‘American Idol’ Shows How Risk-Taking Pays Off in Music

Lessons Learned From 'American Idol,' Record
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American Idol” broke the mold.

It posited that there was unheralded talent that the usual suspects — the major labels and their A&R teams — were unjustly ignoring, and that by scooping up singers, the public could decide who was best, and a star could be born. It worked. And most everybody making music the old way hated it.

It’s the story of how those willing to think differently — in this case, “Idol” producer Simon Fuller — have left those continuing to think alike scratching their heads, and wondering not only where their cheese went, but worrying if they’ll ever eat again.

Fox announced recently that the 2016 season of the show — its 15th — would be the last. But “Idol” taught us a few things: most notably, that innovation is where it’s at.

It turned unknown Brit Simon Cowell into a household name. But no one involved in “Idol” could see that the concept was time-stamped — that it wasn’t forever. That once it broke the mold, the next leap forward would need to be a similarly fresh idea.

Cowell thought it was about singing shows, and if you messed with the formula just a bit, you could make even more money. But “X Factor” failed in America, because everyone had already seen the trick. And despite being a ratings juggernaut, “The Voice” has not minted any breakout stars on the level of “Idol.”

The next revolution in music is coming — online. YouTube video stars are huge, bankable and rich. And Justin Bieber was discovered online. Credit Scooter Braun with figuring out the new paradigm.  But Braun didn’t realize the game of finding nascent talent and generating hysteria to create riches was closed-ended.

These days, it’s the public that mints winners; middlemen are toast. And the public lays down a lot of cash only when something is new and different.

What’s needed is someone to create comprehension from chaos — an online a tastemaker who can cut through the overwhelming number of choices people have.

There was a label that used to have someone like that. Nowadays, labels act like ersatz venture capital firms; they want to see evidence of success and a plan. But they used to map out the plan.

Warner/Reprise was the greatest record company in the history of the music business. Don’t confuse today’s enterprise with yesteryear’s. As great as Ahmet Ertegun was, Atlantic was no match for its West Coast counterpart. Warner/Reprise had soul. It was Jimi Hendrix. It was the Grateful Dead. It was Joni Mitchell and Neil Young when he was a nobody from a failed band. Warner let acts do what they wanted. It was all about the music. But the image came from Stan Cornyn.

We wanted to go to 3300 Warner Blvd. not because of Mo Ostin and Joe Smith so much as the culture. We wanted to be where the irreverent people who knew no rules were changing society.

That’s what Cornyn did. Not that he was famous. It was all done in service of the company and of the artists.

Cornyn died last month at 81, and if he were here, I don’t think he’d be asking for either praise or remembrance. But my inbox is filling up with testimonials from those who knew him.

Warner/Reprise stood for something. And we knew it because Stan Cornyn said so. He was head of creative services, whatever that was; he was the person who rallied the like-minded troops into changing the country. You can read his book, “Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group.”

Or you can just know that people make a difference. That life is a team effort. And that it’s our wackiest, outside-the-box thinkers — those who prod tradition and take risks — who change the world.

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  1. jim says:

    Still think the biggest problem with AI was when simon left. They changed the formula by moving it to wed/ thurs. If you can’t watch the thurs show why watch any. Who was the idiot who made that move? I hope when the end the show they release everyone from those nasty record deals.

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