On two continents, tastemaker fuels public's passion
“American Idol” may have made Simon Cowell a household name, but — with apologies to Michael Jackson — the 47-year-old Brit, who’s had a hand in nearly 100 top-30 hits and is Variety’s U.K. Personality of the Year, has spent the last 15 years establishing himself as the King of Pop.
Long before he was a television personality on either side of the Atlantic, Cowell exerted quite an impact on the British charts, first in partnership with dance maven Pete Waterman and, by the end of the ’80s, as one of the savvier A&R execs working the pop arena.
“I’ve always held the view that if you give people what they want, you’ll sell records” is how Cowell explains the unusually high batting average he’s maintained over the years. “In the U.K., you look at middle and north of England. In the U.S., you look at Middle America. Too often, the instinct of people (in the record industry) is to focus on the edgy, and that’s not necessarily the way to go.”
Cowell’s early signings in the BMG system — such as the jaunty Curiosity Killed the Cat — had good chart runs, but his career kicked into high gear when he moved off the normal artist/A&R rep continuum and began looking to nontraditional avenues.
“Simon has an uncanny ability to tap into what the man and woman on the street like,” says Ged Doherty, chairman and CEO of Sony BMG Music, who’s worked closely with Cowell for the past eight years. “The first example I can think of was Robson and Jerome. They were two actors in TV series that Simon brought together for kind of a covers album. He did a lot of research into what the 20 biggest karaoke tunes in the country were, and he had them record those songs — and went on to sell 5 million records.”
Cowell mined other television projects to good effect as well, tapping into the World Wrestling Federation franchise and even turning the Power Rangers into a source of pop song power.
“I’ve always thought that record companies need to look at themselves as entertainment companies,” he says. “They can’t operate as if they exist in a vacuum. There are people who don’t really buy many records, but they will go into a Wal-Mart and buy something that catches their eye.”
Packaging is a big part of that equation, and Cowell paid close attention to that aspect when assembling a passel of boy bands — like Westlife and 5ive — that dominated the British singles chart at the tail end of the ’90s. He took that concept to the logical next level by making the starmaking process somewhat more transparent to the public via “Pop Idol,” a show that quickly became must-see TV for U.K. viewers.
“To be honest, the way ‘Pop Idol’ came about was that we had to get another show, ‘Popstars,’ off the air. It was an opportunity, but we were only thinking of the U.K. at the time,” Cowell explains. “We actually had a disastrous time trying to sell it in the U.S. I have to give credit to the Murdoch family, especially Liz Murdoch, who really pushed her dad on it.”
Confounding naysayers, “American Idol,” created by Simon Fuller and produced by FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment, quickly established itself as a hit for Fox and cemented the notion of Cowell as the nastiest man on television, an image that Doherty finds more than a bit amusing.
“His television persona is ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,'” Doherty says. “He’s actually one of the easiest people to work with because he listens. And the more successful he is, the more he listens.”
By the middle of 2003, Cowell parlayed that success into an even stronger foothold within the BMG organization, selling his half-share in his long-lived Syco Records imprint to the company for a sum estimated at $42 million in a deal that let him commingle the behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera aspects of his career.
He recalls encountering some early resistance within BMG when he was promoting “Idol,” opposition he successfully deflected by pushing forth his belief that the franchise be treated as a single artist, “and if you do that, it’s the biggest artist on the planet.”
The manner in which “Idol” crushed the primetime competition made it easier to put that view across. It also prodded Cowell to use a similarly tube-centric approach to promoting his next discovery, Il Divo — the operatic vocal group that cut its teeth on talkshow appearances before undertaking large-scale live shows, most of which turned out to be sellouts despite a dearth of radio play.
Cowell says he doesn’t concern himself all that much with the latter, and thinks that it’s growing increasingly irrelevant as a means of driving sales.
“To me, record companies are too reliant on radio,” he insists. “In England, we’ve always been very reliant on television, and that’s increasingly true in the U.S., with shows like ‘Idol,’ ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘Oprah.'”
To that end, Cowell is looking to expand further into television production. He’s recently finished a series of meetings with ITV that he hopes will result in his Syco Prods. providing 50 to 60 hours worth of programming — a number he sees as a jumping-off point rather than an end.
“We need to get into drama, into film,” he concludes. “If we want to be a 10 on a scale of one to 10, right now, we’re about a 0.5.”