Simon Cowell's message for kids at Miami's X Factor auditions Thursday: Don't listen to parents!
Here’s how you measure power in Hollywood.
When a rival network decides to rip off your signature show, they call to tell you first.
That’s what onetime American Idol star Simon Cowell said happened as NBC developed its singing competition The Voice – which happens to bear a passing resemblance to the show he’s developing for Fox, The X Factor.
Since Cowell also owns and executive produces NBC’s biggest summer hit, America’s Got Talent, guess who got a courtesy call to avoid any toe-stepping problems?
“I said, ‘Do whatever you want, but if you deliberately try to steal what is already there with the intention of ruining my show, then we don’t have a relationship anymore,’” Cowell said. “I spoke to Paul (Telegdy, Executive Vice President, Alternative Programming, NBC and Universal Media Studios) about it…He’s under massive pressure from his bosses with the success of The X Factor in the U.K. and Idol in America. He had to do something.”
Cowell may say he’s nervous about the debut this fall of his American version of The X Factor. But he sounds cooly courteous during a short telephone call to promote the start of the show’s auditions, which come to the Bank United Center in Coral Cables today.
As I type this, I'm heading down to Miami for the auditions, traveling in a van with the family of aspiring auditioner Amanda Puyot, a 15-year-old singer from St. Petersburg who won a contest for a front of the line audition tomorrow.
But as a warm up, here's an edited transcript of my conversation with Cowell, who touted newly-announced judge, hit songwriter and former music executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid, ready to talk turkey about the upcoming auditions.
Deggans: So, you’ve got the auditions starting and you’ll be here in a couple of weeks. Will these auditions be very different than what we saw you guys do for Idol?
C: The open auditions are where you get a chance to be noticed, but the auditions that take place in front of the judges are different, yes, because they’re in front of three, four, five thousand people. It’s like the auditions are in arenas, and you get to sing either a capella or with a backing track or with a keyboard player, but it’s a very, very different experience.
D: And is this gonna be set up the way we’ve seen Idol do it where you do the big cattle calls and then bring people back later to meet the folks who’ll be on camera?
C: Well, that’s the intention.
D: So, it seems like all these sort of knockoffs of X Factor are kinda popping up and I’m thinking about NBC’s The Voice in particular. Worried at all about people nabbing a bit of your magic before you debut?
C: No. I mean, we kind of expected it. You know, I have a show with NBC, America’s Got Talent, so I did get a call. I said, “Do whatever you want but if you deliberately try and steal what you know is already there with the intention of ruining my show, then we don’t have a relationship anymore. Other than that, do whatever you like.”
D: Well, they could have come to you, right?
C: I wouldn’t have made the show. I only saw the preview, the promo tape, and I burst out laughing. It’s all these weird chairs that swivel round or something. It’s just too gimmicky.
D: And as you go to develop your X Factor, is there anything that you have to change from the UK version to meet American tastes, or does it pretty much translate?
C: It pretty much translates. I mean, some of the stuff I was going to do on the show last year, I kinda held back because … like we just discussing, it’s such a competitive business, this. If you do something and it’s on, I guarantee somebody else will do it afterwards. It’s just one of those things. We had four producers working on X Factor last year for the first time, Idol has four producers working on Idol for the first time this year. It’s just one of those things.
D: You know, some artists have complained about X Factor – Roger Daltrey, for instance – saying you ruined the music industry.
C: Well, I’ve never understood really what their issue was. I mean, there was one time people were complaining ‘cause we kept other people off the charts and you go, well, the chart is an endless chart now. It changes every hour, so that’s not true. We’re getting people back into record shops. I think it’s just a question turning into a grumpy old man, particularly somebody like Roger Daltrey. You know, like, when your dad years ago would say, turn the music down. I don’t like it, you know … and just being irritable and grumpy. I think he was just a bit of that, to be honest with you.
D: What does it take, though, to sell records in this modern economy?
C: Well, to be honest with you, I actually feel quite optimistic at the moment. I think it’s a good time for music now. You know, it’s interesting looking at the ratings of the Grammys this year. You know, they were really big, very healthy, and I think there’s just an interesting breed of artists who’ve come along. Whether you like him or not, Justin Bieber is encouraging a whole new generation of fans to buy music and download music, Willow Smith the same thing. And then on the other side of the equation, you’ve got someone like Susan Boyle, who’s getting people back into places like Wal-Mart to buy records, physical copies of CDs, which doesn’t happen as much anymore. So I only see this as a positive thing, and this show has to reflect, you know, all of those artists I mentioned. You have to cover all the different areas and be as broad-minded as possible.
D: I remember when TV used to look down on the music industry, and now that seems to have changed. American Idol rules television as well as records. Do you feel that shift, too?
C: Well, totally, and one of the reasons is why I made Idol in the first place. I got so fed up with having to beg to get my artists on TV shows ‘cause, as you said, there were so few spots available and the spots were terrible, and there weren’t really many big enough shows, really, to make a difference. And that was one of the reasons why we made the show – that we could own the platform, so to speak.
D: You watch how Idol’s unfolding this season. And people are making a lot of the fact that the judges seem to be nicer. As somebody who’s watched the show, I sort of feel like they’re tolerating performances that you wouldn’t have. (laughter)
C: I know what you mean.
D: But what do you think about that notion of niceness versus your sort of in-your-face honesty? Has the game changed a little bit in that respect?
C: Idol has, yes. And I think everybody’s happy with that decision. They’re happy with it, I’m happy with it, and I think it’s gonna make . . . well, you’re gonna see the obvious difference when X Factor comes on because it’s not gonna be like that – not intentionally but it won’t have that kind of apple-pie, constantly smiling, whatever it is. I just couldn’t make a show like that, to be honest with you. But, like I said, I’m not knocking them. I mean, they’re happy doing it that way. It’s just not what I would do. So I think it’s gonna be good, really, because it means that, you know, X Factor will feel and look very different to Idol now, which is a good thing.
D: And do you feel like, in a way, what you’re doing is a little more honest because you’ve got not just the competitors really competing; you’ve got the judges really competing, too.
C: A hundred percent. I would only hire judges who were gonna be truthful with the contestants because there’s just no other way of doing it. It’s boring for the audience if you just tell everybody they’re good when they’re not. There’s no point having a judging panel. And you’re right. I mean, of course we’re gonna be in competition with each other. You know, anyone who works in music or TV is competitive full-stop. I said this to someone the other day: If I’m playing Monopoly and I’m losing, I throw the board up. I hate losing (laughs). I really do.
D: Other than the obvious … there’s no age cutoff … are the type of contestants that we’re gonna see do well in the X Factor different than the kind of contestants who do well on Idol?
C: Well, really, the audition is the whole point of why I decided to do this kind of press now. I was more interested in promoting the auditions really than I was the show because this is the point where I can say, look, we’ve got L.A. Reid. We’ve put a lot of money up for the winner. We want somebody who’s reflecting what is happening in the charts today, and don’t be afraid to audition if you’re that kind of artist.
D: So if you were a Lady Gaga, you might be too distinctive to do well in Idol but you’d have a home in X Factor?
C: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. And you can see that on Idol, you know. There’s a certain look of Idol contestants and I think the X Factor will be a very, very different kind of look which, again, I think is a good thing.
D: And since you’re sort of speaking to the auditions, if you were talking directly to people who were thinking about auditioning, what advice would you give them about preparing and what they should do when they get there?
C: I would really do your research. There was a song last year, an Elton John song, called Your Song, which was covered by a gal called Ellie Goulding, and she’s like some 18-, 19-year-old girl, I think. And she did this very sweet, different version of the song and turned the song, which I think is 30 or 40 years old now, into something which sounded very cool, very current, very different, and it was in the UK charts for weeks and weeks and weeks. And it’s the sort of thing I would love to hear – somebody who’s bothered to do some research on a song they loved, found their own kind of unique version of it, or a version not many people would know, and do something different … and also, at the same time, because of what we were talking about in the charts today … I mean, you look at someone like Katy Perry, where her image is everything. You know, don’t be afraid to stand out in the crowd.
D: And what mistakes do auditioners most often make in the X Factor auditions that you can …
C: It’s when they come in and do a direct copy of, say, a Stevie Wonder song with a Stevie Wonder arrangement, with Stevie Wonder ad libs. Like we’re looking for somebody who doesn’t sound as good as Stevie Wonder. I mean, that’s when I get frustrated.
C: You say it forever. The other thing which I’m really trying to make a point of this year is to … certainly to any one under the age of 18 … do not listen to your parents. Don’t listen to them in terms of the song choice, don’t let them choose what you’re gonna wear, particularly the 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds ‘cause we used to get a lot of these kids who were practically shoved on by their parents in the wings, singing horrific versions of Annie while their mother was sort of mouthing it in the wings. You can imagine the scenario, and I think anyone whose mother or father has chosen the song probably won’t even be given a chance to audition this year. I’m really making it clear, the kids have got to make their own mind up this year.