I was at a concert where I and a friend watched Tinsley Ellis perform. Tinsley is a a great blues musician and while we both agreed that we got our entertainment dollar’s worth with his performance, we disagreed about the quality of the opening act. The band that opened was named Deano and the Funky Bunnies, a local band that made a spirited effort to bring their cover tunes alive. My friend said that he was not surprised that they were confined to obscurity since they were not as talented and famous as Tinsley.
I challenged him to define what talent is. Is it the ability to play the same music as well as Tinsley? Is it the ability to write your own music? Is it something else like fame? His ill-defined notion of talent is just a sneaky way of pretending that one particular artist is better than another.
If talent means playing a blues song as well as Tinsley, then I am convinced that most reasonably capable musicians would be able to play something just as well as him. It would take time, some more than others to learn the piece, but they would all be be able to play what he plays. The technical brilliance of a musician is something that can be learned and talent in this area is characterized by being exceptionally quick at learning.
If talent means writing and playing original material, then that is the talent of a songwriter, not just of a musician. We need to compare apples to apples to be fair. Some musicians just love to perform but do not want to write their own music. Writing music takes lots of effort and is taking a huge risk. I think that for most musicians, it is not worth it. Tinsley is a talented musician and songwriter, but that does not stop Deano and the Funky Bunnies from being talented musicians.
So is talent based on popularity and fame? No. I can think of hundreds of artists creating excellent music that barely registers with the larger populace. Case in point: CD Baby is a site where you can find artists who put out Radio quality music but are mostly unknown. The difference between a band like OttO Vector and The Killers is not talent, but opportunity and being in the right place at the right time. I love both bands, but cannot say that The Killers are a better band because they have sold more albums while OttO Vector has not. Popularity does not make for talent endowment.
Talent is one of those concepts that is thrown around too loosely. Tinsley Ellis and his opening act can both be talented but for different reasons. What most people are guilty of is assuming that fame equals talent. To me that is as foolish as using a thermostat to tell time.