During the first dot-com boom era, I was the “Community Manager” for a country music website called CountryCool.com. At the time, "Community Manager" was the kind of job title that nobody understood, but today it would be considered common, as every aspirational social media enterprise has a growth team responsible for increasing membership, as well as a user experience team responsible for keeping those members engaged and happy and invested. As the CM at CountryCool I was in charge of all of those things.
(Thanks, Internet Wayback Machine!)
I knew a little bit about online communities, even way back then, because one of my first jobs out of college was as part of the content and community team at the long-defunct Firefly.com, one of the first hot and buzzy internet companies of the 90s. (Firefly started at the MIT Media Lab, and eventually was acquired by Microsoft. They were using intelligent agent technology to do movie/music/book/people recommendations, and grew to a 3-million-strong user base while Zuckerberg was still in middle school.)
What I did not know about was country music. I was not a fan, particularly; in fact, I was all about that sweet sweet alt-rock and power pop at the time, and the Nashville twang was the exact opposite of that. You might think that, for a person employed by a country music website, this would be a drawback, but in fact it worked in my favor.
You see, one of the most visible and most important tasks I had was to run real-time chats with country music performers. In practice, the way this would work would be that I would sit at a computer in my office, moderating the chat questions as they would come in. At the same time, I would be on the phone with the artist, who was most likely at their home, or on tour somewhere. I would read out an appropriate/interesting question to the artist, who would just tell me their answer, and I would type out their response into the chat window for everyone online to see.
This way, the artist doesn’t have to see that 15% of all submitted questions are “boxers or briefs?”, while another 35% are "when are you playing in [town of 5,000 people where the chatter happens to live]?" Nor do they have to worry about finding a computer on the road, or being embarrassed if they type slow or make spelling mistakes.
In practice, it meant that I had dozens of conversations with country music performers over the 18 months that our site was up and running. As a company we had strong connections with the country music industry and were able to book some people who were already significant stars to appear on our site (Willie Nelson and Peter Frampton come to mind), but we also booked lots of people who were just seeing their first hints of success. To me, as a non-country-music fan, it was easy to relate to all of them as though they were not in the public eye, because to me they were just people--most of them my contemporaries.
I discovered how much of a difference this made the first time I let someone else on our team, who WAS a diehard country fan, take the “talk-to-the-artist” responsibility on a live chat. I don’t remember the artist, but I remember that it was a male artist, and there was a lot of nervous laughter and gushing from our female employee, and I remember we had to contact that artist’s representation afterwards to explain why it seemed less professional than usual. Lessons learned, I suppose.
Some of the “new” artists stuck in my mind--not for being the most talented, necessarily, but for being exceptionally gracious, generous, and down-to-earth during our conversations. I have also never forgotten the ones who couldn’t really be bothered...particularly the one who was literally watching “American Pie” on his hotel TV while we were doing the chat, barely paying attention to what we were doing.
There’s an interesting thing about the three “new” artists I remembered being the absolute nicest of all those we had chats with. 20 years later, they’re also the three most successful and well-known of our guests who had yet to achieve stardom: Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Blake Shelton.
The ones who seemed detached? The guy who watched a movie instead of paying attention to the chat? They stayed in the business for varying lengths of time, but never achieved the same kind of breakout stardom as Paisley, Urban, or Shelton.
This certainly doesn't mean that just being nice is an indicator of talent. But it does mean that in an industry like country music--centrally located in a single city, where everyone knows everyone--being nice, and being considerate, and being humble are huge differentiators in your career prospects, when just about the whole town has exceptional musical ability.
Look, nobody makes it on their own--in music or in any field--unless they are a once-in-a-generation genius. And the help you need to succeed is freely given, if people like you and see that you are genuine with, and appreciative of, them. The self-important types who act like their talent means that the world owes them something, and who see the world through this lense? Nobody will go out of their way to help them--and some will actively hinder them.
One thing tying together these three successful artists: while on the phone with me, a stranger, they talked about their families, their heroes, their colleagues, and their appreciation of what they were able to do for a living, and for the people who made it possible. To a person they placed great value on other people and on relationships, and made a point to express this, sincerely (not in response to specific questions), to me.
I’m not saying that being polite is all it takes to succeed. (Certainly not fake, “bless your heart”-style polite.) I just find it interesting, and possibly telling, that in a competitive industry like country music, where I had the opportunity to connect with a significant number of people at the beginning of their rise to fame, the biggest difference I found among those who have lasted and those who haven’t was their sincerity, their pleasantness, and their appreciation for other people.
Also, it helps to be ridiculously handsome.