X Factor: Facing the music

By Scott Kara

Competitions like X Factor make for good TV ratings but do they create successful singers? Entertainment writer Scott Kara finds out.

When Jackie Thomas woke up on the morning after her X Factor win, she was still grinning.

"I was exhausted but I was still on a high, I was happy, and I smiled so much that day my face hurt," she says.

She's still beaming a few days on. But you sense the reality starting to set in. The Herald is talking to her just a few hours before she goes into Kingsland's Parachute recording studio to start her debut album, which is due out on August 9.

"It's kind of like a new beginning really," she ponders. "It's great that I've got all the exposure, but keeping the momentum going is really important. I'm willing to put in the hard work and that's what I've been doing during the competition anyway. I'm keen to keep putting it in, and keep pushing, and keep going."

Not a bad attitude for a Greymouth 22-year-old who didn't really know she had a great voice before entering The X Factor. Now she plans on making a career out of it.

She's got off to a good start. Her single, It's Worth It, went to No 1 on the iTunes chart within hours of release on Monday night.

But the biggest hurdle Thomas faces is sustaining a music career after winning a TV talent show. While many of pop's biggest names - One Direction, Kelly Clarkson, and our own Stan Walker, albeit in Australia - have emerged with successful careers, in New Zealand the talent show seems cursed. Only TrueBliss, the girl band from 1999's Popstars TV show, and Ben Lummis, the first winner of NZ Idol, have had modest short-lived success. In the New Zealand market Thomas faces another challenge after The X Factor.

Local female pop acts aiming at the mainstream - Annah Mac and Annabel Fay for example - have struggled to get their names in lights, even with major label backing, while established stars like Kimbra, Gin Wigmore, Anika Moa, Hollie Smith and Bic and Boh Runga all emerged as seemingly fully-formed singing and songwriting talents - and personalities.

Which makes you wonder what the real worth of local shows such as The X Factor and NZ's Got Talent really is.

"These shows are worthy, but when the lights go off it's up to you to be brave and put yourself out there," says music industry veteran Paul Ellis, whose career at major label Sony took him from Auckland to New York. On his return to New Zealand, he was a NZ Idol judge who managed contestants Lummis, Rosita Vai, and Michael Murphy.

"They have to understand that it's a whirlwind - that's what it is. Because TV builds you a false audience, an audience that is not loyal, whereas if you go to a pub or a bar or a cafe then you have a loyal audience who have come to listen to you. But a TV audience, especially these days, where everyone is flicking through the channels or on Twitter or Facebook while they're watching, is not loyal."

Ellis would be pleased to hear Thomas making all the right noises about "keeping the momentum going" and "working really hard", because that's the key to success in the music business. Not winning a TV show.

"You've got to put yourself back out there. You have to work really hard," says Ellis pointing to artists like the Exponents and Dave Dobbyn who have had long established careers simply because they played thousands of shows over many years.

And Ellis says after 14 weeks of having makeup artists and hair stylists fussing around after her, and being in the prime time TV spotlight, Thomas now has to show her true personality. "Who the hell are you? And I think she is great. I was there on Monday night and thought, you've got shades of Sarah McLachlan, you're amazing, but without the camera and the lights what is it going to be for her? And I actually worry."

Harry Lyon, the guitarist in veteran rock band Hello Sailor whose day job is lecturing aspiring young musicians in the tertiary courses at Mainz (Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand), laughs that although he hardly watched The X Factor, when the Herald called to talk about Thomas he knew who we meant.

"It's amazing. The ones who get through to the finals become household names," he says.

As well as knowing a thing or two about making music a career, Lyon was also musical director on the short-lived much-derided Pop's Ultimate Star, TVNZ's attempt at pitting Idol and TrueBliss has-beens against each other.

He's "generous" about these types of shows, because he believes the contestants are getting valuable experience - they're learning just by being on set and rehearsing with a band each week. "Over the course of the show the participants, particularly the ones who get all the way through, are getting pretty intense coaching one way or the other. Not just from the judge and their mentors, but also interacting with the musical director, which goes on behind the scenes. That's not necessarily great for TV, but they do learn a lot in that time."

But it's more like overnight success style preparation compared to the well-rounded approach at Mainz, which is about instilling "those usual things" of being savvy, determined, and the importance of diversifying.

"That's the difference from what we do compared to those shows. They [the students] learn a whole range of skills. They don't just learn to perform and sing. They do business studies, preparing them for self-employment, they learn to read music so they can become teachers. It's about developing a portfolio career.

"In this country, to survive, especially in the creative industries, people need to develop a portfolio of things they do to enable them to stay alive.

"But good luck to them all," says Lyon of The X Factor finalists. "Because there is some talent there. All three had good voices. And Benny's the one who's the songwriter, he's the one who could have a sustainable career. He plays, writes, he's got a range of skills that the other two don't have yet. And you need all that, it's not easy being a musician and you've got to work hard over a long period of time."

Not surprisingly, TV3 and producers MediaWorks say they will be backing Thomas - and the other top 13 finalists - in their future endeavours because if there is another X Factor series next year, the best advertisement for it will be if Thomas is still a household name.

Spokesperson Rachel Lorimer says MediaWorks will support the finalists through radio stations such as The Edge and Mai FM, its social media channels, including the 122,000-strong X Factor Facebook community, and on other TV3 shows, including the possibility of appearances on Jono and Ben at Ten, and Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park.

Despite not producing a major star there is no denying these shows are ratings winners on TV, with an average of 485,000 people watching The X Factor, and they generate large volumes of social media traffic.

But that's more about entertainment value than the music argues top industry expert and entertainment lawyer Chris Hocquard. "With The X Factor and those programmes, if you watch them the amount of music content versus the amount of everything else is pretty minor, so they are entertainment and they are light entertainment at that."

Hocquard says there are positive spin-offs from these shows for the local music industry apart from being "potential star factories".

He says local established artists who appear on the shows use it as an opportunity to get exposure to an even wider audience, and the royalty payments come in handy. Then there's the many live studio musicians employed during the series, and the flow-on effect of music being produced after the show (this week Whenua also released his debut single, Something Special).

The flipside is that while the The X Factor is on, it sucks a huge amount of money out of other parts of the local music business.

"There is only a certain amount of disposable income available to the industry. To an extent they become such a distraction that they have a bit of a negative effect."

Both Hocquard and Ellis also point out that these sorts of shows and manufactured pop stars are nothing new.

"It's been around since Elvis basically," says Hocquard. "It's just the degree of sophistication and the cross-media exploitation that's taking place which is part of a change about how do they fit across multiple platforms, and how do they make it work."

Ellis offers the local example of Shona Laing - who he also used to manage - coming runner-up on New Faces in 1972 with her song 1905 (though that show was judged by industry figures rather than viewer votes).

"But the way it's being served up to people now is a different way of engaging people really. The music business has become so lame that [X Factor creator] Simon Cowell has tapped into a consciousness that gives people a format to break artists."

It has to be said, that while the music industry is not the money-making behemoth it was 10 years ago, in that time the impact of TV talent shows has boomed. Though in recent years, with the flagship show American Idol suffering poor ratings and star judges jumping ship, their popularity has started taking a hit.

Then again, here in New Zealand, as The X Factor finishes, the auditions for New Zealand's Got Talent are now in full swing with the show starting soon. So the reality TV talent machine just keeps rolling on.

Meanwhile, at Parachute, Jackie Thomas steps into the studio vocal booth and puts on her headphones as another song is cued up.

There are no bright lights, no cameras, no screaming fans. Just her, her voice and a bunch of songs to get through. She got the job. Now it's time to go to work ...

How they fared

Popstars
TrueBliss (1999)
Manufactured girl band - like the Kiwi Spice Girls - made up of Carly Binding, Joe Cotton, Megan Cassie, Keri Harper and Erika Takacs.
First single, Tonight, went to No 1 and album, Dream, sold more than 30,000 copies.

NZ Idol

2004 winner: Ben Lummis
Released single, They Can't Take That Away, spent seven weeks at No 1 and sold more than 40,000 copies. His album, One Road, sold more than 30,000 copies.

Second place-getter Michael Murphy had moderate success with his album, No Place to Land, in 2004. He went on to form band 5 Star Fallout, and has also performed at a number of Christmas in the Park concerts.

2005 winner: Rosita Vai
Released debut single, All I Ask, which debuted at No 1 and sold more than 10,000 copies. Debut album, Golden, less successful peaking at No 15.

2006 winner: Matt Saunoa
Released single, Hold Out, which debuted at No 1. No album contract.

NZ's Got Talent

2008 (on Prime)
Winner: Wellington dancer Chaz Cummings

2012 (on TV One)
Winner: Clara Van Wel
Released single, Where Do You Find Love. Yet to release an album. Second place-getter Jesse Hillel released album, With Love, this year.

Internationally

Those who made it

X Factor
Leona Lewis (UK, 1st, 2006)
Olly Murs (UK, 2nd, 2009)
One Direction (UK, 3rd, 2010)
Reece Mastin (Aus, 1st, 2011)

Idol
Guy Sebastian (Aus, 1st, 2003)
Stan Walker (Aus, 1st, 2009)
Kelly Clarkson (US, 1st, 2002)
Carrie Underwood (US, 1st, 2005)
Jennifer Hudson (US, 7th, 2004)
Fantasia Barrino (US, 1st, 2004)
Chris Daughtry (US, 4th, 2006)
Jordin Sparks (US, 1st, 2007)
Ruben Studdard (US, 1st, 2003)

Britain's Got Talent
Paul Potts (UK, 1st, 2007)
Susan Boyle (UK, 2nd, 2009).

- NZ Herald

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