It used to be that music artists would get famous the old-fashioned way. They worked hard, they recorded albums and if they were lucky, they would start getting their name out there.
Photo Credit: Ranker
Then in 2002, all of that changed. American Idol hit the scene.
Now, we’re not saying that the stars on American Idol don’t work hard. A lot of them do. But it did bring something new to the world of music. Now aspiring musicians had an easier way in. They could book an audition, and if they caught the judges’ eyes, they had a shot at a minimum of 15 minutes of fame.
The fact that talent wasn’t a must is apparent when Pak Jae-Sang (AKA Psy, AKA Wiliam Hung) rose in celebrity ranks due to his alarmingly horrible audition on the show. He then went on to release the song Gangum Style that may have earned him more money than most hardworking artists will see in a lifetime.
But the truth is, people rarely get ahead on bad auditions, and may of the artists that do make it through reality TV ranks are quite talented. However, there does seem to be a lack of authenticity in the air.
So without further ado, let’s dive into the world of reality TV to determine its effects on the music industry.
What Music Competition Reality TV Shows are Out There?
American Idol kicked off reality TV competitions when it came out in 2002. Since then, many copycat shows have come and gone. The Voice is one that stands the test of time. In that competition, contestants are matched with celebrity judges and battle it out to determine who will have a chance at superstardom.
America’s Got Talent is another. Although not a singing show, it features a variety of singing and musical acts. It also has that one common, undeniable factor, Simon Cowell.
But if you think of the many shows that were inspired by the great AI, well, let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
- American Juniors
- The Next
- Rising Star
- CMT’s Next Superstar
- Diddy’s Starmaker
- Superstar USA
- Can You Duet?
- Nashville Star
- The Sing-Off
- The White Rapper Show/Miss Rap Supreme
- Platinum Hit
- Redemption Song
- The X Factor
- Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project
- The Next Great American Band
- Rock Star Supernova
- The Glee Project
The Reality Behind American Idol
Photo Credit: Variety
Now let’s get a behind the scenes look. What actually happens when you get your big shot to audition for American Idol?
Well, first off, despite what the show makes it look like, contestants do not fly in to immediately audition for the judges. Rather, they must first perform in front of talent scouts in their city. Hundreds from each city (still a relatively small percentage) go on to audition for the show’s executive producers, yep, still not the celebrities.
Obviously, the powers that be are looking for two types of people here, ones that are talented and ones that are so ‘not talented’ they will make good TV.
There’s also tons of waiting around involved during the audition process. Contestants have claimed to wait from 7 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon only to be told they didn’t make the cut.
Once you complete the audition process, we can only guess what goes on behind closed doors. To find out more, consider checking out the book by Vanity Fair contributing editor Richard Rushfield who covered Idol for three years and wrote the book, American Idol, The Untold Story.
In any case, we’ll do our best to break it down.
The Money Side of it All
There is no doubt that contestants go through a grueling audition process. But once they make it through, it’s just the beginning.
Sure, the fame is nice, but what about the expenses?
American idol pays the accommodations for contestants, but the contestants must pay their own travel fees. They may end up flying in and out of cities where they will be auditioning, and expenses can add up quickly.
The show also does not cover travel expenses for families. So if a contestants’ family members want to fly in to see their relatives perform, ka-ching, that’s another hit to the wallet.
And what about those fantastic outfits the contestants wear? Who pays for those?
Well the contestants are sent out with a fashion consultant who takes them to the most expensive stores in Hollywood. They are usually given a $450 budget to play around with, but with many of the items exceeding that limit, it’s not uncommon for them to dip into their own pockets.
Then you have to consider what they are leaving behind. Many of them quit their day jobs and leave school. Nikki McKibbon, who came in third to Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, lost her karaoke company and her apartment. Kimberly Locke passed up her chance to attend law school.
The accommodations Idol vary from year to year. Although you might see contestants living in mansions in ‘behind the scenes’ shots, the truth is, they often have to room with others. When roomie contestants go home, instead of letting the ones that are left enjoy their privacy, they are sent to live with larger groups to cut down on expenses.
So, how much do Idol contestants make, you may be wondering. Well, the ones that win make out quite nicely, taking home a million dollars or more.
The top four get a big payout from doing Disney commercials. They also get money for shooting Ford commercials as well as generous budgets to put towards their albums.
They also get paid for appearing on the show. The top twenty-four contestants get paid $1571 for two hour shows, $1303 for one hour shows and $910 for half hour result shows. However, they get paid through SAG-AFTRA which means they need to pay at $3000 fee to join the union.
Another big payday comes when the top 12 do their summer tour. They get around $150,000 each for four or five months of touring.
American idol’s Effect on the Music industry
Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What is American Idols effect on the music industry? Here are some points worthy of discussion.
As soon as you become a contestant on Idol, you will be reminded time and time again that it is a TV show first and a talent show second. As such, there is not a lot of attention paid to developing the artist’s career.
Sure, many get lucky and do well after the show is over, but others are left out in the cold when it comes to getting any sort of guidance.
Despite the fact that former contestants may not get the guidance they are looking for, they are tightly bound by their contracts. And this doesn’t only pertain to winners. It goes for all contestants that passed a certain stage in the competition and are now considered marketable.
In these cases, the powers that be control everything from their recordings to their management to their merchandising.
Kelly Clarkson encountered power struggles several times throughout her career. She was forced to perform at events she didn’t think were appropriate. She also was met with criticism from her representation during the release of her second album when she took over her own songwriting duties.
A Spotlight on a Lack of Originality
Clarkson being criticized for writing her own songs, is a good example of Idol’s, and other reality show’s, lack of focus on originality.
The contestants are asked to sing cover songs only when they perform on the show. Yet, when they are done with the show, they are forced to come up with an original album. At this point, they are faced with an identity struggle.
Do they become the star the fans perceived them to be? Do they take on the personality their management is feeding them? Or do they pursue their own path?
There has been criticism of the artists being propelled into super stardom seemingly overnight. One has to wonder if they are truly ready.
A good example may be Fantasia Barrino who was known for her cute/sexy R&B appeal. After leaving the show, she was marketed as a gospel artist. Although she has had some success after the show, she never got as far as some of the other contestants.
The fact that cover music is promoted on the show also works on another level. I personally have found new artists shying away from making original music in favor of covering other artists’ previously recorded tracks. The reality show mentality has worked its way in and now musicians feel making cover tunes are the path to success.
There may be different opinions surrounding this school of thought, but it can be agreed that it breeds a lack of originality.
The Stigma Attached to Winners
Reality shows feed contestants on the fact that they are TV shows first and talent shows second. In fact, this is a mantra fed to the people trying out on Idol time and time again. This mentality goes far and audiences have a difficult time buying into winners’ authenticity.
It seems the negative perception of reality show stars continues to grow along with the decreasing popularity of the shows themselves.
Tugging on the Viewer’s Heartstrings
Music reality shows have also come under fire more recently due to the new direction they are taking, one of tugging on the viewer’s heartstrings.
As the shows’ popularity wanes, they tend to harp on circumstances that are taking place at home. For example, I can remember one reality show where one of the contestants was a young girl whose father had cancer.
Heartbreaking though that may have been, every week when she appeared on the show, the judges would go on and on about her father so that his illness seemed to take the spotlight over her talent.
Not only does that defeat the point of the show, but it may also have ended up getting her sympathy votes.
American idol Winners: Where are They Now?
Image Credit: Twitter
It’s clear that American Idol and other reality shows have a big payoff for some, but others are quickly forgotten about. Let’s take a look at some winners and how their success is paying off today.
Kelly Clarkson: The woman who started it all is a three-time Grammy winner with eight successful albums under her belt. Ironically, her latest gig is as a coach on The Voice.
Rueben Stoddard; Stoddard may not be the best known Idol, but he’s still working it. Somewhat ironically, his best-known work has consisted of two cover albums. He also appeared on The Biggest Loser where he successfully shed 119 pounds.
Fantasia Barrino: Although not as famous as some other former winners, Barrino has enjoyed her share of success. She released four studio albums and won a Grammy. She also starred in a Lifetime movie about herself and did some work on Broadway.
Carrie Underwood: Underwood is the Idoler responsible for the most successful album. She scored six consecutive number one albums on the country music charts and she won several Grammys and 14 ACM Awards.
Image Credit: Billboard
Taylor Hicks: Taylor Hicks may not be one of the more famous Idols, but he is one of the richest. His earnings are due to his Las Vegas residency, his tour dates and his co-ownership of the Alabama BBQ restaurant Saw’s Juke Joint.
Jordin Sparks: Sparks has three studio albums under her belt and starred in Whitney Houston’s film Sparkle. She was nominated for a Grammy for her collaboration with Chris Brown on the song “No Air”.
David Cook: David Cook released two albums on RCA Records and then split with the label to go the independent route. He has two indie releases and co-wrote country star David Nail’s hit single “Kiss You Tonight”.
Kris Allen: It may be difficult to remember that Kris Allen won over Adam Lambert in 2009. Although Lambert went on to have a more notable career, Allen did well for himself releasing five studio albums.
Lee DeWyze: De Wyze split from his RCA Records deal after just one year despite getting a hit out of the deal (the song charted as number 19 on the Billboard 200). His solo work is more folk oriented. He released two studio albums since branching out on his own. His song Blackbird was featured on season four of the AMC hit show, The Walking Dead.
Scott McCreery: McCreery won Idol at the tender age of 17. Since then, he sold over 2.5 million albums and scored four Platinum singles. He is a well-known name in the world of country music.
Philip Phillips: Philips led a promising career after his Idol win. His song ‘Home” was selected as the theme for NBC’s Olympic coverage and “Gone, Gone, Gone” was used as Idol’s send off track in season twelve. He released two studio albums but filed a lawsuit against his record company, 19 Records calling his contract oppressive.
Candice Glover: Glover’s album Music Speaks was released in 2014 directly after her Idol win, but it failed to produce a single. She claims to be working on a follow up. In the meantime, she is staying busy performing at sports and corporate events.
Caleb Johnson: Johnson released his debut album Testify just three months after winning the competition and then split with his label nine months later. He reported that he was looking for the right home and felt the label wasn’t doing much for his career.
Nick Fradiani: Fradiani’s first single “Beautiful Life” was co-written by Dashboard Confessionals’ Chris Carrabba but failed to crack the Billboard top 100. His debut album ‘Hurricane’ received a lackluster response.
Trent Harmon: Trent Harmon kicked off his post Idol career with a single co-written by Keith Urban. He went through some difficulty with his label, Big Machine Records but ended up resigning with them in 2018 when he put out his first full length EP. Most of his tracks did decently well on music charts.
Maddie Poppe: Although Trent Harmon should have been the last American Idol winner (the show was set to shut down in 2016 after he won the 15th season) it reemerged in 2018 yielding winner Madde Poppe. Poppe put out her first studio album, Whirlwind in 2019. She released four singles off the album. The most successful was Made You Miss which climbed to 21 on the US Music charts.
Laine Hardy: After winning Idol, Hardy put out a three song EP. He also did some touring and performed on The View as well as subsequent Idol seasons.
Just Sam: Samantha Diaz, or Just Sam, won American Idol in 2020. Her trajectory of fame is unknown and may have been affected by the coronavirus.
Season 19 is currently underway. The winner is as yet unknown.
Looking back on past winners, we see that some split from their contracts because they were not happy with their deals. Others enjoyed varying success in the music industry.
However, it seems the existence of reality shows has had some effect on the music industry making for a more cover song-oriented path to success. It is hopeful this will change with a spotlight on originality and authenticity in the future. We can only wait and see what tomorrow brings.