Monday, January 10, 2011

American Idol Season 10 Contestants -- Will it be all they hope for?

With the tenth season of American Idol less than two weeks away, it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement.  Some lucky person will turn their golden ticket to Hollywood to a ticket to the big time.  At the end of this road lies for someone a record deal and all that comes with it -- media appearances, music videos, concert tours, fame, fortune. 

Or so the story goes.

But as we all know, anything that looks to be too good to be true, probably isn't.  How many free offers ended up costing you more than the money you thought you were saving?  How many miracle products let you down?  How many hot guys are married or gay or both? Unless you're gay, in which case the hot guy turns out to be straight -- and married.  You just can't get something for nothing.

And so it is with American Idol.  Sure, instant stardom can be yours.  No more playing on park benches, musty, empty clubs, or your cousin's birthday party.  You will have your face on the cover of magazines and you will be on the number one TV show for months, seen by tens of millions of people.  There's just one little catch.

You have to sign away your life.  Okay?  Great.  Here's a pen.

Now, the guard has changed so what I'm going to discuss relates to the previous years of American Idol and its relationship with 19 Entertainment and Sony.  I have no idea what future contestants are signing themselves up for.  But I wonder if they know, or care.  It's a Faustian bargain so many make because the promise of stardom, of putting obscurity and anonymity behind them, is so great, no cost seems too high. wrote a scathing article about the contracts that the participants of Season 1 of American Idol were asked to sign if they wanted to appear on the show.  In the article, they noted:
Clarkson and the other finalists signed an unusually onerous contract with 19 Group, the production company headed by British pop entrepreneur Simon Fuller. These young performers are wrapped up for recording, management and merchandising under the most restrictive terms imaginable: Their careers are literally not their own.
According to the version of the contract one entertainment lawyer posted to the Internet, Fuller and his company own the names, likenesses, voices and personal histories of the "Idol" finalists, "in or in connection with" the show, forever. 19 Group can use that material however it wants, even if it's false, embarrassing or damaging.
If contestants reveal anything to anyone about the workings of the show or the contract they signed, they're liable for damages "in excess of $5 million." Their recording, management and merchandising companies, needless to say, are all owned by 19 Group -- a fundamental conflict of interest familiar to anyone who has studied the machinations of the music biz.
A New York Times article about the Season 8 contract, discussed some of the strings that 19 Entertainment have that bind them to the contestants for years:
The company can sign a management contract with any contestant it chooses, binding the contestant to pay 15 percent of his earnings, not including those from recording and merchandising contracts, to 19 Entertainment-related companies as a manager’s fee. The initial contract extends for three years, although 19 continues to collect a percentage of some of the contestant’s earnings for 10 years.
An entertainment law blogger, also a law professor, published excerpts from what was alleged to be a previous incarnation of the contract the contestants had to sign to participate to be on the show, here.  If that agreement is for real, if it isn't some bizarre fantasy of the worst thing you could ever sign in the hope of becoming the next Justin Guarini, then God bless the poor Schmoes who signed it. 

On the other hand, who would you rather be right now, Tim Urban or Chris Golightly?  Whatever happened to Chris, you ask.  Exactly.

The one thing contestants have going for them this year, that certainly wasn't the case last, is there is a renewed interest in their success.   It is not enough that the show maintain its ratings lead, it has to turn out a bona fide star this year.  With the return of the original producer, Nigel Lithgoe, and the installation of a new label and new creative team, there is a lot riding on the outcome of this year.  They need a winner they can be proud of. 

The creative changes to the show are the most crucial in attaining that goal.  American Idol has brought on board Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group’s Interscope Geffen A&M Records, a star-making producer behind such artists as Gwen Stefani, Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas, and Lady Gaga, and a "dream team” of producer-songwriters including Timbaland to work with the contestants on everything from finding the right song to creating the ideal arrangement for that contestant.  And they have promised the end of the awkward genre nights, so no more country artists singing big band or rockers going all twangy.  There is a renewed focus on finding a standout artist that can make the show relevant again.

So, yes, signing on to American Idol may tie you with velvet handcuffs, but the alternative is being free to play at any bus stop or street corner of your choice.  It's not really that difficult of a decision.

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