In celebrating the latest incarnation of The X Factor, Simon Cowell called it the ‘greatest A&R process in the world’. Of course, it’s nothing of the kind.
A&R or artist and repertoire is a function or a department found in record labels whose role is to find and develop artists, acting as their conduit with the label. The success of an artist can depend on the relationship between raw talent and how it is developed, recorded and ‘sold’ – A&R sits in the middle of this process.
Whilst not denying the obvious successes of X Factor and its subsidiaries, it is not involved in the process of developing acts. It is simply a processing plant, a sausage factory where each act is stuffed into a straight-jacket and paraded before the public. The success of X Factor has little to do with talent and a lot to do with television. It is a means of demonstrating how intense and sustained television exposure can sell anything.
The music industry has long been aware of the selling power of TV. Cowell’s career was part-founded on selling Robson & Jerome as a karaoke-duo off-shoot of some primetime TV show they happened to be in. Since then he’s carried karaoke to the masses via an interchangeable, and largely forgettable, stream of wannabes. It’s an incredible feat but it’s not art and it’s not A&R.
One of the biggest selling debut albums ever was foisted on the public last year. Its singer was no struggling artist plucked from obscurity, it was the TV personality and gameshow host, Bradley Walsh. Latching onto that trend, as record labels are wont to do, we now have the dubious pleasure of sing-a-long classics from the likes of Nick Knowles.
In the music industry, the ‘novelty artist’ was always a ‘thing’. Of late it’s begun to look like the only thing. Why bother hunting down and developing artists when you can simply switch on the TV and call someone’s agent?
TV personalities are ideal as a façade for selling anything. With the ubiquity of television as their medium they gain familiarity with millions of people easily. It is a platform for album sales, it can even get you elected to the highest position of responsibility in the world.
‘Twas always so, pointless to remonstrate but the forthcoming barrage of ‘best of 2017’ lists is likely to demonstrate a dearth of real, sustainable and saleable, long-term talent being developed by record companies. No TV programme is a replacement for proper A&R, presuming proper A&R still exists.