Bob Baker's Artist Empowerment Blog

Earning Attention: It's All About Context

For years I've been wanting to write about the role of context in artistic success and recognition. Example: Several years ago, Kelly Clarkson could have sung at a karaoke bar in Texas and few people would have noticed. Put her on an American Idol production stage, team her with pro songwriters and producers, get her some airplay and ... boom! She's a sought-after superstar.

She had loads of talent either way. But it wasn't recognized until she was presented in the optimum context. This idea was driven home recently when violinist Joshua Bell played in a Washington, D.C. subway.

Bell is an internationally renowned virtuoso, considered by many to be one of the most gifted musicians in the world. The Washington Post asked him to conduct an experiment. Writer Gene Weingarten was given the task of investigating what would happen if a gifted musician played in a D.C. subway during morning rush hour.

How would commuters respond? Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked to predict what would happen. He guessed that, over a 45-minute period, a small crowd would gather and that Bell would earn $150 in tips.

The results: Seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

Again, it's all about context. Here's Bell quoted in Weingarten's article:

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cell phone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence ..."

Context creates expectations in the audience, it can add or subtract confidence in the artist, it colors everything about the creative experience.

Read the entire article here. And remind yourself of this principle next time you have a less than stellar event or performance. Most importantly, do everything you can to create the context that's best for you and your audience.



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