Wrong with American Idol?
Four Music Business Experts Say the Popular
Talent Show Is Misleading Tens of Thousands of Aspiring Musicians ...
Public at Large.
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American Idol is no doubt one of the most popular TV shows of recent
years, drawing millions of viewers every week. But, according to four music
business experts, the program is doing a disservice to aspiring musicians and
distorting perceptions of how the music industry really works.
"The show may be fun to watch, but it's the last place I'd recommend anyone
go to learn how to succeed with a music career," says Bob Baker, author of
Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook and Unleash the Artist Within.
Baker compared notes with three other music business pros: Derek Sivers, Peter
Spellman and Danica Mathes. All four agreed the show has created widespread
misconceptions about what it takes to succeed as a musical artist in the modern
world. They have identified five myths perpetuated by American Idol and
are on a mission to set the record straight.
Industry talent scouts actively look for singers and musicians
"Shows like American Idol lead viewers to believe that there are
hundreds of people like Simon, Paula and Randy out there searching for talent
they can mold into the next big pop star. That's an Old World view that simply
doesn't reflect reality these days," Baker says.
Danica Mathes, a St. Louis, MO-based entertainment attorney, who has worked
with artists such as Nelly and Anthony Cosmo (of the band Boston), admits that
record companies employ A&R people whose job it is to sign and nurture new
artists. "But as major labels consolidate, cut staffs and get nervous about the
bottom line, they no longer have the time or money to develop new acts," she
says. "Instead, they look for artists who are already developing themselves,
attracting fans and selling CDs on their own.
"It's easy to forget that in the music business, like any other business, a
record company's investment and risk on a newly signed act can mean the end of
several careers -- not just the artist's -- if it doesn't work. So a label is
much more likely to invest in someone who has a proven track record."
Most aspiring musicians lack talent and are delusional,
struggling and starving.
The American Idol auditions, in particular, create this illusion.
"That's a huge misconception," says Derek Sivers, founder and president of
Portland, OR-based CD Baby, a web site that in 2003 sold $4.6 million worth of
CDs (more than 400,000 units) by unsigned acts. "I'm blown away by the
tremendous amount of quality music being produced outside the mainstream. Many
amazing musicians have decided they're happier selling 10,000 CDs on their own
and making a hundred thousand dollars, than selling a million CDs and being
broke on a major label. That's the reality of today's music business."
You need the approval of industry insiders to make it in
Another misguided notion is that getting an industry big shot's approval will
make or break your career. "Sorry, you don't need Simon's or anyone else's
permission to be worthy of a career in music," Baker says. "If you wait for
someone to give you the green light to create and perform music, you may wait a
long time. Artists should use their inner conviction and the response they get
from fans to fuel their progress."
"Every major label in the U.K. passed on both the Beatles and the Rolling
Stones in their day," says Peter Spellman, director of career development at
Berklee College of Music in Boston, and author of Indie Power and The
Self-Promoting Musician. "That gives you a sense of what label gatekeepers
know about an artist's potential. Who knows what talent they're passing on
Landing a major recording contract is the ultimate sign of
"While major label deals have a purpose in the industry for some musicians, I
definitely preach the independent gospel," Mathes says. "I've heard countless
stories of bands that got signed and never went anywhere, or bands that had
record deals and ended up falling far short of their expectations. Unfortunately, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard are the exceptions,
not the rule"
According to Mathes, only about one in 30 signed acts reach significant
enough sales levels to warrant a second CD release, which means nearly 97% of
artists with recording contracts fail. "Getting signed often means the kiss of
death," she says. "Yet, I talk to aspiring artists every day who still believe
they need a major label deal. The smartest musicians understand that there are
other options that give them much more control over their careers, and they
aren't afraid to put their all into making it happen. Artists who realize
success does not happen when you get signed to a major label are the ones who
will make it in this industry."
Without widespread nationwide exposure, you're doomed to
Most musicians would love to get the high-impact TV exposure that American
Idol finalists receive. But nationwide media coverage is not a requirement for
ultimate success in music. "When most people think of successful artists, they
mainly think of who they've heard on the radio or seen on MTV," Baker explains.
"However, there are thousands of lesser-known artists who actively write, record
and perform great music under the radar. And, contrary to popular belief, many
of them make decent money, have large armies of devoted fans and are quietly,
but steadily, building careers."
Baker adds, "It's misguided for artists to think they need the massive
exposure and approval of music industry honchos a la American Idol in
order to succeed. The musicians with the best odds of success take their careers
into their own hands, promote themselves relentlessly and create their own lucky
For more information on:
Bob Baker, visit TheBuzzFactor.com
Derek Sivers, visit cdbaby.com
Spellman, visit mbsolutions.com
Danica Mathes, visit EntertainerLaw.com
permission from Bob Baker's The Buzz Factor, featuring
free marketing and self-promotion ideas for songwriters,
musicians and bands on a budget. Visit
www.TheBuzzFactor.com for details.