Rock and roll is a mature market. Bill Haley and the Comets was formed in 1952, and the market evolved from there. Was Bill Haley a great guitar player? Probably not. But it didn't matter. As an early entrant in the market, his popularity was the reward for being an innovator. Innovators have the hard job: they have to find the new, cool stuff the rest of us don't see. Technical proficiency is not their game, its vision and creativity. That's why folks like Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Richie Havens, Chuck Berry, while not being the most technically proficient guitar players, are nonetheless rock and roll gods.
Fast forward some years and the market for rock and roll matures. Rock and roll becomes the main stream. Every person in America at one point or another in their life picks up a guitar or set of drum sticks and tries their hand at making music. In this mature market, the early adopter advantage is lost. Unlike in the early years, it's not completely new work that's being produced, it's iterative work. For iterative work to succeed, it must be at least as good as its predecessor in all technical respects. In other words, the maturing market sets at least a base level of proficiency required for success. If you can't play at that level, you won't succeed.
But technical proficiency is not enough either. There's a guitar player named Joe Satriani who most guitar players will tell you is the most technically proficient guitar player out there. Unfortunately for Joe, he and I share one thing in common: the same number of top10 records. In other word, technical proficiency is required to be in the game, but standing alone it is not enough to win. No, to win at this point it's the rare combination of technical proficiency plus that "something else" that is the recipe for success.
OK, so there's a bunch of bands out there who have the requisite level of proficiency plus that "something else" which allows them to have a measure of success. How do you distinguish these guys (think Hootie) from the "great ones"? At this point I think it comes down to a strong brand. One distinguishing characteristic of a great brand is the ownership of a word. BMW = Driving. Google = Search. Marksonland = Insight (!) ;). To be great in business it means you need to have a great brand. The same goes for music. When I think Clapton, i think blues. Garcia: psychedelic. Page: rock and roll (both the song and the word). Hendrix: haze...well, whatever, you get the idea.
Anyway, I think this evolution of creativity to technical proficiency to brands follows any maturing market. My industry - the interwebs - is maturing rapidly. In 2006, if you are going to do anything on the web, there is a base level of technical proficiency that you must bring to the table. And given the early adopter advantage is well gone, if you don't have that, plus that "something else" - whatever that my be - you won't be successful over time.
A good example of this is in the blogosphere. Compare the A list bloggers of 2004 with those of today. Those who have dropped off the list over the past couple of years - well, they can enjoy knowing that they are the modern day equivalent of Bill Haley.