Realistic Music Careers 101: American Idol – A Different View
COLUMN: American Idol began its eighth season last week with two-hour episodes airing on both Monday and Tuesday. That’s four hours of people with severe delusions of grandeur, and completely unrealistic hopes and expectations, all rooted in a profound misunderstanding of the music industry. All of this, plus the contestants’ lack of understanding of what they have just gotten themselves into is both mind blowing and incredibly sad all at once.
“Are you the next American Idol?”
Realistically? Nope. Not a freaking chance.
“But I mean, like, this is my chance.”
“I am the next America Idol!”
“I deserve this.”
“Everything I have been doing has been getting me ready for this day.”
But before the mudslinging commences a quick clarification: I am not attacking America Idol. I think the concept is brilliant. The model has been created for a music industry that is in trouble and delivers both shots of truth and an endless, dreamy hope for those that want to be stars. It has succeeded. It isn’t about the artists that have and haven’t had careers; the show is about profits. American Idol is a serious moneymaker with long term financial benefits that stretch across a wider spectrum of profit avenues than I think most people realize. It also has become a pop household staple that makes people think that if they can only get in front of Randy, Paula, Simon and, now, Kara, they can automatically be rewarded with fortune, fame and the realization of all of their wildest dreams.
I am not going to tear on the contestants themselves. I don’t understand many of them. Actually, I don’t really get any of them, but I find them intriguing. There seems to be this blinding glaze as they sign the show’s contract and, therefore, sign a year or more of their lives over to the studio. The contestants genuinely believe that not only are they the next Idol, but that this signing will solve all of their unrelated problems.
This is not a question of intelligence. We all witness those on the show that might be a little slower than others, but even the contestants with obviously higher IQ’s still appear on this show and have the same hopes, dreams and delusions. These people with great logic, intelligence and reason are blinded by the hollow, flashy hope offered by American Idol.
In the beginning, when Ryan Seacrest was only eleven years old, Simon Fuller, American Idol’s creator, left Chrysalis Records, and founded 19 Entertainment. During his time at Chrysalis Records, Fuller helped Madonna’s Holiday become a mega hit. More than that, though, he was behind Paul Hardcastle’s song 19 in 1985. It was that tune where Peter Thomas did a monologue about Vietnam War vets suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder over music. It wasn’t only a number one nit in the UK for over five weeks, it also grabbed the number one spot in France and Germany. The single ended up going to number one in ten other countries as well, making it a number one hit in thirteen different countries in 1985.
After the incredible success of that song, Fuller used the profits to create 19 Entertainment, the company which currently owns a big old chunk of American Idol. Fuller’s company has recording contracts with all the higher profile American Idol contestants as well as with Annie Lennox. 19 Entertainment also manages or has managed everyone from Honda Racing to the Spice Girls.
This is a big and very successful company.
So, 19 Entertainment is the super company that owns a great deal of American Idol, but you must remember that it’s not just the winner that gets a deal. 19 Entertainment retains exclusive right of refusal for management of the acts. This means that even after auditioning, regardless of the contestant’s fate in this machine, the contestant is still under contract with the show until three months after the final episode. Technically, a contestant that is dropped on the first day of auditioning is in and under contract with 19 Entertainment for over a year.
This is not a secret. 19 Entertainment does not hide or conceal this information. It is right in the contract that all those thousands of hopefuls sign. This contract states that 19 Entertainment has rights to you, your name and your likeness and, though they can release people as they see fit, they can hang onto a contestant for over a year.
It’s a great design. It means that though the top contestants might not do so well, there are still opportunities with the lesser known and, maybe at time, more marketable. Look at William Hung. He got a deal that made $500K off of “She Bangs.” But do you really think after the cut to all the people that had a piece of that, including what was paid to Ricky Martin, William walked away with a huge sum? Then think of all the subsidiaries that make money such as the labels, managers and publishers. Simon Cowell created and owns a television and music publishing house called Syco which gives him a sizable chunk of the publishing from artists-such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood-as well as owning the recording and licensing rights to the music. There is a lot of money going to a lot of places and people that do not include the artist.
You may claim that these companies are not being generous enough to the artists or that they are taking too much control, but that dream of fortune and fame brings out the biggest problem when it comes to these American Idol contestants. This information that 19 Entertainment will technically own them for over a year-is laid out in front of them.
If most people were told they could get something and, at best, it would be a really small chance and then read about all these aspects of what would be lost, what would be given up and what they would never see, I would like to believe people would get worried and take a step back. I don’t believe enough of these contestants read or review the words on the contracts or have the first clue at what they are giving up I the end.
If these people were to rationally and intelligently weigh the microscopic chance of success against the strictures of the contract-what they would lose, what they would be forced to surrender to the American Idol brand-I would hope that they would take a step back in order to protect their own interests.
People blindly sign these contracts that clearly state all the aspects, rules and rights that American Idol has the right to retain. Why do you think you don’t hear about lawsuits against American Idol? The contract is airtight; it is an intelligent design that gives the owners and investors more opportunities at more avenues of profit. Think of the thousands and thousands of contracts signed by the hopefuls that you’ve never even seen. Should something potentially profitable happen to them, 19 Entertainment owns it because they’re under contract.
Today, both the total viewership and number of auditioning contestants have taken dives. Maybe the public is becoming a little more aware of the model and tiring of it. Or maybe, as some non-affiliated press releases have stated, the spiraling economy and high cost of travel have kept potential contestants from auditions. Whatever the reason, the number of auditioning hopefuls declined this year compared to last year. Last year, twelve thousand auditioning contestants showed up in San Diego; this year, only seven thousand made the trek to San Francisco. For the first show in Phoenix, they saw an estimated crowd of 5,500; in Louisville, right around ten thousand people showed up. It’s incredible the thousands of people that come out with the mindset that they are going to be the next Big Thing and leave reality for a dream that is more of a dream than could ever be achieved in reality.
Do the Math
One thing I find amusing is how twelve thousand people all think they will get the opportunity to audition exclusively for Simon and the gang. Sorry, but not every singer is going to make it to the main room. This is another place where normally rational people are blinded by impossible conclusions and hopes.
Let’s do the math:
This season in Louisville, an estimated ten thousand people auditioned for American Idol. While American Idol was in town for a couple of days, the core judges were only there for two. If we consider the walk to the judges’ room, the introductions, the banter, the singing and then, finally, the judges’ decisions, we’re taking at least a couple of minutes per person. This doesn’t account for the crazy people who want to argue their greatness and, therefore, take a few minutes longer. Let’s just stick a nice average of two minutes and thirty seconds to each audition.
Now let’s say that in an hour, the judges don’t take any breaks and the contestants are coming and going nonstop. This means that the judges see twenty-four people every hour. For fun, let’s say that the judges put in a straight ten hour day and manage to see 240 auditions. Now add a second, identical day. This means that these judges have managed the godlike task of seeing 480 auditions in two days.
By the way, there is no way that the four judges are coming in and working nonstop for two days straight with no breaks for the bathroom, food, make-up, a smoke or phone calls.
But let’s go back and subtract our mythical 480 that actually made it in front of Simon, Kara, Randy and Paula from the 10,000 that came to audition, filled out releases and took care of business. That’s 9520 people who never saw the four main judges.
Many people think that everyone gets the chance to see Simon, Randy, Paula and Kara, but, as you can see, it’s statistically impossible. If the main judges were in a given city for two days, it would take them almost 42 non-stop hours to see ten thousand auditions. So to all those of you who are convinced that everyone gets their time with the main judges, you are so incredibly and sorely mistaken.
Some get the boot behind little curtains where tons of assisting producers, assistants and hired help from Fremantle, 19 Entertainment, Fox and crew will run each person through the first audition to see if the person auditioning has either talent, marketability, humor or something else to make the show interesting.
On the season premier on Monday night, a total of 18 contestants were shown auditioning in front of our judges. That’s it. So, in two hours, we saw 9 contestants an hour along with a bunch of filler and back stories.
This is my favorite part. I love the first couple of episodes for the judging alone. Yes, some contestants are pushed through for excitement and intrigue. If only the top singers wound up on the show, it would be a much more boring show. We need to see the crazy ones, the egotistical ones. We need to see the girl in the bikini that thinks she’s all that, a little more and then some. Those are the people that make the real ratings rise.
I don’t believe people know exactly just how good Randy, Simon and Kara are. These are three incredibly talented, experienced and gifted musicians, producers and business people. These three have an astounding pulse on the industry and understand wide facets of it. This is an incredible bunch that as a music producer, I highly respect and admire, and not because they are on American Idol. I have been aware of all three of them for quite a long time. Not as much a fan of Paula personally and I just am not going to go there.
So you’ve got an idea of the other side of the show, the judges, the operations and how it might be working from another view, but, really, it all comes down to the contestants. These people bring it all together. They cultivate the idea that the ultimate dream is within reach and that makes for good television.
Some viewers relate to the contestants; others believe them to be fools or just foolish. There are some that watch for the talent, but a good deal of the viewers love the sense of control that is provided by the voting process. They love the idea that they are helping to choose the next Idol and being individual in a world where there is so much conformity. Yet, in all truth, the voters are actually conforming to a million dollar enterprise since each vote costs money when you call or text to cast your opinion.
The presentation of people with some talent mixed with those that cannot comprehend that they have no talent makes for the recipe of hope everlasting, ego overbearing and talent often time very lacking. You know those people at karaoke bars. They’re given kudos for their looks, but just plain out suck. These people truly believe that they are incredible. Others try to imitate their favorite singers and match the moves, but have no technique. They make the faces and animate their bodies, but their voices present zip.
In some ways, it’s not their fault for believing in their talent. They’ve heard themselves sing through their ears since they were little and, to them, they actually do sound that good. Their voice is a comfortable voice and sounds just as good-to them-as the voices they hear on CDs or the radio. Of course, these people have not recorded themselves or learned the standards for pitch, tone or resonance. I am not sensitive to them because of this ignorance, but I do see why they believe in their own talent. They don’t know what a good voice should actually sound like.
And then you add the people who are just out of the skulls-the mirror heroes I like to call them. What they hear sounds amazing to them and they have no idea that they are ridiculously far from proper pitch and rhythm, talent, or even close to melody. They have become comfortable with how they sound, and even enjoy the tone and texture of their voice as it hits their ears. However, they have no idea how awful it sounds when it hits anyone else’s.
Beyond those that can sing or think they can sing, the ones that can be the most interesting are the contestants that believe American Idol is the solution to their life’s problems. These are the people that come from terrible tragedies and experiences and yet view American Idol as the answer and solution. This makes no sense to me. It seems like it would just create more problems
While I respect people for turning their lives around and making changes, putting all of your hope in one basket and that basket being a television show offering you a slim to microscopic chance at success is a really monumentally bad idea.
If anything, being on American Idol will cost you more than it will pay you. The contestants are given room and board. They are not being given money to pay for the bills at home or take care of the needs that are often necessary for their families. They are also not working at their normal jobs and often times risk losing those jobs for the leave of absence. A lot of people that as soon as they go to Hollywood, life goes into cruise control. Unfortunately, reality sneaks in and the money usually only comes into play for those that make the top ten.
The mixture of humility, reality and the bursting of the dream bubble in addition to the very few minutes of fame reserved only for the chosen few still seems to draw people. The facts are there in front of them, but the distortion of the dream dilutes the facts into the fiction they are looking for.
As long as you have good business people who can create profits off of both the artistic elements and the art itself by offering a mixture of false promise with that small inkling of hope, there will be American Idol or something similar.
As long as you can deliver the words that spur the dreamers to dream beyond the end result, there will be those who will jump through flames to achieve the dream.
As long as you are maintaining an empire and a people who will forgo the best route for the greatest hope in star emulation, there will be an audience.
Create the world where the business is in control and can make the decisions about the placements, the profits and revenue streams and you’ll have the branding to get the purchases that will at least cover the costs with no consideration for the artists, but still beneficial to the business.
The funny thing about all of this is that it’s not new. It didn’t come out of thin air. The larger scale medium has been doing this to artists for years off camera.
It’s called the music industry.
All of this can change, but it will require new labels, companies fans and artists that are ready to keep one eye on the clouds and keep one foot on the ground. The businesses do not want to stop making money and the artists don’t want to lose their dreams, delusions of grandeur, egos or unrealistic expectations.
It will come down to everyone looking a little deeper and learning about the make and structure of the industry. It will require reading the contracts and taking the time and the steps necessary to clarify and make the right decisions. It will come to understanding that percentages and other people having a piece of (the pie?) will have to occur. You must know what you are giving up for what you are getting and making certain that everything is clearly spelled out on paper and legally organized. In the end, it is still a business, but it can be a better one.
Lastly, it will come down to a resignation of ego, grandiose delusions and the superstar myth, and then replacing those beliefs and attributes with a new patience, a desire to learn and understand the business. It will come down to the dreaming musician learning to be the artist and the businessperson all in one.
[tags]American Idol, Loren Weisman, music career, record deal[/tags]
Jan 26, 2009 @ 10:24 AM PST
As a Studio Musician now in his late 50’s I’ve pretty much seen it all. Many of my friends were involved with the inspiration for American Idol, Star Search. Well, I can say this about that… In all my years of watching this type of production, I’ve seen 3 people successfully push the envelope into a successful “career” in Music. Please understand that I consider a successful career in Music at just under 5 years. Most artists never make it 6 months, no matter how good they are. Then, there is the type of tune that usually wins these competitions, usually some sort of Country tune turned pop, or classic blues turned pop. Seldom does an original style seep into the finals at any of these types of shows, it’s always someone who sounds like this, or sounds like that. When you think back to the fact that 80% of the Music Industry money is tied into RAP, it’s hard to believe that these people believe they are going to break out and make the big money, singing a soulful rendition of an Aretha Franklin tune from 1972.
Jan 26, 2009 @ 10:33 AM PST
One more note. If you look back you’ll see that Star Search had a similar clause in their contacts where the show “owned the rights” to their work for a period of time, as I recall it was one year. Most artists that parlay a good performance on one of these shows into something that earns airtime will do it within 3 months of winning the show. Even if you have multiple chart toppers by the time you actually make money again [after paying the Piper for a year] you are probably on the way out of the industry. Fortunately I avoided all of this. I simply worked for others and said Yes Sir, convincingly when asked. After 25 years I certainly didn’t get rich, but I made my house payments every month.