So it’s over, New Zealand finally has its first X Factor winner in Jackie Thomas. No real surprise as she was the most consistent singer throughout the show right from her first-up audition, an amazing version of the Bon Iver song “Skinny Love”. But I am not here to review the first season of X Factor in New Zealand but to talk in general about reality television music shows. Music reality TV has become completely saturated to the point of overkill. There seems to be so many different variations of essentially the same concept, that is pick someone out of obscurity and launch them into one of the craziest and toughest industries the music industry. This saturation in what is an already saturated reality TV decade lent me to the pondering of such questions as after twelve seasons of American Idol is there really that much more undiscovered talent in the US? And are these shows really about music?
Well, essentially these shows aren’t really about music but are instead largely money generating activities for profit-driven television companies. Yeah sure occasionally someone can come out of one of these shows and be a success such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and dare I say it One Direction, and yes I’m sure by going on these television shows you can get yourself good exposure as an artist even if you don’t make it “big”, whatever that means. However, the reality of these reality shows is that it is not about music. Television companies would not be pumping money into them if they didn’t think they could get money out of them, or generate ratings in a highly competitive television market in the form of advertising, sponsorship deals etc. While major record labels such as Sony tend to play it safe with these shows by tailoring them (the shows) and the artists on them towards the mainstream pop market, meaning musical diversity is often lacking especially at the crunch stage of the competition. If you look at the majority of the winners of these shows they tend to be safe pop acts, while often the more musically interesting or out there acts tend to finish lower down. This in itself leads me to pose the idea of how these shows aren’t at all about who is the best musician or who has the best voice, but are instead about who is the most popular among the watching and voting public. But then again I guess the mainstream music industry has always been about who is the most popular.
There is also the question that with all this saturation (The Voice, X Factor, Idol, Talent) it becomes impossible that all the contestants on these shows will be able to make it in what is such a challenging industry anyway. I mean Sony and other labels only have so much money they are willing to spend and it won’t be on everyone who comes through the reality music show doors. You only have to look at people like Ruben Studdard and Ben Lummis to figure that out, both who simply faded away after winning American and New Zealand Idol respectively. Many of the singers (if you can call some of them that) on these shows would probably stand a better chance just continuing to hone their skills in bars and at small public events/festivals, while maybe going down the route of independent labels. At least this way their musical journey is largely in their own hands, while it very much becomes all about the music, and just the music. In winning these sorts of shows therein lies the risk of being constricted in what you can do as a musician under the realm of a greedy major label whose main objective is profit making. This can often lead to the music suffering as a result and even the risk if you do not deliver financially of being dropped by the label, a move labels are prepared for as to them musicians tend to be dispensable especially when you consider that many acts turn in a loss.
In concluding this piece on reality music television, I’m not saying I hate music reality TV shows, in fact, they can actually be quite entertaining in parts and they do at times find some good talent. The Voice, in particular, I quite like with its unique format of blind auditions, constructive criticism from judges, and cross-judge support for acts, unlike the heated rivalries you tend to see in shows like the X Factor. I just think there are too many of these shows and their position in society needs to be placed firmly in perspective, especially when the media and social media jump up and down when the latest winner is announced.