It all started with American Idol.
Well, not actually. Reality talent shows have been around in some form almost as long as television itself has been around, going all the way back to the early 1950s with shows like Talent Scout and Ted Mack & The Original Amateur Hour. Then, of course, there was Star Search, the long-running show hosted by Ed McMahon.
But the current frenzy to find the “next big thing” in America—that was really started American Idol, now in its 11th season, most of whose judges have already supposedly gone on to bigger and better things. Idol has admittedly created more stars than its predecessors, producing talent such as Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert. But it’s also spearheaded a flurry of other national talent searches who are competing for prime time slots. Let’s see…there’s America’s Got Talent, The Voice, and Simon Cowell’s new show X-Factor (which seems to be more about the judges fighting with one another than it is about the contestants). There’s also the shows that didn’t make it past one season, like The Next Great American Band. Not to mention the talent competitions that don’t have to do with singing, like So You Think You Can Dance, Last Comic Standing, America’s Next Top Model or Top Chef. There was even one for film directors—a short-lived show on Fox called On the Lot.
Like I said, talent searches have always been on television, but never have there been so many clamoring for our attention all at once. At what point does the market get saturated? Sure, it might make for good television, but in the scope of the music industry, what kind of “talent” are these shows really producing?
Yes, some of these shows have uncovered some great artists; Carrie Underwood, for example, is Idol’s ultimate success story. But Underwood actually had a difficult time finding acceptance in Nashville once she won Idol, because in the eyes of many in the industry, she hadn’t “paid her dues.” She got on a national talent show and became an instant star, while the other country stars had been spent years building up to that kind of celebrity.
And that, in my opinion, is part of the problem. It isn’t just that the television market is over-saturated with reality talent shows—it’s that the music industry market is now getting saturated with untested, underdeveloped talent from these shows. It used to be when someone was “discovered,” they would go through extensive artist development, building their audience over time through recording and touring. But in this age of instant fame, young artists on these shows are immediately thrust before audiences in the tens of millions before they are really ready to support that kind of fan base. They are then expected to produce recordings and tour in an attempt to keep the fame they got while they were on television—and it usually doesn’t work. Granted, Carrie Underwood found her feet, but she seems to be an exception to the rule. I don’t know how many promising artists I’ve heard on American Idol that went on to make one mediocre record, and we’ve barely heard from them since.
What I’m saying is perhaps there was something legitimate about Nashville’s initial resistance to Carrie Underwood; maybe they were actually onto something. Maybe the music industry recognizes that ultimately the best way to keep an audience is to build the audience over time through hard work and persistence, because that experience helps to mature the artist along the way. It’s the whole tortoise and hare idea from Aesop’s Fables: Slow and steady wins the race.
I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of tired of seeing truly talented people exploited for television ratings, then tossed aside without actually being developed as artists. Reality talent shows might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe they’ve had their day. Maybe the best way to build a career in music is still the old fashioned way. Slow and steady wins the race.