The music industry of the 21st century continues to enter some pretty interesting spaces as the years go on. Mega music stars that in the 80’s or 90’s may have been living in the lap of luxury on touring and record sales alone have now gone as far as to attach their names and likenesses to just about any brand name you can think of (think: Cee Lo Green, Beyonce, J. Lo, Lady Antebellum, Lil Wayne, Dr. Dre). And with the simultaneous decline in the sales of recorded and the advances in the way people can consume music by any means necessary (phone, tablet, cloud, car, you name it), music artists, executives and other creators are coming up with many ways to sell you, the consumer, music. The most obvious vehicle of which is reality television.
At the beginning of the new millennium, we simply had American Idol. Debuting in June 2002, Idol was seen by some as an innovative way to find the next great talent in American popular music, and by others as desperate ploy by the major music industry to grasp at the straws of relevance that seemed to be slipping through its fingers with the advent of Napster and iPods. But no matter how you felt about it, the show exploded with popularity and has been on the air ever since, with some of the most gargantuan names in popular past and contemporary music participating as judges and mentors to competition participants (Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, Jimmy Iovine and now Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban). Season 12 premiers in January 2013.
But the days of a lone music/entertainment reality show gobbling up all of the viewers and ratings are gone, and the reality TV music competition show wars have blown up in a major way. Leading the charge for the past few years have been FOX and NBC, with Idol and its sister show developed by Cowell, The X-Factor both on FOX, while NBC has found its niche with The Voice and, to a lesser extent, with America’s Got Talent. Both The Voice and America’s Got Talent have made their summer premieres and are now in the finale stages, while X-Factor has entered the final part of its audition stages and will actually be entering the competition phase shortly.
Due in part to the constraints set by the new music economy as well as the early success of Idol and other factors, each of these shows seems to follow a certain pattern: panel of celebrity judges, likeable and approachable show host (Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly, Nick Cannon) an audition phase with contestant ranging from the majorly talented to the severely delusional and untalented (which usually makes for some of the most entertaining parts of the shows), and to a certain extent, the backing and support of major music industry companies (Green Day and Justin Bieber recently performed AGT, while Minaj, Usher and Alicia Keys have performed on Idol in the past).
So it’s clear that the reality TV music competition wars are in full swing these days. But one of the biggest questions that has been asked of them is: Are they good for music? Sure, all of them are veritable cash cows for major corporations. Coca Cola, Ford and AT&T have all been staunch sponsors of Idol in the past and more than likely will again, while Chevrolet and Pepsi have taken hold of X-Factor, and both Kia Motors and Starbucks have been sponsors for The Voice. And yes, each show has become a promotional tool for major artists of many different genres, while also helping to launch the careers of the likes of Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson.
But do shows like American Idol, The X-Factor, The Voice and America’s Got Talent all make for a better music industry scene where people are willing to spend their hard-earned money on the artists that come out of these shows? Do they do their best to discover unsigned and undiscovered artists to and encourage originality and individuality of said artists? Is the “unscripted” element of the show really that?
In both respects, I’d probably say it’s at least questionable. The truth is, in the case of each show, we’re dealing with a major TV network that has found a certain lane in getting viewers to watch. And that’s been the whole point of major network television for decades now: it’s a competition to get the highest ratings. So even when we speak of “Reality TV”, there will probably be at least some suspicion around whether all parts of a show are scripted or not. Now, pair that with the fact that the mainstream music industrial complex is continually seeking out ways to get people to discover music on their terms, and there might just be a flaw in the slaw. And that’s not to say that everything we see on these shows is completely phony, they’re probably just not quite as “real” as many of us make them out to be.
Overall, we’re already dealing with a crowded and saturated music reality TV show market, probably with more to come down the road, as both mainstream media outlets (major television and mainstream music) continue to see their business models evolve and change so drastically. So whether these shows are either good or bad for the music industry right now is probably beside the point, as we can probably expect more and more versions of them at a few different levels in the near future.Google+