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.