The U.K. version of 'The X Factor' launched global stars like One Direction and Leona Lewis. Can Simon Cowell and L.A. Reid do the same thing in the U.S.?
The singing competition field is crowded, to say the least. It's been 11 years since "Pop Idol" debuted in the United Kingdom, and 10 years since the U.S. version, "American Idol," came to these shores. In that time, show after show has followed with the goal of capturing a mass TV audience, and maybe also discovering talent and launching careers: "The Voice," "The Next," "Opening Act," "Duets" -- the list goes on.
Eight years ago, Simon Cowell brought forth his spin on the "Idol" formula in the United Kingdom: "The X Factor." A ratings success (it's the United Kingdom's most-watched Saturday night program, with an average viewing audience last year of 11 million, according to ITV, which airs the show), it arrived stateside in 2011. And though it didn't garner the audience of 20 million that Cowell boasted it would, more than 12 million viewers watched it weekly, according to Nielsen. Those numbers lagged the 15.8 million viewers of "The Voice", which for the first time will compete for viewers with "The X Factor" this fall, but the show stands out from the pack when it comes to music itself.
"The X Factor" remains the only one to tie the winner with the executives they will work with as a recording artist: Cowell and Antonio "L.A." Reid. According to Cowell, it's "one of the reasons I believe our shows have been better. If you just booked recording artists on these panels, they can't do what I've done for a living and I can't do what they've done-it's a different skill set. That's the most important reason we have done well."
The U.K. version produced its first international hitmaker in 2007: Leona Lewis. One Direction, RebeccaFerguson and Olly Murs have followed, all signed to Cowell's Syco label and released in the United States through Columbia. Among Lewis, One Direction and Ferguson, the three acts have sold 3.2 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Murs' stateside debut is slated for Sept. 25.)
Reid-who marked his first year as chairman/CEO of Epic Records in July-turned the first season of the U.S. "X Factor" into an Epic farm system, immediately signing four contestants to the label with a deal for a fifth-runner-up Josh Krajcik-in the works.
When the show returns Sept. 12 -- with new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato replacing the first season's Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul -- music buyers will have a chance to determine if Reid's instincts were spot on. Epic will release debuts from rapper Chris Rene and R&B singer Marcus Canty in October, with season-one winner Melanie Amaro following in December. Further recognizing the show's power, Reid snagged Cher Lloyd, a season-seven finalist on the U.K. "X Factor," for Epic, not Columbia. Her first U.S. charting single, "Want U Back," peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and her U.S. album debut arrives in October.
"There would be no point in us doing the show if we genuinely didn't believe that, at the end, there would be some sort of legacy that makes the show worthwhile," Cowell says. "Over the years we've gotten better at putting an infrastructure around it. It's why I put myself on the shows. You've got to be on that panel and use all the years of experience you have had as A&R man and put that on display for all those people. It's quite unnerving."
"The X Factor" is the crown jewel at Syco, the joint venture between Cowell and Sony Music Entertainment. There are local versions of the program being produced in 41 territories including China, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Russia and Vietnam. The U.S. version airs in 166 countries. Syco reports that "X Factor" artists have had 39 No. 1s in the United Kingdom.
Cowell adds, "What we had to prove to the whole industry is that this is a process that you can trust. If we use the time on the show to mentor you properly, help you to become a proper recording artist, you can compete with the biggest artists around the world. It takes years to develop that trust, and we are getting a bit better at it now."
Reid approaches the matter with a little more caution. "The fact that we're releasing this music doesn't mean these artists will be microwaved into massive success," he says. "There is no shortcut. They will still have to have hit singles, still have to go out and perform to win people over beyond what they did on last season's 'X Factor.'
"I don't expect ground-breaking results," Reid adds. "What I do expect is the artists to give their all and the label will be behind them."
Cowell spoke by phone from St. Tropez, France, where he had sailed from Sardinia during a vacation just after filming visits with contestants at his Los Angeles home. While Cowell was vacationing, Reid spent the last week of August in A&R meetings at Epic and shooting "The X Factor" for two days in Los Angeles, then flying to Atlanta, where he spent a few hours with Andre 3000 going over his next album, working in the studio with rapper Future and meeting with producers. To be effective in Atlanta, Reid says, he needs to visit the city. "I have to go and actually see people and be a part of it to find meaningful music and meaningful artists."
Earlier in the summer, Reid, Cowell, Spears and Lovato trekked to five U.S. cities to preside over the cattle-call auditions where Cowell estimates they see 650-700 performers in total. At the Miami Beach taping, Cowell was his usual stern self, constantly asking singers to deliver their all. He peppered nearly every singer with the same question: "You know this might be the last time we see you so what makes you believe you have what it takes to win 'The X Factor'?"
Taping days in the early going are lengthy-more than five hours for the judges and even longer for the crew who capture plenty of hard-luck stories, moments of rejection and elation and far too many performers forgetting lyrics. During the Miami taping, Lovato spoke regularly with Cowell; Reid and Cowell rarely talked to each another at the judges table.
Throughout several days of shooting, Cowell was clearly in charge. He was the one who broke the bad news to contestants with heartfelt apologies. On the fifth and final day of taping, they picked 32 finalists. The drawn-out announcements took their toll on the singers-one young man fell over in tears after his name was announced; another disappointed hopeful raced up a set of stairs and punched a wall before security rushed to escort him out. The four judges ended their final day in Miami with a group hug, Spears clearly appearing more worn out than the others.
The casting of Spears, and signing her to a one-year, $18 million deal, was the first volley among the singing competition cast changes that sprang up this summer. A week after Spears and Lovato signed on, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez announced they were leaving "American Idol." News about Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban possibly joining Mariah Carey as "Idol" judges arrived on the heels of "The Voice" suggesting the upcoming third season may be the last with its original four coaches.
"There's a different chemistry-it's very different than last year," Reid says. "Paula was a veteran. She's a pro from all of her years on 'American Idol.' I personally learned a lot from Paula watching her work and seeing how she went about doing what she did. Demi and Britney are much closer to the age of the contestants and probably very close to the age of the viewers who watch 'X Factor,' so there was something really relevant about them coming to the show." (Adding to that relevance, this week Lovato's "Give Your Heart a Break" becomes her first No. 1 on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart.)
The age group Reid refers to is the coveted 18-49 demographic. The show was consistently watched by more than 12 million viewers weekly, with the Wednesday edition pulling 5.6 million viewers in the demo, an average rating of 4.4. Fox, which priced "X Factor" ad time higher than any other rookie show last fall, promised a 6 rating in the demo to advertisers.
That didn't occur. Nor did the show pull in 20 million viewers as Cowell had predicted. So Billboard gave him another chance to predict how many more viewers the show will attract with the new judges in place. He started laughing.
"Never, ever again," he says. "What's really important is that the first couple of shows have got to be great. We've got to find our audience and then we have to rely on the audience telling other people about it, whether they like it or not. You'll see how the show has developed over a 12-month period, how we've made some changes, hopefully for the better.
"I want to make [the show] as broad as possible because that's what the recording industry is all about. You've got massive contrasts at the moment-one moment it's Justin Bieber at No. 1 and the following week it's Lionel Richie's country album. That is the music business. And our show has to reflect that."