Simon Cowell’s first U.S. star-making venture, American Idol, might be gone, but its influence on how the public views the music business is far from forgotten. Over fifteen seasons, the show produced at least three times as many bona fide stars based on their talent and a hand full of personalities who gained notoriety for their lack thereof. One of the questions that has nagged observers throughout the show’s history is how perception of the process affects hopefuls who make the pilgrimage to Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, and other music industry hot spots.
Dale (no, that’s not his real name) is a talent agent in Nashville, Tennessee. Like many agents, he has experience in the industry on the production side; in his case, as a studio administrator and engineer. He moved to Middle Tennessee to get his undergraduate degree in music management at one of the local universities. A few decades in, even the rare air of the Contemporary Christian Music scene got thin for him, and he went back to school to get his Jurisprudence Doctorate. His specialties are exactly what a nascent star in the heart of twang country needs in a good lawyer/agent: contracts, entertainment law, intellectual property and copyright.
When it comes to American Idol, Dale is a fan, especially of Simon Cowell. Why?
“Simon is the voice of the industry. I almost hate to use this term, but the simple truth is, he more often than not says exactly what I am thinking. Not only what I’m thinking, but what anyone who has to assess the viability of a perspective client is thinking.
He probably does seem kind of rude, but I have to say, sometimes it’s cruel to create false hope. This is particularly true when a contestant has already said they have another interest. Very often, their Plan B was really their plan, period. Then they hear about auditions for American Idol, or America’s Got Talent or any other show like that, and all of a sudden it’s their dream to be a singer.”
Dale maintains that Simon is often gentler than many of the studio executives he and his clients encounter. Time is at a premium for everyone, and performers have to show up spit-shined, toned, tuned, and ready to go. Anything less than everyone’s best is a waste of everyone’s time.
“One of my favorite phrases you hear on there is ‘You just haven’t seen what I can do yet!’ That needs to be the first thing they see. There’s no learning curve. You may find a producer or agent once in a great while who will work with an artist and help them create their branding. I’d say 99.9 percent of the time, all of that needs to be in place before you walk in the door. It’s gratifying to hear Simon Cowell call out people on that.”
Branding, image, being unique, all of these things can help a person stand out. However, they cannot replace talent. Dale says this is one area where he likes the way American Idol represents the music industry. His favorite example of that was the time years ago when a young singer from Alberta, Canada, showed up to audition at Acuff Theater at Opryland and made the rounds at Music Row with her agent. Dale worked as a technician for both The Nashville Network and the live entertainment division of Opryland at the time. He recalled that she “dressed like an acid vision of Dale Evans and was exactly as nice as everyone expects Canadians to be.”
Then she sang.
Staffers who were old enough to remember immediately heard the deep, rich alto and sharp stab of heartbreak in her voice, it was the aural equivalent to being visited by the shade of Patsy Cline. The young lady from Alberta knew it, too. She’d named her band “The Reclines” for a reason. Less than a year later, everyone else recognized that singer’s star quality, and k.d. lang made her first appearance on the American charts.
Would lang have made the cut on American Idol?
Dale would like to think Simon Cowell would have been as enchanted by her as those lucky Nashvillians who heard her sing that first time at the Opry House. One thing to keep into account is that American Idol was looking for a specific set of qualities in their contestants. There were people whose voices were perfectly fine, but they lacked in other areas that would make them hard to market. Maybe they didn’t quite have the look, or they were technically proficient, but there was nothing about them to make them stick in the heads of potential fans.
As an agent, were there winners who only got as far as they did because of American Idol?
“Absolutely. I’m not going to name names. There are some singers who would have made it regardless and there are others where I still shake my head that they got as far as they did.”
Dale knows that as an agent in Nashville, he is probably seeing the show from a different perspective than many fans.
“When they get someone who is almost aggressively bad, just really inappropriate for American Idol, I’ve always felt a little sympathy when the judges lose it. There are no official figures as to how many people they see in a given day at each stop. I know at one point in Nashville it was in the thousands each day they were here.
” I was one of the people who got to meet the original three, Simon, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson. They were all very nice, but you could see how tired everyone was. At the same time, there was a determination to try to give the people who walked into that room a chance to be heard.
“The American Idol people do as much on a given day as we do in about a year.
“On a freakishly busy day, usually right after a TV singing competition like American Idol starts, we might get over a hundred CDs, cassettes, head shots, calls for appointments, and folks dropping in who drove halfway across the country to see us and never called first. We have to assess all of that, all of them. Even if every person who sent in a demo or walked in was the next Keith Urban, it would be impossible to represent them all.
“When we decline, some people take it with grace. Some move out to Nashville anyway. Some argue and bargain because they’re sure they could make all of us rich and famous. Some of them? They start to see Nashville, all the agents, all the labels as one big Simon Cowell. Then they go audition for American Idol.”
[Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]