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'American Idol' finale: How social media, not TV, became how singers got signed

Trent Harmon, La'Porsha Renae and Dalton Rapattoni will compete to become the final 'American Idol' winner this week on Fox.

Michael Becker/Fox

Trent Harmon, La'Porsha Renae and Dalton Rapattoni will compete to become the final 'American Idol' winner this week on Fox.



Tori Kelly never stops to think about what might’ve happened if she’d advanced to American Idol’s Top 24 in 2010, instead of getting bounced from the show in Hollywood. But it’s likely she:

1. Wouldn’t have been nominated for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammys;

2. Wouldn’t have scored a Top 40 hit in Should’ve Been Us;

3. Wouldn’t have worked with Max Martin, Ed Sheeran and LL Cool J on her debut album, Unbreakable Smile;

4. Wouldn't have become the face of global brands like Pepsi and Keds;

5. Wouldn’t be the same Tori Kelly that an ever-growing audience knows and loves.

“All I know is that everything happens for a reason,” Kelly, 23, said in a recent phone interview. “For me, in my own journey as an artist, it was a plus. It was a good thing that I didn’t make it. Because I think it just allowed me to grow as a songwriter and grow as an artist before I was thrown into the spotlight fully.”

As American Idol ends its 15-year run on Fox this week, with a retrospective Tuesday and the final episodes Wednesday and Thursday, it’s a sign of how far we’ve come since the days of Carrie and Clay that not advancing on Idol is actually a good career move. But it’s true. Fifteen years after Idol premiered, there are far easier ways to become a pop star almost overnight -- almost all of them social media.

Justin Bieber and the Weeknd? Discovered on YouTube. Shawn Mendes? Signed thanks to Vine. Technology has advanced beyond the television, and reality competitions are not the rocketships to stardom they once were. It’s not hard to imagine the world taking a greater shine to a singer like Candice Glover or Caleb Johnson or Lee DeWyze — who actually won Tori Kelly’s season — if they’d found fame on our phones instead of our TVs.

“YouTube is what got me discovered by my production company, and it helped me build this little following that I had,” Alessia Cara, the singer behind the Top 10 hit Here, told me last fall. “People really believed in me early on, when I just had nothing but my guitar and a little iPhone camera. I guess the people who have followed me really feel like they were able to grow with me and follow my career. Social media in general can just be a way for people to feel close to you, so I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

The irony here is Idol helped kick-start this whole movement, too. The show’s modus operandi of having viewers pick a winner by phone — or, starting in Season 2, text message — predated MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and every other social media ecosystem that thrives on likes and faves and spins. Singers have realized this, and so have record labels — a big fan base on at least one of those channels almost seems like a prerequisite for a record deal.

“I know a couple of friends that got signed off Vine,” said Kelly, who herself built a fan base posting covers on YouTube. “You have to adopt to what’s popular, and what people are gravitating toward.”

And right now, people are gravitating away from television, and onto social media platforms like Snapchat.

“It’s funny you said Snapchat,” Kelly said. “Has that actually happened? Has someone gotten signed? I feel like I always say, that’s going to happen next.”

Idol has had to adapt to the times. When the American Idol Live tour kicked off in Clearwater last summer, last season’s finalists spent a lot of their downtime interacting with their respective fan bases on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, realizing the show itself could only take them so far.

“Nowadays, I guess it’s easier with social media,” finalist Rayvon Owen said then. “You can watch artists do different things, and kind of their journey. But never do you get to watch their growth from not being popular and well-known at all, to suddenly have millions of people know who you are. That’s been really cool to observe.”

That aspect of the Idol phenomenon, at least, is still true. When Mackenzie Bourg was eliminated last week, he acknowledged how important Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were on his rise to the Top 4. But what amazed him was the international platform his original songs received almost overnight.

As he told judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr.: “To think that seven months (ago), I was on my couch, playing the song that you just heard, and now so many millions of people got to hear it and love it — and you three loved it — it’s just incredible, to think that I literally went from my room to now.”

That aspect of Idol always was the most magical (along with those superstar cameos and well-produced backstory pieces). And from a pure entertainment standpoint, that’s going to be hard to replicate on social media, at least in the short term.

Kelly isn’t cynical about her experience on Idol. In fact, this season she joined NBC’s The Voice as a mentor, and says she still sees a lot of herself in the young singers aiming for fame on TV.

“I just felt their nerves right away,” Kelly said. “I totally was able to sympathize with them right when they walked in. I just felt nervous all over again.”

It’s weird to see Idol go away, Kelly said. But she knows from personal experience that audiences today are savvier than ever about sniffing out singers who really have the goods. Never has it been more important for a pop star to seem authentic and relatable — and the easiest way to do that is by cutting the cord to Hollywood.

“People are smarter than we give them credit for,” she said. “They’re definitely seeing through all the fake stuff. I don’t know what that means in five years. But that’s really always what works.”

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 10:21pm]


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