As Season 11 of “American Idol” launches tonight, it’s clear “AI” has forever changed the landscape of how we discover new artists. The biggest question is has it done more harm than good?
When “American Idol” bowed in 2002, it was touted by its detractors (and even some of its proponents) as nothing more than a glorified karaoke contest, a complaint that still is valid today, even though performers can now original songs.
Plus, the big brass ring for the winner was a major label contract: now, anyone who makes it to the final 10 or final 13 (depending upon the year) will be scouted by the majors.
Season 10 saw a tremendously high percentage of the finalists sign record deals with big labels, including winner Scotty McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina (both Mercury Nashville), Haley Reinhart and Pia Toscano (Interscope), Casey Abrams (Concord), Stefano Lagone (Hollywood) and James Durbin (Wind-Up).
That’s a windfall compared to the first few seasons, which shows either that the level of contestants has improved or A&R execs have gotten so lazy that “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor” are the largest talent mills going these days.
Looking back over the past 10 seasons, only a handful have gone on to have sustainable pop careers: among them Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry (we’re not including any Season 10 finalists yet... too soon to tell).
There's also the second-tier level artists, who have done very well, but not graduated to superstars: Adam Lambert, Kellie Pickler, Jordin Sparks and David Cook develop with their next albums.
Unintentionally, “American Idol” spawned a whole breeding ground for populating Broadway with B- and C- List names that pull middle America into the theater: Clay Aiken, Diana DeGarmo, Ace Young, Constantine Maroulis, Frenchie Smith, Taylor Hicks, etc.
But the music road is littered with finalists who have been dropped from major and indie labels including (but not limited to): Crystal Bowersox, Lee Dewyze, Allison Iraheta (whom we thought was great), Danny Gokey, Carly Smithson, David Archuleta, Blake Lewis, Katherine McPhee (although she’s about to have a major second chance with “Smash”), Bo Bice, Ruben Studdard, Josh Gracin and Justin Guarini.
The percentage of “American Idol” winners vs. losers is not that different from the general major label success rate of 1 in 10, but there are some bigger questions to be asked about "American Idol's" overall impact:
*The down side of “American Idol” is that it has truncated the “artist development” stage into a television season. Wannabes who have never performed other than in the shower are on equal footing with someone who has put in years of leg work. Does this serve the music industry in the long run?
*There’s room for all styles under the pop umbrella, but do these artists take up a spot on a label’s roster for an act that has built up a grassroots following?
*How has “American Idol” shifted the overall pop market? It seems as if dozens of pieces have been written recently about the demise of rock. Many people poo-poo that, but there’s no denying that rock barely gets played on top 40 radio anymore, which is very pop and urban leaning. Is that an "American Idol" side effect?
Given that only solo contestants are on “Idol,” has the show destroyed the idea of a pop group? There are only three non-solo acts in the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week.
I’ll admit it: When “Idol” first came on TV I was appalled by it. To be sure, there have been televised talent competitions before, but it seemed to circumvent everything that being a “real artist” stood for in terms of paying one’s dues, writing one's own songs, and building an audience market-by-market.
But over the years, my attitude has softened. I’m still not a fan, but I appreciate that it’s a show that families can watch together and that it’s given non-performing songwriters a lot of work. I’d never begrudge anyone for winning, but I won’t miss it one iota when it goes away.
What are your thoughts on “American Idol?” Thumbs up or thumbs down?
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