Why America Should Beware Simon’s ‘X-Factor’

Prior to the success of his programs, no one had heard of Cowell — now he is our Moses, brandishing the commandments of fame and success

Last Updated: February 19, 2010 @ 7:06 AM

As the entertainment industry is preoccupied and baffled by how to contain piracy, harness new media, reach an audience and make money, Simon Cowell has emerged as a supremo merely by dusting-off an ancient format.

That "The X-Factor" is joing the rest of the rubbish that has been migrating from Britain is probably not surprising. It is a show, though, that has resuscitated the wrong old trends and fanned the flames of the damaging new trends.

If anything, the show reminds executives that viewers are conservative, in the non-political sense. In the U.K., it is dragged out through much of Saturday night — and the results show, which gets even higher figures since it has the guest spot, dominates Sunday. Many of the viewers are those who are too young to go out on their own or too old and/or poor.
Forget all the endless rambling about niche groups and segments, if you want the mass audience you have to cater for mass tastes. The less cherished audiences are more likely to be faithful, while the hipper audiences are more likely to pirate and catch up on Hulu.
As even the most blindly optimistic begin to comprehend the huge changes in the global economy, the Western entertainment industries need to grasp that the younger audiences they so desire are going to be significantly poorer than their parents, and probably sooner than we expect. (The British are woefully dependent on the revenue from premium rate phone voting, though that is not without its troubles.)
 
"The X-Factor’s" extraordinary success in Britain rests on socio-economic factors. In a society still preoccupied with where you came from and how you speak and sound, fame has become a vehicle of social mobility. A regrettable part of the viewer appeal lies in the brutal ridicule of the hopefuls, whose lives closely resemble their own.
 
It is fitting that prior to the success of his programs, no one had heard of Simon Cowell. Now he is our Moses, brandishing the commandments of fame and success as he parts the obstacles and guides the believers to the land of milk and money.
Cowell, more than any contestant, is gorging on the fame and fortune it has brought him. The British version has him chauffeured to auditions in the extravagant BMW version of the Rolls. Once the finalists are selected, they are filmed at the "homes" of the judges where the final three in each category are selected.
Cowell loves to brandish his material success. I am wary of TV diagnosis, but it’s hard not to conclude we are seeing a bullied child settling scores.
 
Moreover, his involvement with Sony through his Syco label is very curious. Obviously Sony’s glory days as a standard bearer of consumer success are long behind it, but its downfall began when it decided to take control of the material that would be enjoyed on its products.
Its plunge into Hollywood was a disaster; it’s mania for DRM destroyed the Walkman brand and the prospects of ATRAC, its compression system that is far superior to MP3. And now with the help of Cowell it stokes the funeral pyre of the music industry.
The show is sponsored by Talk Talk, an ISP utterly vociferous in its refusal to protect digital copyright. A kamikaze convention.
 
The contradictions of the show are endless. Surely "The X-Factor" could be, and this also applies to "American Idol," the ideal venue to showcase new songwriters, who could supply these vocalists with material they could shape to suit themselves. That would obviously reek of independence and shake the reins from Cowell’s greasy palms, but the greater good of the industry is at stake.
Cowell is not interested in launching careers or creating a talent shop, he is simply a puppet master with an insatiable appetite for marionettes. Why Sony or the broadcasters don’t see the greater opportunities in such a format is beyond me.
Thanks to a combination of Cowell and downloads we are probably returning to the ’60s model of pop star as singles artist. So at some point Sony, or its shareholders, will eventually realize that after losing their hardware mantle Sony has destroyed the content, too.
Major acts are queuing to appear despite the detriment to the business. And when they do, the judges, like a synchronised jack-in-the-box act, leading standing ovations for even the lamest mimers while castigating misguided hopefuls who have to sing live with often unsuitable material. Who could forget Whitney Houston achieving more in a few minutes than decades of government drug warnings ever have?
The series that ended just before Xmas saw Cowell being on the receiving end of a few arrows. Sting attacked the show as karaoke and then a Facebook campaign to wrest the Xmas number one from the winner succeeded. Cowell got a bit sulky, probably because the guest on the finale, Paul McCartney, publicly approved of the campaign.
Now McCartney, with an unsurpassed career and back catalogue, is either desperate for publicity or the prospects for the industry are so bleak that even he has to hitch a ride on a bandwagon.
 
The talent format on this scale is ominous. The BBC has run several shows in conjunction with Andrew Lloyd Weber to find stars for his London musicals. Equity seems to be in purdah for the duration of each series so surely the idol factor film casting show is just around the corner — "Supergirl" or a "Saturday Night Fever" remake.
Lavish coverage leading up to the premiere, an explosive opening, an 80 percent drop on the second weekend and an express train back to obscurity — ideal contemporary television.
 
But do we need pop stars? I think we do. In the long run talent will prevail and singers, whatever their ability, will not be expected to plead for votes and support like a slimy politicians.
It’s not clear yet either how the rise of Live Nation will play out, but it is unlikely that bands and solo performers really want to embrace the drudgery of touring on the scale necessary to maintain their place on the perch. If touring is to be the main revenue, then ticket prices will have to drop to CD level to support the number of acts and draw fans.
The touring business model seems more suited to the reforming dinosaurs with a back catalogue to play, and a bus pass to offset costs. But since old recordings are relevant to younger audiences, why don’t the labels exploit their vaults?
As most newspapers retreat from the web advertising model, the music industry has been rushing headlong into half-baked deals built around advertising. Whether it’s Spotify or anything else, these deals simply bolster the profile of those running or investing in these outfits, however briefly, and lead the consumer to conclude that music should be free.
The back catalogues have already paid for themselves, so let us try before we buy. Let us download all the music we want, either for one or two plays or auto-delete after a few days unless we buy a licence as at the end of a software trial.
It’s not radical. We hear music on the radio, we used to have listening posts in stores. Minimal promotion costs, just bandwidth, but it may allow the artists and the labels to regain the upper hand.

Mark Lynch lives and works in London, where he writes an online novel, The Republic of Truth, about teen survivors of a climate disaster.