an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

What business is learning from Joshua Bell’s day as a busker

Few musical events in recent years have attracted as much publicity as the morning Joshua Bell spent in a Washington DC metro station, playing unrecognised for commuters. He made $32.17 from the gig. What’s the profit in that?

Anita Elberse, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, finds plenty to learn. For instance:

anita elberse

A first insight is that the challenge that Joshua Bell faced is that he is competing for people’s attention. This is the core problem that managers and many others in the workplace experience everyday. I often tell my students that when they go back into the working world, they’ll have to convince others to spend time with them and with their ideas — regardless of whether they are pitching a start-up idea to an investor, trying to make a sale, or hoping to spur their team into action.

It may seem that a master violinist had a head start on his competition, since he’s likely far more talented and far better trained than a typical street performer, but having a great product isn’t enough. That’s another critical truth. Bell’s playing was described by one expert as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live” but it still wasn’t sufficient to draw attention. “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah… ignoring me,” Bell told Weingarten. It’s a fate that befalls many who rely solely on product quality and forget to “market” that product — even if they are the product. This is as true for a virtuoso performer like Bell as it is for freshly minted MBA alumni.

Bell’s performance at the metro station was purposefully devoid of any indication that suggested he is, in fact, a superstar worthy of people’s attention. It was the worst marketing strategy imaginable: the wrong location, the wrong time, and (with his street clothes) the wrong image. If the goal had been to attract attention, even a few little adjustments would have gone a long way: picking a place in the station where commuters naturally stand still, placing a banner displaying his name, or hiring a few fans to serve as his cheering section, to name just a few examples. In many ways, everyone who is competing for attention in the workplace needs a strategy,


Read her full analysis here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Most people don’t know Josh Bell from Taco Bell!

  2. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Wait… yes… it is! That’s the sound of Bach turning over in his grave.

  3. Performing Artist52 says:

    Perhaps the Minnesota Orchestra could learn from this as they had a great product but certainly did not do enough to market it! The orchestra had very little exposure to attract new audience members. They could have used the media much more than they did. Ironically you hear more about the orchestra via newspaper and television now that they are locked out! Wouldn’t it be nice if the MOA used the same strategy if and when the musician come back to work?

  4. Anita Elberse misses the main point. One cannot separate the value of art from its function. Bach played on a violin is close to worthless in a subway station regardless of who plays it. A truly fine pop or folk singer would have drawn a better crowd because form and function would have been more closely related.

    The marketing view will, of course, try to create hype to bridge the gap between value and function, but we should remember that that it is then is probably the hype speaking more the art.

    Perhaps we need more honesty and integrity and a little less marketing. Sometimes it takes a good deal of patience and education to understand some kinds of art, but how often do we like something based more on its hype than its substance?

    • Um, William, aren’t you saying the same thing as Anita here? She clearly says she thinks Bell was performing in the “wrong location, wrong time, wrong image”, and you are saying that form and function aren’t related enough, i.e., wrong place, wrong time.

  5. Silvio Interlandi says:

    As stupid as waiting for the train on a concert hall stage…

  6. robcat2075 says:

    It’s a silly experiment that should not be taken too seriously. Everything has a useful time and place.

    Why would a violinist in the middle of a transit station be any more desirable than a guy selling subway tickets in the middle of Carnegie Hall?

  7. Mark Gresham says:

    “Measurement measures measuring means,” said the father of John Cage.
    Marketing measures marketing means – not that which it is said to be marketing.

  8. Michelle says:

    Joshua Bell doesn’t know how to busk. Take a look at any NYC busker and you’ll see success (they all implement all the points you mentioned).
    As an aside – if you measure the success of a busker via how much money they make, then you’re completely missing the point of busking. Busking is not a business, it’s something people do for the love of doing it. Take a look at this NYC busker and you’ll see what the love of sharing music with others just for the sake of sharing music with others looks like:

  9. Richard Rawles says:

    People in an underground situation are in a hurry, stressed, crowded etc. They aren’t in the mood for stopping to appreciate good music-making (at least, I wouldn’t be). I don’t think there is much to discuss here…

an ArtsJournal blog