Shakira seems to be the ultimate global music outlier, someone who's pop success puts her way beyond the normal career trajectory of even the most highly successful professional global musicians. She’s one of the top earners in pop music. She’s sold albums in the tens of millions and had a single that played more times in one day on American radios than any previous song in history.
But there are some key points to her remarkable journey that make her success more comprehensible—and maybe, just maybe, repeatable.
The standard story on Shakira goes something like this: She rose from relative obscurity in Colombia to world prominence thanks to her unique singing and dancing style, stunning beauty, and good sense. In other words, her inborn talent and hard work set her apart from all the hundreds of other potential pop divas languishing on the sidelines. Those hips don't lie, after all.
But we could also tell a completely different story, if we approach Shakira’s career from a different perspective. Malcolm Gladwell suggests just such a way to reevaluate wildly successful people in his compelling book, Outliers: The Story of Success.
Gladwell redefines success, not as the hard-earned reward for a truly outstanding individual, but as the product of multiple cumulative factors, some outside any individual's control: luck, heritage, zeitgeist. For example, he argues that all highly successful people had an extended opportunity to practice their specialty (Gladwell refers to research indicating that a person needs about 10,000 hours of practice to become truly expert at something).
Shakira is no exception. Blessed with good looks and a penchant for performing, she was encouraged to dance and sing as a child and wound up on the pop circuit in Colombia by her early teens (some have noted the relationship between her Lebanese roots and her belly-dancing influence). She got lots of practice on the professional stage and in the studio—and struggled on when her first two albums were commercial flops (see Seth Godin’s The Dip for a business theory on plowing through dips like this). This early start to her career allowed her get in those precious10,000 hours while still young, lithe, and buxom, and thus take full advantage of her appearance once she had the experience to write and produce songs more skillfully.
But the crucial point for global musicians—and the managers, agents, and other professionals who love them—is that after Shakira established herself regionally, she managed to clue into an already existing infrastructure of Latin pop production, promotion, and marketing in the U.S. Like many of the outliers Gladwell profiles, Shakira was standing on the shoulders of giants.
For Shakira, there was already a whole range of opportunities—genre-specific awards to win, markets to conquer—that proved her commercial and media appeal, and opened doors. Spanish-language albums like ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? (1998) won her critical acclaim in magazines like Rolling Stone and Time, and got Shakira spots performing on major TV shows and at award ceremonies.
When she, working with experienced producer and impressario Emilio Estefan, Jr. (of Miami Sound Machine fame), decided she wanted to sing in English and try for some crossover hits, she was following in the footsteps of already highly successful performers like Estefan's wife, Gloria, and Ricky Martin.
Importantly, before her crossover album Laundry Service hit, she spent many, many months with Estefan, lobbying the media to take her seriously as an English-language, non-"ethnic" artist. It wasn't her music alone (or her Barbarella-meets-harem-girl look) that broke her out of the world music ghetto; it was her team's wise use of the infrastructure that was already there, waiting for someone with the right combination of experience, aesthetics, and business savvy.
What can we take away from this Gladwellian look at Shakira? That we need to focus not just on product, but on infrastructure. We need to get the Shakiras of the world access to something like the Miami Sound Machinery. This means thinking of ways to reach out to the remains of the recording industry and to sympathetic figures in the media, by speaking their language (which, alas, is still primarily English) and making a concerted effort to explain why global artists can matter.
This means more than a few one-off name-dropping projects, with a seal of approval from some pop bigwig or a cameo moment by a big name mainstream artist. Sure, that sometimes helps with press coverage, for example, but it doesn’t seem to have the long-term, lasting impact one might expect.
Instead, we need a dozen Estefans, tools like meaningful global music awards (akin to the Latin Grammys that first bolstered Shakira’s career in the U.S.), and one or two trailblazers who score a real hit or two. These awards need to emphasize the crossovers, in order to carry artists who may never crossover, but whose audiences could be larger as fans further accept global influence in their musical palettes/palates.
This is a golden moment to build something significant and novel; as the music industry re-groups and artists increasingly re-imagine distribution, sales, and outreach, there is a real opportunity to create new structures to promote truly talented expert performers with good business sense who fall outside of the old pop pigeonholes. The product is there: We can all think of stunning artists, funky performers, cool global music that could sway a large, broad audience. Now we need to create the pathways, the packages, and the showcases to set this product off. But it starts with an attitude that global music can be produced with big goals in mind.
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