wider arts sector and creative industries, it would encourage musicians to widen their social networks and broaden their potential for work and recognition
The effectiveness of initiatives to develop and support talent in music should be evaluated, and resources for initiatives should be allocated on the basis of effectiveness
Notes to editors
1. For more information contact Jonathan Schifferes on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7451 6966
2. The 10-minute film is available here
3. The report suggests that where public money is being spent, additional scrutiny is particularly relevant. For example, by creating Radio 1Xtra as the "home of black music", Radio 1 has not featured as much music as would otherwise be the case by black artists, therefore reducing exposure to this network of listeners.