Right now, Cyrus Villanueva is sitting pretty. As the winner of The X Factor Australia, the 19-year old from Wollongong, NSW, was awarded a Sony music contract and he's got a single called "Stone" available on iTunes. But when it comes to sustaining that success, Villanueva is up against a long history of less than stellar results.
We’ve had four seasons of Popstars, seven of Australian Idol, seven of Australia’s Got Talent, four of The Voice and seven of The X Factor, including its short-lived run on Channel 10 as well as the current instalment. That’s an awful lot of former winners and finalists thrust out into the world, hoping for a lasting career as a singer.
From Australian Idol alone, that meant seven winners, seven runners-up (who as we all know often go on to be more successful than the victors) and 71 other finalists (one season had a Top 13) all jockeying for a position in a market that’s become more and more crowded with former reality show contestants.
Over the six years since Idol wrapped up, the wheat has been sorted from the chaff and a number of singers have emerged as enduring music stars. That number is two: Guy Sebastian and Jessica Mauboy. They’re the only performers who have consistently scored hit singles, sold albums, won ARIA Awards and headlined major concert tours. They’ve also emerged as double-threat stars thanks to their sideline careers as reality show judge and actor respectively.
Other singers – Shannon Noll, Matt Corby, Lisa Mitchell, Damien Leith – were able to sustain major commercial or critical success for a short period of time beyond the normal post-Idol window. While others still – Rob Mills, Ricki-Lee Coulter, Stan Walker, Axle Whitehead (who wasn’t even a finalist) – parlayed their Idol fame into careers in other fields like musical theatre, radio presenting and acting.
All of this goes to show that once the fervour from your season of a reality show dies down, being able to maintain a high level of success is the exception rather than the rule. And it’s the same story no matter which reality show you look at. In fact, it’s worse.
Neither The X Factor nor The Voice has produced a performer that’s attained anywhere near the level of success of Guy or Jessica. Samantha Jade, the winner of season four of The X Factor, and Harrison Craig, the champ of The Voice season two, would come closest, but even they pale in comparison. You have to look to Australia’s Got Talent, and winners Mark Vincent (a pop opera performer) and Justice Crew (who actually won their season as a dance troupe before transitioning into a pop group) for more convincing post-show careers.
Clearly, one of the reasons why singing competitions like The X Factor and The Voice aren’t creating the types of massive stars that Australian Idol did is because of that sheer volume of finalists produced each and every year. And the novelty of winning a talent show has definitely worn off. When there are a dozen or so former reality show performers releasing music at the same time, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd, let alone compete with established music stars.
And since neither The Voice nor The X Factor look they’re going away any time soon, there are going to be another slew of contestants next year. What’s more, with these types of shows coming into their 17th year on Australian TV, there has to have been a dilution of the talent pool by now. Are the singers being found for the fifth season of The Voice as good as those found in season one – or is it a case of making up numbers?
Another problem that’s always faced pop star hopefuls from reality shows is that it’s one thing for audiences at home on their couch to enjoy following their journey on The X Factor but it’s another thing entirely for those same viewers to want to download their album, stream their single or pay to see them perform live.
As ever, there will be some loyal devotees who texted their votes in religiously each week, but the number of people that will follow through and support an act’s recording career seems to be getting smaller. Most of an act’s fan base will drop off immediately following the final of a reality series – and building it back up is hard work.
Of course, having a fantastic (or even just a serviceable) voice is only one part of being a major music star. You’ve got to have great songs, too. And after performing cover versions every week on national TV, it’s a real challenge for reality show contestants to succeed with original material.
If they write their own songs, they better hope people want to hear them. If, as is more often the case, they’ll perform material written by professional songwriters, they’re not going to get the next “Roar” or “Bang Bang”. An ex-reality show contestant from Australia would be lucky to get offered something from Dr Luke or Max Martin’s bottom drawer. If the songs aren’t up to much, what hope is Dami Im or Anja Nissen going to have of being more than just another once-popular reality contestant singing a generic pop tune?
The final thing standing in the way of our current singing competitions launching a major music star who’ll thrive for years to come is the calibre of the judges (or coaches) on The X Factor or The Voice. Not only are the shows as much about the celebrity judges as they are about the contestants these days, but it’s harder to look like a superstar in the making when you share screen time with internationally successful singers Jessie J or James Blunt than when has-beens like Mark Holden and Marcia Hines were on the panel.
With Sony Music still attached to The X Factor and Universal Music linked to The Voice, someone somewhere is obviously hoping for the next Guy or Jessica – even if it’s not the production companies or TV networks, who have ratings as their priority. But maybe the audience just want short-term entertainment rather than to find their next life-long music obsession – and until something in the current model changes, the former is all they’ll get.
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