Reality Bites

Senita Appiakorang challenges The X Factor fantasy, and examines the blurry line between entertainment and exploitation

The X Factor has sprung upon us, calling for Saturday night plans to be strictly timetabled around the compulsory rudiments of the three and a half hour affair. For me, this means a self-loathsome routine of assembling my duvet and pillows in a fort-like structure around me, and providing something to clasp onto for when I can’t stomach the cringey sob stories. You know the ones: ‘Before the X Factor, my whole life was a shambles. Watching this show gave me the strength to get up every morning. I’d brush my teeth to the rhythm of Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework’ as an exercise to build up my confidence and eventually blow away the judges. If I don’t get this, I may be forced to amputate myself.’

I’m being harsh, but the extent to which the show is sensationalised and manipulated to feed us the idea that it is a legitimate means to a fantastical, showbiz life, is one that both intrigues and worries me.

That the contestant auditions before a live audience is fittingly representative of the risk of rejection within the music industry as a whole. In ‘real-world’ auditions, those pivotal first seconds of a performance constitute the time it takes the music scout to form a lasting impression (if you’re lucky enough to make it past the scout’s coffee guy). That sense of ‘now or never’ tension in the live auditions is close to the reality of showbiz breaks. However, the rest of the stages in the show entirely romanticise the notion of a contestants ‘big break’. Like the Grinch loves to ruin Christmas, I love to deconstruct some of those idyllic myths circulated by The X Factor about the music industry.

Let’s take a brief moment to reflect upon some the past winners of the X Factor to date, and their lucrative reputations as recently documented by

‘2005: Shane Ward: fourth fastest selling UK single of all time. Series of hit songs. Deliberated as substituting Jason Orange from Take That. Sadly, got the boot. Now basks in the glory of performing in contemporary metal musical Rock of Ages in London.’

‘2008: Alexandra Burke: notorious for her multimillionaire UK selling rendition of ‘Hallelujah’. Has had a several top ten singles. Appeared on the judging panels of So You Think You Can Dance? and filling for Kelly Rowland in The X Factor.’

‘2010: Matt Cardle: still have yet to see where his title has got him, rivals One Direction are making waves in America though.’

Apart from Leona Lewis, none of the past winners have, as of yet, become super-stars. The lucky ones are content with the humble ‘pop-star’ label, and others are struggling to find roles in West End musicals. In most cases, the preconceived expectation of international status is not guaranteed merely by virtue of signing a contract with Sony BMG, which dictates all aspects of their career, including some scary financial clauses.

I talked to Lara Norris, former music supervisor of Guitar Hero Mobile and current lecturer in Críost Staofan Naofa, where her area is the internal affairs of the music industry, asking her what a standard contract may entail. She shared with me some statistics on royalty divisions which date from 2001. ‘Most recording contracts contain a provision whereby an advance is paid to the artist, prior to any record sales occurring’. This serves as a financial security that ensures the artist gets paid some fixed revenue, irrespective of delays in processing whatever additional cash comes through in sales. ‘If record sales disappoint, then an artist may never be ‘recouped’ and the advances become the only source of income from recording’. However, some recording companies find loop-hole methods of avoiding paying the advance, by deducting the costs of expenses like sponsorship, music videos, touring and promotions from the agreed amount.

A regular musician binding themselves to this contract have an immediate advantage, as their musical integrity is not lost because they have creative rights to the musical content. A singer-songwriter would be entitled to the royalties of all their songs and performances, and would receive payment for every performance of it, whether it is his own rendition or not. This is further guaranteed by unions like IMRO or RAAP. Managers would ensure that the contract is tailored to avoid the risk of the performer’s earnings being forfeited to the recording labels, publishers or other subordinates in the musical chain of command, so they can rightfully pay their incurred bills knowingly and with some authority.

X Factor contestants unfortunately do not share the same luxury, as they lend themselves to the vulnerability of a record label’s authority. They are liable to be dropped as easily as they entered if their single doesn’t cash in, and in most cases are ill-informed of the terms of the contract, never mind their rights as performer, and are not in a position to negotiate their own terms.

I like to think this is why any serious musician would never be enticed by such an opportunity. It’s worth advising anyone considering this sort of prospect to read articles like ‘52 Ways to Screw an Artist’ on, and read up on the types of contracts you can agree on with record labels and managers to keep yourself aware and acute as to how you’ll gain money. Ultimately, I expect that show will go on with more and more eager and hopeful contestants – and I relish it. It’s the fiendishly clever, hopelessly trashy show we love to hate. As Kelly Rowland would say, ‘you put it DOWN, baby!’