Susan Boyle: Latest star in music's new business model
Talent shows find "ugly ducklings" and turn them into record sales
If you thought the stir surrounding the global debut of Susan Boyle was something, then perhaps it's time to put on your seatbelt.
Yes, she finished in second place in Britain's Got Talent. But you don't have to win to be successful. This TV show – and others like it – are becoming the music industry's premier platforms for launching new talent.
And the middle-age Scottish spinster with a voice that touched the hearts of millions is preparing to carve out the singing career she's always wanted.
Ms. Boyle first performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" has now been viewed almost 300 million times (click here to see it) on YouTube.com, She will be releasing her debut album later this year on a label owned by Simon Cowell, the pop music svengali behind Britain's Got Talent and "X-Factor" (as well as the bluntly honest judge on "American Idol").
Bono and Boyle
But while Bono's Irish rock band epitomizes the traditional route to success by artists whose fame is a culmination of years of gigs and creeping critical acclaim – Boyle owes her rise to overnight stardom to a television talent show.
Some in the industry say that shows such as Britain's Got Talent (BGT) and X Factor (Britain's version of American Idol) are remaking the music business model. The TV talent show is emerging as one of the best ways to find and market new stars. And it's a global franchise: there are more than 50 versions in 110 countries.
Proponents cite the following evidence of this new model:
• In Britain, every one of the past five winners of X Factor has produced a song that entered the United Kingdom singles chart at No. 1.
• Leona Lewis, the 2006 X Factor winner, has sold more than 6.5 million copies of her first album.
• Even those who don't win can go on to become hugely successful. Chris Daughtry came in fourth on American Idol in 2006, but has sold some 4.5 million albums since then.
Remake of an old Hollywood formula
Some argue that this is really just a reincarnation of an old model.
"It's clear that this is not a new phenomenon," says Mark Borkowski, a leading public-relations agent and the author "The Fame Formula," in which he posits that there is a scientific formula for fame.
"The media have always been used by format owners to create cheap talent," says Mr. Borkowski, who adds that the lineage of Britain's Got Talent can be traced to the Hollywood studio system that turned "ordinary" women such as Vivian Leigh and Marilyn Monroe into stars.
"The difference now is that there is a globalized hit in a very short space of time, thanks to the Internet," he says. "It's also cheaper. People are creating cheap formats and cheap star systems, because show business, with an emphasis on the second part 'business,' is about making as much profit as possible. The problem is that this has to be replicated time and time again, while those whose route to fame is accelerated find often that they are thrown out just as quick."
In the footsteps of a mobile phone salesman
Nevertheless, Boyle can only be encouraged by the success of Paul Potts, the crooked-toothed mobile-phone salesman who won the first season of BGT in 2007.
Mr. Potts now performs around the world, has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and is reported to have a net worth of $8 million.
Potts, who had spent his savings on singing lessons, made a living stacking shelves for years, and battled ill health, admitted to Britain's Mail on Sunday newspaper recently that his personal story was a part of his recent success.
"Otherwise," he said, "it would just be a matter of programming the computer to sing something in perfect technique, and then it would have no personality. Whatever a performer has been through in life, will always be reflected in what they do."
The Ugly Duckling vote
Potts was arguably the first winner of the TV talent-show format who rose by undergoing what Borkowski describes as an "ugly duckling" transformation – at least in terms of initial audience perceptions.
In contrast, a more typical example of winners on such shows is Leona Lewis, a beautiful Londoner who trained at a top-performing arts school and recorded songs before becoming famous when she won the X Factor.
For now, the Susan Boyle story appears to be back on track following her short stay at a mental-health clinic after she finished second, behind a male dance group, in the final episode of BGT. The controversy prompted producers to admit that contestants were not psychologically tested prior to auditioning and pledge to reviewing its policy.
A cautionary tale might be that of Michelle McManus, a Scot who won Britain's 2003 series of Pop Idol despite criticism from a judge that her size would prevent her from forging a successful career. She was dropped by her record label months later.
Simon reinvents the wheel
Christopher Wiley of City University London, who lectures on topics including popular music and musical multimedia, says that Britain's Got Talent, differs from X Factor and American Idol.
"Rather than churn out further acts who might fit the bill as more conventional pop acts, here is a show where the participants do not necessarily fit into that category. There is an element of imperfection and the acts are varied," he says, adding that an even younger demographic is represented in the form of child singers and dancers.
The makers of BGT frame its success in simple terms.
It captures the heart and mood of the British public, according to Mary O'Reilly, a spokeswoman for the show.
"It's got 'watercooler moment' appeal – everyone wants to feel as though they are watching it 'together' and then talk about it the next day," says Ms. O'Reilly.
"It's about giving ordinary people opportunities and a platform to show case their talent and a chance to live their dream."