Sunday, 12 December 2010

X-Factor isn't ruining the music business - that pass was sold before Simon Cowell was born!

On one level X-Factor is the encapsulation of the entertainment business’s shimmering deceptiveness – thousands of “hopefuls” are whittled down to a final few from which one “winner” is chosen. And that winner is chosen by the public – this is victory for the market. Or is it?

Last year I pointed out that Simon Cowell’s modus operandum was to exploit what I called the “Bestseller Syndrome” – to take advantage of our tendency to follow the herd. Especially when it comes to matters of taste. Now some see this as some sort of indictment for the music industry – symbolising how Simon and his demon hordes manipulate our choices for their own profit.

We suppose, I guess, that unscrupulous business-minded impresarios are some kind of modern invention? That the entertainment business has somehow been corrupted by Simon Cowell’s evil manipulation leaving us with less than we had before? But this is not new – we can go back into history:

The company owners, wrote the young United Company employee Colley Cibber, "who had made a monopoly of the stage, and consequently presum'd they might impose what conditions they pleased upon their people, did not consider that they were all this while endeavouring to enslave a set of actors whom the public were inclined to support." Performers like the legendary Thomas Betterton, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry, and the rising young comedienne Anne Bracegirdle had
the audience on their side and, in the confidence of this, they walked out.

The actors gained a Royal "licence to perform", thus bypassing Rich's ownership of both the original Duke's and King's Company patents from 1660, and formed their own cooperative company. This unique venture was set up with detailed rules for avoiding arbitrary managerial authority, regulating the ten actors' shares, the conditions of salaried employees, and the sickness and retirement benefits of both categories. The cooperative had the good luck to open in 1695 with the première of William Congreve's famous Love For Love and the skill to make it a huge box-office

London again had two competing companies. Their dash to attract audiences briefly revitalized Restoration drama, but also set it on a fatal downhill slope to the lowest common denominator of public taste. Rich's company notoriously offered Bartholomew Fair-type attractions — high kickers, jugglers, ropedancers, performing animals — while the cooperating actors, even as they appealed to snobbery by setting themselves up as the only legitimate theatre company in London, were not above retaliating with "prologues recited by boys of five, and epilogues declaimed by ladies on horseback".

This manipulation of public taste is a feature of entertainment and has been an especial feature of the music industry – whether we talk of the song factories of Tin Pan Alley, the mob connections of the swing era or Berry Gordy’s Motown business, we see exploitative businessmen taking advantage of ambitious performers (and particularly singers). A moment looking at the contract disputes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, come to think of it, just about every top performing artist of the 1960s and 1970s reveals the Faustian deal most performers enter into with promoters – sign here and we make you rich but only so long as you do what we want you to do.

I’m not sure Simon Cowell is of an honourable tradition – although his understanding of what the public will buy is essential. Just as Berry Gordy sustained Motown on the (very cheap) unique sound created by his in-house backing band, Simon Cowell works from a limited palette in terms of music. There is not a “Cowell Sound” but it is striking to see how most of the performers who get through to the public votes in X-Factor conform to a limited set of stereotypes – strong female singers usually black or mixed race, pretty young boys (singly or in groups) with light voices but a degree of sex appeal and slightly scruffy blokes with high voices.

This is the Cowell model and the performers are them squeezed into a lowest-common-denominator approach by recycling songs from within the bounds of expectation. The focus is on the money note, the song choice and “movement” leaving some songs destroyed by the need to fit in a ‘top C’ or wailing arpeggio. But we’ve always known this sells – plenty of opera scores were fiddled with so the big stars could have their note and Cowell merely continues this tradition (albeit with less good singers).

We should not moan about X-Factor spoiling the music industry – that spoiling was done long before Simon Cowell was born. Instead, we should wonder at how fantastic singers, musicians and composers still get success without selling their souls to the “industry” – like this! Or for that matter…this!

Who needs Simon Cowell!


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