Originally published as a post in the Artsin Blog 13th December 2009
Each week I have been watching “The X factor” and in some way have learned a bit more about musical entertainment. At the core of this competition is the idea that an act can have an identifiable set of characteristics that marks it out from the rest. It’s called the “X Factor” because the “stand out” characteristic is hard to define. The TV show is a singing competition. It does not feature acts that play music instruments, as well as singing. There are however tens of thousands of unsigned, original bands in the UK and a TV show featuring these bands would attract a large audience.
If you are someone who works in the music industry and have the right experience (record label scout, top recording artist, band manager, show promoter, etc.) you will know it when you see it. So, are we any closer to defining this mysterious “X factor”? If we pull together what the four judges (from the TV show) have said about the acts that have made it through to the finals, there are clues as to their thinking about what characterises this elusive factor. Any act that has what it takes to become a
- must be able to project his or her personality into the songs and must be able to make a song come alive by living the mood and meaning of what the song is about, fully expressing its emotion; simply being able to sing the song in time and in tune is just karaoke. There are singers that have good voices, who can sing in tune, remember all the words and who can deliver an acceptable standard of performance but who have been labeled “club singers”, “wedding singers”, etc. Whilst such acts are capable of making a living from singing and can entertain the average crowd they will not get signed to serious record labels and rise to celebrity stardom. These artists do not have the “X factor”, however technically competent they may be.
- Be reasonably good looking. We can all debate what this might mean and point to top singing stars who (in our personal opinions) are not (all that) good to look at. But the judges have frequently referred to the looks of an artist as being part of the package they are seeking. This is far from simple or easy because eye-candy is very variable (i.e. as us – the public); it’s all very subjective but it seems to be a factor. We can point to successful and famous singers who are not (or were not) particularly good looking but who made it to the top because of their personality and artistic ability.
- Must be able to conduct themselves between shows in an orderly and professional manner. Ok, let’s examine some top music celebrities: Pete Docherty, Amy Winehouse, George Michael, The Gallaghers, etc. What we are seeing here is that newbie, wannabe acts that aspire to stardom must be able to work with their backers, agents and promoters in order to get to the top. Once they are established and are selling thousands of albums and have a huge fan base, they might then behave differently, but on the way up, you have to be compliant with the people who are backing you. Contestants approaching the final stages of the competition are being coached, dressed, made up, choreographed, mentored and comprehensively groomed by an army of experts. They are a product that is being groomed for what the experts understand as the expectations of the mass market audience. What we have been seeing on the stage is a product of entertainment expertise. None of them could have achieved this on their own. They have ceased to be the “person in the street” and look, act and sing nothing like when they started. Compare Susan Boyle as she appears now with what she looked like when she first appeared on the television.
- Must be genuine. Those that have talent but who are weighed down with an agenda have not got into the final stages (this year). However emotionally compelling their agenda might be, the public vote does not always get caught by the hard luck story or the mission of the cause. The public vote can easily evaporate, as we know from political elections. The hard-nosed judging moguls have not been swayed by tear-jerking stories, any more than the majority of the music industry would be.
- Must be able to cope with the huge pressures that this kind of experience places on them. They really have to want it badly to bear the stress and emotional storm and the intense pressure of having to perform at their peak each week.
Does the X factor really tell us anything about how the music industry operates? Does it reveal how the ladder to stardom operates? The TV programme is a machine; it involves massive amounts of money and huge numbers of people. Even if an act fails to make it through to the semi-finals or the final, they can still achieve a huge leap forward in their careers. Agencies are booking up runners-up for shows and appearances, to peform on the club circuits. If these prime time TV competitions had not been invented, some of these artists would have had to have spent years to get anywhere near what the TV show has brought them.
For every successful contestant, there are dozens of others who will have to haul themselves up the ladder of success by their own strenuous efforts, over years and years. The show has discovered a dozen genuinely talented singers out of 10,000 or so applicants, and projected them into the prime-time lime-light and clearly some of them would never have been discovered by any other route.
So, does all this tell us anything about the multitude of talented musical acts that have never even had a chance to get an initial audition: the singer/songwriters, acoustic acts, bands who make their own original music and would rather be dead than attempt to karaoke someone else’s songs.
Well I think the TV show confirms what we already knew. The music industry (in the UK) knows what the public wants and is able to select and package it into saleable entertainment products for the mass market.
National band competitions have been attempted but without any great success. They have not attracted much air-time (Orange Act Unsigned appeared on Channel 4 for a short while but has not been repeated). Bands do not seem to hold the attraction of solo singers and groups that sing and dance, such as JLS. Bands have to haul themselves up the ladder by their own boot straps. Some might get discovered at random by talent scouts but this is rare and you cannot depend on it happening.
In my dreams I would like to see a prime-time national competition for original, unsigned bands, screened nationally. This would provide a quick track into a successful musical career. I have seen many bands that, in my opinion, deserve to be at the top, simply because they are good at making music and performing it. I have discovered bands simply by going to gigs in Leicester. If I could wave a magic wand and transform them into chart topping bands, I would.
Equally, when I see some of the bands that have been placed at “the top of the tree” by record labels, I think, well I have seen better talent at my local live music venue. Why are they there? They are not that wonderful. Success in the UK’s music industry seems a rather randomised process where rock bands are concerned.