JAIMIE VERNON – AMERICAN IDLE
Goodbye American Idol. Your reign of mediocrity shall not be mourned. You were what’s wrong with the music business. I say good day. It was about creating brands – all attached, umbilically, to the Idol brand. We now have a generation of karaoke singers who believe all that it takes to make it is get up on stage and emote. You know that ongoing echo chamber of complaints from music lovers who say “How come new music sucks?” It started right here with Simon Cowell’s vacuous talent extrusion procedural.
People point at Napster as the collapse of the industry but that was only the death of selling music. American Idol came along with the illusion that it was going to prop up those sales and it fooled people into believing that it did. Temporarily. Its only real accomplishment was to save a collapsing TV network. It did little to help the music biz and, as I maintain, put coffin nails into it.
It was a beauty pageant with singers. And when they put those supposed talents into the real world nearly all of them failed. I think Daughtry was the only act that had a pre-history before appearing on the show and managed to survive long enough to become forgettable. It was a conveyor belt of sameness…and everyone scratched their heads when most of them fell down. Just because Carrie Underwood succeeded doesn’t mean that TEN Carrie Underwoods was the answer.
The temperature has changed. They’ve folded Idol because numbers are down. Between people cutting the cord on their cable subscriptions and other distractions from Netflix, the reality singing format is dying. I expect The Voice will be next. Ryan Seacrest foretold of an impending comeback when he signed off the other night but don’t expect American Idol to return in the same format. Expect it to return with air cannons, naked pole vaulters and the violent, bloody death of a contestant at the hands of an angry mob each week. It’s what it’s going to take to bring eyeballs back. Reality TV is a blood sport. And there wasn’t enough of it on Simon Cowell’s hands to keep it afloat any longer.
Voting for talent is a ludicrous concept. Judges with myopic foresight and massive paycheques telling people with dreams of stardom that they blow monkey chunks week after week isn’t constructive criticism – it’s sadistic. Just for edification the 2nd and 3rd place finishers on each season of Idol, without exception, did better career- wise than the actual winners. There’s a logical reason this happened, the winner had to stay on the air two more weeks than everyone else. Those eliminated from the shows early on got to launch their careers immediately – they got nearly a month of lead-time to hit media and the charts with their new products. The winners, technically, ended up late to the party and completely lost momentum.
It actually devastated the music biz. People stopped looking for real talent. Instead, they believed that these karaoke singers were the Next. Big. Thing. So radio, TV and concert halls started ignoring everything but the Insta-Divas and idiot savants like William Hung. You know why Canadian Idol was cancelled? The network said it was because the show cost too much to produce. Expense wasn’t the issue, recouping that expense was. None of the winners – or the runners up – could get their careers off the ground in this country. Canadian audiences loved to watch it on TV but no one bought the albums or went to their shows because you could see the same thing from up-and-comers at shopping mall food courts on a Saturday afternoon. It was a conveyor belt industry of false hope for these acts; Acts who took up A & R time at labels, advertising time on TV and man hours wasted on songwriting teams and recordings that failed to launch at radio.
That’s because you can’t launch a balloon full of sizzle. No one had put in a single minute of hard work to get where they were. Oh, people sweated over costumes, lighting and repertoire, but no one sweated over the long-tail. They stood on TV, opened their mouths and someone handed them a golden scepter and a tiara…or a hook. And anyone that couldn’t see that got sucked into the smoke and mirrors of this talent contest charade. Audiences became the fetid hoards at the chariot race or the cheerleaders of soon-to-die gladiators. Except these gladiators were prom Queens and Bohunks from Podunk, Iowa. You weren’t rooting for them so much as feeling sorry for them.
I was a judge at Q107-FM’s Ultimate Jam contest in Toronto from 2002 to 2004 at the famed Hard Rock Cafe. Every week some would-be singer would stand up and try to Idol their way through a song. They learned the hard way that singing on a stage with a live band – and a live audience – takes more than a head voice performing to backing tracks in a dingy bar. You have to be able to keep up with the ambient noise. That means having more than a voice. It means training and practicing and learning CONTROL. Night after night it was horrific to watch these young men and women walk off stage destroyed because their voices crapped out 3/4 of the way through a song.
They weren’t ready for the big leagues. They weren’t even ready for house league. THIS is the damage these talent shows have inflicted on young singers. False hope and unrealistic expectations. There was no preparedness. It was like taking amateur ice skaters and dropping them in the middle of an NHL hockey game based on the knowledge that they knew how to lace up their skates.
There were a few gems in the bunch – I signed one, Jamie Dart, to my label – she was the real deal. And the contest performances were just another gig to her. A night to rehearse and get live feedback. She was otherwise out there 6 other nights a week killing it at her own solo shows. She had the goods (and still has them). She is the exception to the rule.
That was how the farm teams for the music business were created when the business still worked. Start in the clubs, build a following, then dominate the world. That was a life-long process. If you were lucky you’d get signed by a record label and graduate to soft-seaters and tours with bigger acts. That workman-like path to success is all but gone.
Having 10 million people watch you for 14 weeks on TV does not a career make when you haven’t connected with that audience at a grassroots level. At week 1 of the talent show the singer is at the peak of their talent. At week 14 they’re in the same place. They are still as good as they’re ever going to get in 14 weeks (which is really less than that given how close together the shows are actually taped in advance). But an artist that starts in clubs, plays 300 shows a year for 6 years? That’s an investment and one that the audience has invested in with them. They get to watch the growth and be part of it. It creates loyalty and kinship.
Bring back a singular connection between the audience and the performer and you’ll have your music industry back. And if you’re going to bring Idol back to television in some form might I suggest a tweak? What about sending cameras into random bars around America and make it a talent hunt reality show? Forget the ridiculous, embarrassing and time wasting auditions. Send 6 A & R guys out to track down and develop an act from the ground up. Follow the exploits of an act struggling to build a fan base, a repertoire of songs and the coping mechanisms to deal with scammers, con-artists and sycophants…like the producers of American Idol. Watch the long tail eat itself. It’s as American as apple pie and Daisy Dukes.
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon