In a new E! series, an 'Idol' bigwig connects YouTube acts with concert stars
In the premiere episode of E!'s new reality show, "Opening Act," a 21-year-old singer/songwriter was plucked from a Dallas suburb to open a Rod Stewart concert in Las Vegas. She didn't ask to play for Stewart and, indeed, never even auditioned for the competition show. Instead, "American Idol" impresario Nigel Lythgoe and a team of producers, songwriters and musicians saw a few of her YouTube videos and decided she deserved a spot on a main stage.
Arielle (she's dropped her last name) was brought to a coffeehouse in Allen, Texas, where crews captured the shock and broad smile she delivered after receiving the news. She was then sent on five days of intensive training sessions in which Lythgoe, the executive producer of "Idol," and two producers gently suggested she should skip her Adele-like original number and perform a different song that was being pitched to Selena Gomez. Reluctantly, she agreed with the professionals, got a makeover and eventually did a reasonably good job with the tune, which sounded far too adult for Gomez.
This premise will be repeated seven more times on Mondays this summer, with complete unknowns groomed to open shows by Lady Gaga, LMFAO, Jason Mraz, Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Nicki Minaj and Gym Class Heroes.
As with "Idol," the entire show revolves around a so-called "journey" in which an unknown wannabe is magically transformed into a potential pop superstar. "I do believe it is a journey from the point we tell them 'You are opening for' until they go on that stage," Lythgoe says, noting that the acts have only five days before the performances to start work on a song or two. "[Emotions] go from 'This is fantastic-the best thing in my life' to 'Am I good enough? Will I get through this?'"
In Arielle's case, her opening gig put an end to a steady stream of rejection she's endured throughout her life. A bonus came when Stewart spontaneously invited her to duet with him on "Have I Told You Lately?"
Lythgoe says the show's best moments come in the unscripted segments between the time an opening act is selected and when the artist ultimately hits the stage. "When you take four kids . . . out of New Jersey and put them into this situation, they start questioning each other. All of a sudden [the band has] a different dynamic. When one kid [is told], 'You're opening for Lady Gaga,' and you find out that their mom is a Jehovah's Witness who thinks Gaga is the devil's spawn, you have a totally different story."
Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music and music marketing for Electronic Arts, brought the "Opening Act" concept to Lythgoe a year-and-a-half ago, and says E! was the only network they pitched. An artist development team that includes Mary J. Blige, Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz and producer Antonina Armato of production trio Rock Mafia (Gomez, Miley Cyrus) assist Lythgoe in selecting talent and A&R capacities. In most cases, songwriters present a fresh song to the act, but the struggling artists are allowed to make their own final decision on the material they perform.
Oklahoman Kylie Morgan is seen in commercials for the show receiving an invitation to participate from Aldean. Morgan was given the option of traveling to Nashville to work on a number with songwriter/producer Dann Huff or select a cover version of a well-known hit for one of her songs.
"I was really insistent that whatever you do, please do ["Phoebe"]," a song about bullying that was written in response to a 16-year-old's suicide, Lythgoe says. "It's a beautiful song."
Like "Idol," songs performed on the show will be made available for sale on iTunes immediately after the telecast. A label isn't involved, so songs will come directly from E! Lythgoe says the ultimate goal is for these opening acts to use the show as a calling card for recording contracts, and he believes there are already three or four acts ready to record.
"Even one band that has absolutely no talent-they're just fantastic," Lythgoe says with a laugh. "I love them."
NOTES: "True Blood" music supervisor Gary Calamar gets a co-writing credit with James Combs on "Let's Boot and Rally," a duet between Iggy Pop and Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino. The song debuted on the HBO series' season premiere . . . Filmmaker Keith Shapiro has begun a Kickstarter campaign to secure music rights for his documentary "Rhino Resurrected," about the fabled West Los Angeles indie retailer . . . Universal Republic's The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond was the top-selling soundtrack in the first half of the year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, selling more than 400,000 copies.