The first thing that’s surprising about “The Four,” the latest twist on the television singing competition launched on Fox on Jan. 4: Fergie is an excellent host. This might seem inconsequential to a show about judging potential music stars, but the fact that Fergie has been able to segue from girl group member to Black Eyed Peas standout to solo star to TV natural says a lot about the artist development process, as they call it in the music business. It takes persistence, smarts, discipline, and tenacity — in addition to undeniable talent and a lot of luck. And it helps to be nimble.
On “The Four,” the qualities that make a contender worthy is largely left to the people — who vote through challengers into dueling sudden-death performances. Think of it as combining elements of a “Voice”-like battle round with the more traditional panel of experts. In the “Four,” Sean “Diddy” Combs, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor and Republic Records president Charlie Walk combine their collective know-how to offer the best possible trajectory to success. Each knows the path up the charts, having reached heights in their respective careers that few achieve. Diddy is an icon with a savvy marketing mind; Khaled is widely regarded as the best A&R man currently in the game; Trainor is a songwriting savant; and Walk is a promotion Sherpa to breakout success on the radio and on streaming platforms.
It’s worth noting that the major label machine only sees about one in 10 acts signed truly achieve success. And no TV show has fared better. Even the valedictorians of “American Idol,” Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, only represent 2 out of 15 winners. As for “The X Factor”: score one-and-a-half points for the U.S. in launching Fifth Harmony and Camila Cabello and a big one for the U.K. for spawning One Direction. The jury is still out on James Arthur.
“I think there could actually be more on [‘The Four’],” says Walk of the 10% success rate. “We’re watching in real-time as the contestants are coming in and as word spreads about the show. I believe the next biggest stars are already out there. I believe stars are born. But to make someone a huge star, you have to give them opportunity.”
“What we try to do on the panel is make sure we don’t let anyone through that we don’t think we could possibly work with,” adds Diddy. “It’s intense and there’s risk in the music industry, so you have to go with the flow and draw the energy to attract them and hopefully we draw that superstar energy.”
Another key, to borrow a DJ Khaled phrase, to “The Four” is the curation of its songbook and audience, a task largely left to Diddy. “We wanted to have a true reflection of the music industry with its diversity,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure hip-hop was represented and R&B and rock and country, and they could all battle each other because that’s what happens on the charts. We wanted the fans to be into it. And if we’re going to come with something new and fresh, we also need to have a new fresh audience.”
But starting small and building doesn’t seem a part of the “Four” formula. For contestants like Zhavia, who sang French Montana’s “Unforgettable” and Khalid’s “Location” to nab a spot on one of the four available (for now) chairs, it’s arena-sized or bust. Or so Walk chided of one eliminated contestant in the show’s first episode. “I was trying to convey that this is not a singing competition,” he explains. “Diddy plays arenas; Khaled’s going on tour, he plays arenas, and Meghan plays arenas — we’re in the arena business. And stadiums, I see it, that’s the next step.”
What “The Four” offers is a battle of musical one-upmanship — a game, and a sometimes complicated one at that. The deck is stacked as favorably as it could possibly be. Indeed, this show promises the winner a full-package dream team: a label deal with Republic (home to The Weeknd and Ariana Grande) and a partnership with iHeartRadio, whose “On the Verge” program promises swift national exposure to millions of listeners.
“One of the things I know about the TV game is that it’s an incredible platform,” says Diddy. “When we’re trying to launch new stars and give people exposure, TV still wins. It’s still the go-to platform.”
“If you can be truthful,” offers Walk. “It’s a very transparent game today. People have that B.S. detector more than ever before, so authenticity is key. That’s the journey we’re on right now.”