The Mozart problem

Piano What do you do when there’s a singular talent in your field that is SO demonstrably superlative that no one can EVER hope to compete with it?

This is “the Mozart problem,” according to Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, who describes it as “the presence of a market-clearing talent in one’s chosen profession.”

The reference of course is to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the child prodigy whose musical genius eclipsed that of all other classical composers of his time, leaving jealous rivals such as Antonio Salieri—according to the movie Amadeus at least—in despair of ever approaching Mozart’s creative endowment. Beam gives examples of other “market-clearing talents” who spent careers psyching out rivals—such as Bobby Fischer in chess or Michael Jordan in basketball—but leaves out my favorite example: a rock & roll band that has cast a long shadow on popular music for half a century.

The Beatles—by nearly any measurement of artistic or commercial success—have blown away the pop music competition since they exploded on the world stage in 1964. They have been the biggest AND the best—selling over a billion units and topping most polls for best pop artist ever and best pop album ever (Revolver or Sgt Pepper usually comes out #1). As USA Today puts it, "No other entertainers in history have been as popular, as influential, as important or as groundbreaking." 50 years ago this very week they held the TOP FIVE SPOTS on the Billboard Hot 100. Think that will happen again in the lifetime of anyone reading this? Their preeminence as songwriters, arrangers, and recording artists has left more than a few pop songwriter/musicians wondering, “Why even bother?”

Actor Billy Bob Thornton summed up the dilemma in a 4/29/04 Rolling Stone interview:

Here’s why I think actors, musicians, and artists are so fucked up: because there’s one entity in entertainment that nobody can ever equal and that’s the Beatles. We all want to be the Beatles. And we can’t be. We’re trying to really say something and yet be that popular. In a way it serves a great purpose, because it makes us keep working.

A Sisyphean task, methinks. 44 years after the breakup of the band there’s still no musical act on the horizon that is likely to challenge their dominance. But just as The Beatles aimed to be "bigger than Elvis," many pop music acts are still aiming to be bigger than the Beatles. (Good luck.) We will henceforth call this "the Beatles problem."

But this got me thinking about business—and the companies that have dominated their market while producing quality products or services. The time frame for such supremacy seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Perhaps the concentration of competitive forces unleashed against market leaders in business is too much to withstand in the 21st century?

Jeff Bezos—the CEO of Amazon, which has recently emerged as the giant of electronic commerce—was cautious about predicting a long run for his company's ascendency when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes last December:

Companies have short life spans...Amazon will be disrupted one day...it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.

Maybe the same thing will happen to the Fab Four. But I bet music critics will be talking about "the Beatles problem" long after Apple, Google, Samsung, Amazon, and Facebook have faded into oblivion.


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23 Comments

  1. Is our time a divergence of art and business in this respect? In the past, some companies were Mozarts. Nowadays, less and less.

    Another question: we have the Mozart problem and the Beatles problem. There's no clear way to compare Mozart and the Beatles. Same field (music) but wildly different fan base in most cases. How does that cross over to business?

    1. Good question, but it appears that total market dominance (for decades) is getting more difficult for any business.

  2. Another aspect of it: until last night, I had no idea Paul McCartney had a younger brother. Neither does most of the world, which is The Other Problem. The "Beatle in the family" problem.

    What do you do when you want to be a musician, but your brother is Macca, your father is Havva, or he's John Winston Lennon? (If you're Zack Starkey, you take his job, which I like.)

    Sibling comparison is always ugly. What to do when it means our heart's desire must either be downgraded or abandoned because we'll always be a candle in full sun? (Not me; my siblings have zero interest in the arts I revere, so I'm safe.)

    1. An uncanny number of those critics’ surveys include Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven in the top three, in varying sequence. But, in his day at least, Mozart presented “the Beatles problem.” (THAT'S a juxtaposition that will make some classical music lovers apoplectic.)

      Meanwhile, Alex Beam, in one of his famous mixed metaphors, called Mozart “the shutdown corner for the ages.”

  3. I linked to this post on my facebook page and a thoughtful Friend responded that Dylan was as influential, important, etc. as The Beatles. Thoughts, anyone?

    1. Interesting article. Bob Dylan doesn't even crack the top 40 as far as overall sales so while anyone can debate influence, cultural significance, etc, in terms of numbers, the Beatles positively crush Dylan.

      1. No question, Michael, in terms of sheer popularity. As far as Dylan being "influential," "important," or "ground-breaking," I will concede that in the world of folk and acoustic music, there was no singer/songwriter who could touch Dylan in the 60s, so he presented a Mozart problem for them.

        And of course Dylan influenced the Fabs in countless ways and they influenced him.

  4. I read recently a blog that compared the chart success of recent artists to The Beatles, in that someone had three songs in the top 8 at the same time, and someone else had almost the same number of #1s as The Beatles, but it has taken that artist over 15 years to do it, where as it took The Beatles only 6 years 5 months to score 20 #1s.

    There are other factors to consider, such as the scope of music as a whole, the diversity of formats, the consolidation of record companies as well as radio stations - limiting what we actually get to hear musically, downloads, the limiting of original ideas (The Beatles were from an era where you could get away with repeating the first verse of a song)...

    Still, no one really comes close to doing what they did. I highly doubt anyone ever will. When someone debates whether or not The Beatles are the greatest rock and roll band, I remind them The Beatles were the top-selling artist in 1995, 1996, and 2000 - 30 years after they broke up - and had the top-selling album of the last decade. Who else has done that?

  5. The Beatles, Mozart, a few others may have dominated the market but - from a commercial point of view - isn't the point that these guys either created or blew open a huge market that countless others then poured in to? Maybe you shouldn't think in terms of, "Can I compete" but in terms of, "I may not be as good but I'm pretty darned good all the same and I'm going to use their gold standard to draw out my best work. And if folks enjoy what I do, too, let's do it."

    1. Maybe. I'm not sure.

      The Beatles started out playing what was popular. Their early performances were outstanding because of their talent, not the originality. Later, of course, they pushed some originality (though as mentioned above, Sgt. Pepper's owes a lot to the Beach Boys.)

      Mozart wasn't wildly original, he was wildly talented. Others were already doing what he did.

      I'd love to see some well-thought-out research on whether either Mozart or the Fabs were *original* or whether it was mostly the level of talent, timing, or something else.

      1. May be true about Mozart (I'll let others weigh in on that one), but the Fabs were innovators in several ways as early as 1962-63: their early songwriting combined elements of rock, R&B, showtunes, Brill Building pop, etc.; there was no primary lead singer (each of them sang lead at some point); and they LOOKED radically different from any other band with their moptop hairdos. Also, most of their early songs had creative twists in the melody, chord changes, and lyrics.

        I used to debate this in blog commentaries with old buddy Ken Melville who claimed they had no interest in being innovative before '66 or '67. I don't think they thought in those terms ("let's be innovative")—hell, nobody used that term that I can remember—but they DID care about being DIFFERENT and standing apart from the dozens of bands who played the Cavern and performed most of the same rock & roll classics. So The Beatles started performing the original songs they'd been writing. As early as 1963 they were introducing imaginative key switches, melodic jumps, lyrical play-on-words, and sexual double entendres. The difference between their approach and, say, the Dave Clark 5's was night and day: the Fabs were artists from the git-go, not just entertainers. Granted, the full flowering of that creativity came later with Revolver & Sgt Pepper, once they were off the road and could spend more time experimenting in the studio. And of course there was plenty of (raw) talent, timing, and luck involved!

    2. Alex Beam would agree with you, Mark. He ended his column: "...I love to write, comfortable in the knowledge that there is a glorious universe of talent superior to mine. I hear their music, and it inspires me."

  6. As great as the Beatles were..and they were great, they did have the advantage of great timing! The world was ready for a new rock group and the Beatles delivered! We were a much simpler people who gathered around the TV every Sunday night to watch the Ed Sullivan Show! I don't think you'll ever see the sheer overwhelming nature of what the Beatles did no matter how good a group of musicians are that come along in the future. The music industry right now is filled with so much technology and diversity that kids and teens no longer sit down and play an album over and over. They simple fill their Ipods with 5000 songs they like from 100 different artists and go out into the world. I wonder what the Beatles legacy would be if they entered the industry in 2004 instead of 1964!?

    1. Given the songwriting talent alone of Lennon-McCartney, The Beatles would do well in any period, but it required a perfect storm of dozens of elements to propel them to world domination. Those elements would be missing in 2004.

    2. I'm not sure it's only kids and teens who fill their iPods with 5,000 songs from 100 different artists (although I suspect it's more likely 5,000 songs from 1,000 artists) and go out into the world. My listening habits have changed a lot over the years.

      Back in the day, I was an albums man and made time to sit down and listen to 40 minutes of album. Singles were often a 'taster' for the album and singles that were one-offs were just bubblegum (I used to think).

      When CD came along and artists felt obliged or arrogant enough to think that all 70+ minutes should be filled up, I suddenly realised that a good old fashioned LP with six good and one or two iffy songs was still a good listen but a CD with only half a dozen good songs was a bit of a chore - certainly not the best way to spend over an hour. So the fast forward or skip button came into play. Quite a lot. (Remember how we used to say that most double albums in the vinyl days could be edited down to a killer single LP? The CD forgot that...)

      Cut forward to computer audio and editing is easier. Just buying the songs you like is even easier. (Buying? That makes me pretty old-fashioned, too.)

      If I think about my listening habits, I'm no longer an albums man but a songs man. I still buy albums (Mrs. F would insert 'too many' into that phrase) and I still listen to them right through. But if I look at my iTunes playcounts or which CDs get pulled off the shelf most, there's a hard core of about 200 albums that I'd never be separated from. What iTunes tells me after that (and you can't really argue with the playcount) is that there's an awful lot of dipping in and out of albums / artists / compilations etc.

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