Interview with Simon Cowell: The X Factor Comes to America
Singers shiver at the thought of stepping on stage in front of him–music executive and television producer Simon Cowell, known in the U.S. for his non-sugar coated commentary for nine seasons on the Fox reality series American Idol, is probably one of the most feared men when it comes to judging talent contests. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying the Brit’s brutal honesty and music savvy brought him and the show pop-culture prominence and huge monetary success. Millions tuned in each week to hear what the industry mogul had to say–insults and all–making Idol the #1 watched TV program for six consecutive seasons.
His critics have said that he single-handedly made meaness a socially acceptable behavior on a global scale, but in Cowell’s world, there’s no room for empty niceties when careers and big corporate money are on the line. Both here and in the UK, his winning formula of discovering talent, giving unknowns weekly TV exposure, building up their brands and fan bases along the way, and then selling millions of their records has worked well for him. Judging Idol earned him a five year/$33 million per season contract in 2006. While the rest of the recording industry is struggling, Cowell bluntly claims to have kept Sony Music UK afloat. He was quoted in 2008, saying his company Syco Entertainment (SY for Simon, CO for Cowell), which is a joint venture between him and Sony Music, accounted for 70% of the profit at Sony Music UK.
Established by Cowell in 2002, Syco Entertainment has three divisions: Syco Music, Syco TV and Syco Film. His production company is behind America’s Got Talent and American Inventor, and he’s produced and judged successful TV shows in Britain, such as Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, and the UK’s #1 The X Factor, which peaked at 21 million viewers and a 65% audience share during Season 7. Thirty-three franchises of The X Factor alone make it possible to be viewed in 70 countries. The Syco record label rarely looks for new artists outside of Cowell’s TV talent competitions, and has released big, big records for new-found British stars, such as Il Divo, Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle. It’s all pretty staggering.
He left America and Idol at the end of it’s ninth season, but now the talent judge we loved to hate but grew to respect is back, bringing his wildly popular singing competition series to our shores. Auditions for The X Factor (USA)began Sunday, where an estimated 18,000 showed up for the first round at Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, and will run through May in six cities:
- Los Angeles – Sunday March 27
- Miami – Thursday April 7
- Newark – Thursday April 14
- Seattle – Wednesday April 20
- Chicago – Wednesday April 27
- Dallas – Thursday May 26
The advertisements running now for The X Factor ask us, “Have You Got It?” – meaning that indefinable star-quality that separates good from great. The official website advises auditioners to come prepared to sing verse and chorus of three different tunes, and to dress to impress. They will all compete for one thing: the coveted prize is virtually a diamond-studded dangling carrot – a $5 million record contract with Columbia Records/Sony. Expect to see the premiere in September 2011 on Fox.
On his recent media blitz promoting the new show’s American auditions, Cowell phoned in an interview from across the pond, as they say. Fidgety, anxiously waiting for the call, I felt a little of what it must be like for contestants standing before for THE judge of our day. Maybe I was overreaching a bit, acting the good-will ambassador of sorts by welcoming him back to American television, but he seemed to like that fine. Knowing he wouldn’t give a definitive answer to the burning question on fans’ minds–“Who’s the female judge on the panel?”–I asked Cowell who was the first woman he thought to hire as a judge on The X Factor.
“Lots of people. Paula [Abdul] was always in the mix because we had a fantastic relationship on Idol, so I wanted to make sure that she was included [on the short list]. I’ve tried to meet as many people as I could who were interested in judging the show, and most of the people I’ve met I really like, so I’m in a difficult position now where I could put 20 people on the panel and everyone’s got their own opinion. But that’s probably a high class problem.” Were there going to be two female judges chosen? You could hear the smile in his deep voice, “Yesss!” Great. We want to get the ladies’ point of view. “You’re definitely going to have that,” he said. “Trust me.”
On the unofficial short list of possible female judges buzzing around on the Internet are entertainers such as Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, Nicole Scherzinger and Nicki Minaj, as well as Abdul. Last week, music icon L.A. Reid stepped down from his position as chairman of Island Def Jam, and was signed up as the second male judge for The X Factor. The judging format will be different from Idol in that the panel will have secondary roles as mentors to the contestants in the finals. They will coach singers, help in song selection, and in image styling. In essence, singers and judges will be competing.
With all the fluff and hype that goes with the territory, Cowell says it still comes down to a great song as being the most important marketing tool for a new artist. “I think if you choose the right song, it’s obviously going to make a massive difference. Carrie Underwood is a good example of almost the perfect audition when we first met her [on American Idol]. Everything was right: from the way she looked, from her attitude, her song choice [Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”], her voice. If everything was as easy as that, judging these shows would be a breeze, I’ve got to tell you.”
Is the song as relevant as it’s ever been? Cowell circles back to the auditions: “I think nowadays it’s probably important, but years ago when we used to audition people, most people would come in and they would sing a Mariah song, or a Christina song, or a Whitney song, and they would always try to copy the original artist, and it would always pale by comparison. What’s happened recently, with YouTube in particular, is that if you find a song and you can do your own twist on it and make it sound kind of different and cool, then you’ve got a better chance at making it through and being noticed. If you just do a sort of karaoke copycat version, then that’s normally going to go against you.”
Cowell has said that going into the unknown is what he likes most about the audition process. Asked how satisfying was it to discover 2009 Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Susan Boyle, taking a chance on an older singer (48 at the time) and having the world embrace her like that, he reveals that he’s a mere mortal after all.
“I think it was a wake-up call to me and a lot of people. The expression ‘you don’t judge a book by its cover’ has never been more true because, the truth was–on the day, I wasn’t in a great mood. The audience behind me wasn’t in a great mood and my first thoughts were when I was talking to Susan–I’ve got a feeling this is going to be a terrible audition. And then within about 10 seconds, everything changed. I felt the audience reaction and then when I watched the clip back that was sent to me weeks later, I was kind of embarrassed initially with being pretty mean here, but I think we all learned a lesson. She’s gone on to have an INCREDIBLE career off the back of that one audition. I think your point you made about how important is the song is a big point because she did choose an incredible song [‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Miserables] which just fit everything – the mood, what we were thinking, the point she wanted to make – everything was perfect.”
Boyle’s debut Syco album sold over nine million units in six weeks, and is the fastest-selling UK debut album in history, and has gone on to sell twenty-million records to date. Her famous Cinderella-story audition is one of the most played YouTube videos ever. And with all her success, Cowell proudly says, “She’s a fantastic person and she’s still incredibly down-to-earth–totally normal and loving every minute of it, I’ve got to tell you.”
Refreshingly, he goes on to admit to the hardest part about his job as a music executive: “Well, I think you can get swayed by a lot of different opinions, and you’ve got to be incredibly open-minded nowadays. What’s actually happened over the past few years–you take Susan Boyle as an example or the success of Glee–I wouldn’t have predicted this years ago. So I have to teach myself to be open-minded, to be surprised, to go with the audience. That’s why with this show when we brought it to America, one of the first things we said was, if we take away as many rules as possible, open it up to any type of artist, we should have a better chance at finding someone who is a star waiting to be discovered. And that’s what we’ve done with the show. We’re trying to give everyone an opportunity to audition and cover all different types of music as well.”
There is no upper-age restriction on The X Factor. Singers 12 years and older can audition. There will be four categories of competition: young guys, young girls, older singers and singing groups. “It has worked in the UK. It’s been a great fun show to work on, and the interesting thing on this show is, is that in the finals, three singers over the age of 30 are guaranteed a place in the finals. That’s the way the format works.”
True to his work ethic, Cowell will be judging UK and USA versions of the show at similar times. Oh, those frequent flyer miles! But it’s that drive that has fueled his success. In 2009, he was named #1 in Hollywood Reporter’s Top 50 Most Powerful in Reality TV, and appeared on Time Magazine’s list of Most Influential People in the World. In the last decade and a half, he has seen sales of more than 150 million albums and has been behind more than 100 #1 records. Did he always envision himself as the power mogul he’s become? I was surprised by his humbling response; the man is tearing down his egocentric stereotype, one answer at a time here.
“No. Look, where I’ve been lucky is, I’ve been able to make shows I’ve wanted to make, and you have to be grateful for that. There’s no such thing as power. If you’re popular, you’ve got the chance to make more shows. And then if people don’t watch your show–it’s over. It really is as simple as that. So that’s why when I mentioned about going into ‘the unknown’–it REALLY is that. I have no idea what the show is going to be like because we haven’t filmed anything yet, but what I can do at this point by talking to you, is I can make an appeal to anyone who wants a chance, a second chance at being a star: come along to an audition and this could change your life forever. And that’s what’s going to make the show interesting.”
- Ken Morton, Jr.: The inferiority complex of the CMA never ceases to amaze me.
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