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Discovering New Talent: What You Need To Know About The 'It Factor'



If you work in music, or if you’re a fan — a supporter of live or on-line music — then you know what the “it factor” is. It’s when you see and hear an artist you’ve not known about, and you say “Wow! That person’s got it!”


It’s an expression of surprise, of delight, of knowing that the artist you’ve found has something special, something that you want (or even need) to share with your friends, your family, your colleagues. And if you work in music, you want to know more, you want to help that artist, you want to watch them succeed.


The “it factor” is hard to define, and what’s “it” to me may not be “it” to you. As Sly and the Family Stone said long ago: diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks. Just as importantly, you can find the “it factor” can be evident in artists who work in many different genres of music.


So, for short, can we call the “it factor” the “IF”?


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Overall, the IF happens when an artist has an intriguing song, with a tune that you can’t forget, and lyrics that mirror and inform your own personality, your own experience, your own life. For example, Alanis Morrisette’s hit record, Jagged Little Pill, was an arrow straight to the heart of every young teenage woman-to-be; it spoke to them with honesty, awareness and empathy. After a mini-career as a disco artist Alanis discovered her own IF, and we all discovered her.

What else triggers the awareness of the IF?

The voice, for sure. Is it unique, is it memorable, is it “different” — but not too different? Is it memorable? Do you want to hear that voice again?

Does the artist have performance skills? Is that artist confident, aware of who he or she is — and do they know how to relate to their audiences? Does their energy animate your YouTube screen, or reach across the physical and mental gap between artist and audience?

Oh, and how about the personality? Do you like that artist? Would you like to know her, or could you see yourself having a beer with him? (I’ve always wanted to have a beer with Mick Jagger, and I’d love to share a bottle of chilled white wine with Emmylou Harris.)

Finally, does the artist have a “look”? That’s hard to define, too. But, in a patriarchal business, striking looks are a more important part of the IF for women artists — which is not to say it doesn’t matter for handsome male artists. Hello, Michael Bublé, nice to see you Shaun Mendez, hi Justin Bieber...


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Where you discover an artist with the IF varies. Could be on YouTube, or on sites like one which make a point of showcasing new artists. You’ve probably discovered a brilliant newcomer when they’ve got an opening spot on a bill with an artist you already know and love, or when you dropped by your local bar and this artist you’ve never heard of hits you like a ton of bricks.


Festivals are wonderful opportunities to discover artists with the IF — you went to hear the headliner and discovered someone else you didn’t know about. That was how I discovered Brandi Carlile — better late than never; she was already a star when I saw her at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival a couple of years ago, but I’d never received the memo.


Incidentally, if you need an example of a woman with the IF in abundance, check this video:


In my 50 years in the music industry, I’ve found all sorts of artists in all sorts of places, and in all sorts of music genres. Sometimes, if you’r lucky, you’ll spot the IF in very young artists.

Ariana Gillis, alas, has not been as successful as so many well-respected music people had hoped, thanks to a year-long break as the result of a severe concussion, and two years of COVID. She’s a songwriter and singer of uncommon talent, and here’s where I first spotted her IF — in a video she made with members of her family when she was 15.



...or how about this one, by Canadian Folk Music Award nominee Loryn Taggart, done when she was 16. Yes, it’s a terrible video — but the singer’s raw talent shines through.



I first heard Justin Rutledge when he was a bartender in a Toronto club, and came out to sing the last song of the evening; the lyric turned my head. He’d made a record, but nobody had heard it — after it was sent to a number of record companies (who found it too country, or not country enough), Six Shooter Records took it on — and his career blossomed. Did he become a huge star? No, but he had a career that will pick up again when COVID’s over. Here’s the song he sang that night:



And if you want to define the IT, how can you resist this one from a sparky, funny, energetic k.d. lang, filmed 35 years ago:



Or this one from another Canadian artist, Sarah Jane Scouten, who's currently living in Scotland.



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Having the “It Factor” (or the IF, as we’ve been calling it) IS important — it’s what initially grabs music business insiders as well as fans. But having the IF isn’t enough to guarantee success, however you define success.


What about the other factors? Each of these are vital


• The team the artist has built around them

• Having a unique back story

• The ability to be effective on social media

• Engagement with your peers

• Continuing to create, push the envelope, try new things

• The ability to schmooze/socialize

• Ambition (considered a very un-Canadian trait!)

• Energy

• Focus

and, lastly, a heavy dose of

• Good luck


The “It Factor” may be difficult to define, in the same way that pornography’s hard to define — but you know it when you see it, or in the case of music, when you hear it!

And when you hear it, see it, experience it, do YOUR job:

Spread the word!



Next month, Richard says he’s going to write about new music books — a return to the first topic he wrote for thesoundcafe.com a year ago…


Read more of Richard's Column's at The Sound Cafe Vaults