X Factor – The Whys and Wherefores

I get asked this a lot…

What are my views on X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, and so forth?

Well, here are some of my thoughts on the matter. I doubt I’ll be able to cover every angle in one blog, but let’s hit some of the main points.

These shows are big business. The ad buys for their commercial breaks command some of the largest figures on television. As such, ratings are king. In fact, most news coverage pertaining to these programmes focuses on the race for viewers between competing shows. High ratings depend upon appealing to as many people as possible. Herein lies one of the issues. To appeal to as many people as possible, you have to shoot for the lowest common denominator. You have to avoid taking too many risks. You can’t scare people. Basically, you have to give people what they know they already like…

These shows aren’t really talent shows. Especially those that throw in the ‘car crashes’. You know the ones – the god awful off key singer with the adoring family backstage, toothless Aunt Tracy ready to pounce once the inevitable bad reviews arrive, false nails swiping angrily at the judges, held back just enough by the suited security guards. Let us remember, these shows are about gripping the viewer for long enough to reach the next ad break. People like car crash TV. And people like hearing pleasing renditions of songs they already know.

But surely, people also like finding new, wonderful music? Well yes, of course they do, and they will forever do so. But in some unspoken agreement between these Talent shows and us, the more discerning audience members, we have all agreed to keep these two desires apart from one another. And thank fuck for that.

New music, singer songwriters, bands with original material, etc, do not belong on reality TV. For starters, it would not make great viewing.

Art and mainstream television are not great bedfellows.  Art exists, in part, for its own sake. To the artist, creative vision trumps pandering. Integrity comes above mass appeal. Reality/mainstream television is little but pandering.  They want pretty young things, singing pleasant cover versions dripping in fake emotion. Ideally, from a lad or lass whose background has just enough strife for the editors to cue up the plinky-plonky  piano loop of weepy grandeur.

They don’t want the next Kurt Cobain, the next Radiohead, or even the next Jessie J. They want a soft focus approximation of the viewer’s existing music collection. They may attempt to then launch the winning artist into the pop cannon, but not during the contest stage. Baby steps.

X Factor wants a puppet. A singer or a group malleable enough to turn into next year’s pop single sensation. Any preformed act with their own character, a song base and (hell!) an actual ‘X Factor’ does not fit this bill. And here is my next issue. These shows do not create stars. They find, promote and then swiftly discard flash-in-the-pan products, doomed to a career at Butlins or the depths of whichever Big Brother spin off no-one is watching this year.

Some minor celebrity comes from these shows. One of Girl’s Aloud is still in the limelight. Leona Lewis is apparently aiming to be the new Whitney (I’d avoid the white powder though love…) Beyond these names, who else has lasted more than a couple of years at the top, or even close to it?

There is one. Mr Will Young. Still making albums, still selling out venues. While not to my taste, he is a very interesting case study. He is an anomaly. He swiftly positioned himself away from the pop covers of his debut Cowell-funded album into more soulful, MOR style. He sings original songs in his own voice, and pretty solid songs too. Certainly not pop fluff. And lo, he has an actual music career! He used the reality television route to launch himself successfully, but I can imagine he played some of his own cards along the way.

My biggest qualm with these shows is the false hope.

I work with many singers on a fairly regular basis who have placed a shockingly large amount of faith in their upcoming audition for their show of choice. When asked, I will always gently, kindly, point out the statistics. Tens of thousands apply, a handful are chosen. Out of which, there is the ‘car crash percentage’  to be deducted. I don’t ramble on about the short term fame of the winners or the fact they are turning themselves over to a huge corporation as living, breathing product; there is no need. They have their hearts set on something, for better and worse, that is most likely never going to happen.

In the world of real music, of course artists shoot for the top. But, they do so more organically. Along the way they have the substantial wonderments of the rehearsal studio, the small town gigs, the self funded demos, the local following, the local music scene… all of which can escalate (again, organically) into something more. And if not, they will always have the “small time”, which is no small prize. X Factor cares not for small time. It only cares for all-out explosive fame, with all the metaphorical fallout merely a side product to be burdened by the blinkered stars and starlets of yesteryear.

Some networks have tried to push songwriting and artistry to the fore in a reality programme. None have flourished. And I cannot myself see a way they could. Songwriting and musicianship is a mildly geeky affair, if we musicians are to be honest. Learning an instrument, writing a song, perfecting a set… all of these things are timesinks filled with repetition and rule sets. This is not sexy television. And while the results are potentially brilliant, new songs require repeat listenings to sink in. They may also only appeal to select audiences due to the matter of genre; could a death metal artist ‘compete’ side by side with a Goldfrapp-influenced electronica artist?

And therein we have another vital point. Competition. Art is not the realm of competition, of winners and losers. Artists live alongside one another. Granted, we have pop charts, but at the end of the day every artist wins. They create, share, contribute.

So let us end on a positive. Despite the proliferation of Talent/Reality music shows, real music is doing just fine thank you very much.

Live music is soaring, stronger than ever one could argue.

After a funny transition phase into the digital realm, music sales are also doing fine. Yes, there is still a degree of piracy, but let us not forget the days of cassette recording, bootlegs and such. A small amount of piracy has always been the norm and the industry knows its benefits alongside its harms.

Real music will exist alongside Talent shows, and real music will outlast each and every one of them.

Long live the music!


Back on the Horse

Recently, I played my first live gig since my university days.

I’ll admit to having become a studio monkey. Owning and running a studio has made certain things easier. Most notably, I get to record my own work between client bookings, a luxury if ever there was one! But it has made me less inclined to search out live shows. I can get away with blaming my studio timetable, but in all honesty, it was part comfort, part finding the time and part laziness. It’s just so much easier to do what is readily available in life as opposed to searching out the new.

It turns out, the new found me. I was contacted by the venue via my internet profile on “Reverbnation”. They needed an acoustic act, and they found me. Strangely, they managed to jump the gun on the timescale I had imbedded in my head by about one week. To explain:

I decided a few months ago to get back on the horse as far as gigs are concerned. To this end, I planned the live session YouTube videos I have recently started posted online (http://www.youtube.com/user/TheJamesNighthawk/videos).

The idea here was two-fold. Firstly, I wanted to ensure I could indeed still cut it live – shoving a video camera in my face and recording the results seemed like a perfect test! And secondly, I would have something to show gig venues, something that would show them exactly what they were booking. My recordings until this point were all studio affairs. Not only does this mean that they are polished, they also have larger arrangements than I can muster on stage with one guitar and a mic.

Well, as explained, the gun was jumped, and this gig was booked without the videos. So the next stage was prep. First, I needed to choose the set list. This was surprisingly straightforward. I simply chose the strongest 8 songs that worked with a simple guitar/vocal arrangement. Then the order was set, with the standard “ebb and flow”. Strummed songs and softer finger-picking numbers were alternated to keep the dynamics moving. Voilà! Or so I thought. But more on that later….

Rehearsing was next. This would be simple surely? I play most days anyway, so there is little to do here one would think. Well, it turns out that playing through a PA would be interesting for someone who rarely “plugs in”. The tone of the guitar, the amplification of my voice back at me, along with the general volume increase, all served to throw me an unexpected curve ball. Fortunately, a few hours and I was set, enjoying the variation in fact!

I discovered another interesting fact during rehearsal regarding lyricism. More precisely, the task of setting lyrics to memory without using my songbook. A note here to fellow songwriters – there is a hidden bonus of writing songs with narratives. They are much easier to set to memory! The tunes which I had to make an effort to imbed in my memory bank all had more “obscure” lyricism, or simply lacked an A to B movement of narrative. Those that tell stories seem to flow stanza to stanza and so clicked into place with far more ease. Something to think about for future composition perhaps…

So, the day arriveth.

An odd run of sensations started mid morning. The strange feeling in one’s stomach, not a little connected with a lack of appetite. A tendency to over think the simple. A lack of general concentration. Fidgeting. A body temperature setting its own course.

Yup, I was nervous. I had forgotten about the pre-show jitters. No matter. My level-headedness prevailed and I told myself to stop being silly. I have done this many times before. I’d be fine. Sure enough, once I had arrived at the venue, sound checked and met the other musicians, all was well and I was relaxed once again. Raring to go even!

I was second on stage of three. Following a lovely set from local singer songwriter Zoe Phillips (@zoephillips18 on twitter) I headed back stage for a final tune up. On returning the crowd had swollen somewhat. From an initial 30 or so onlookers, I was staring out on a crowded room, easily pushing 120. Good stuff I thought! Well, I was mostly right.

The only negative of the proceeding 30 minutes was that in front of me stood a slightly sloshed Saturday night crowd, there in the most part to hear the rock band headlining. As such, out went the set list after a couple of songs, and in its place I played the loudest strummers I had, including a couple of Beatles crowd pleasers. Whilst this was not the plan, it was still thoroughly enjoyable. The crowd seemed to really enjoy it and the feedback was unanimously positive.

30minutes flew by in a blur. Muscle memory took over in both my hands and my vocal chords (no small mercy considering the volume of crowd chatter against which my stage feedback was competing!) I came offstage smiling.

That night, the high, the buzzing, resonated through till early morning. Something else I had forgotten. I get the feeling gigging might become a more regular fixture on my calendar going forward.