No matter where you live in the world, you’ll have heard of the X Factor. During the peak years of the televised talent show, you may even have watched an episode or two, even if you did so against your better judgment. To fans of what we like to call ‘real’ music, by which we mean music which is performed by the people who wrote it, the show was the antithesis of everything we stood for. The whole concept of someone turning up and singing a few mainstream pop ballads in the hope of pleasing Simon Cowell and his assembled horde of guest judges seemed like a slap in the face to every hard-working musician and band who’d made it to the big time the hard way.
By this point, you’ll probably have noticed that we’re talking about the X Factor in the past tense. That won’t be a surprise to American readers, because the American version of the show was canceled years ago. The United States of America was never where the X Factor did its best (or most damaging) work, though. That was always the United Kingdom, where the show was born. For over a decade, the X Factor seemed like it was a part of the entertainment landscape in the UK, but it’s not anymore. As of February 2020, the show has been canceled. It probably won’t come back. Now it’s in the rearview mirror, what will its legacy be? And do the people who say that the X Factor and shows like it have ruined music have a point?
To answer that question, we should be very clear about that the X Factor is (or was) and why it was made. Ostensibly it was a talent show that offered a way for anybody with a reasonable singing voice to become rich and famous and secure a recording contract. In a few – but not many – cases, it even delivered that promise. That was never the reason it existed from the point of view of Cowell, his production company, and the television networks who paid to make it, though. It was always about making as much money as possible – and if it made a bankable star in the process, that was just a bonus.
If you were ever in any doubt about the commercial nature of the X Factor, all you have to do is look at the numerous ways in which it made money. All of the telephone lines that viewers used to vote for their favorite acts were charged at a premium rate. There was a video game made based on the series. There were no less than five online slots released based on the show. Having a presence on online slots websites isn’t necessarily a sign of outright commercialism. Huge bands like Guns n’ Roses and Motorhead have online slots of their own on websites like UKOnlineSlots.com. Having five of them, though, is overkill, and only served to underline the fact that the show was about making money, not making musical heroes.
Even where the show succeeded, it did so by accident. The biggest musical act that ever came as a result of the existence of the X Factor, inclusive of every country that aired a version of the show, was the British boyband One Direction. The band met on the show as five solo contestants, but were put together as a group and went on to achieve great things. Depending on which metric you use to measure such things, you could even make a case for them being the biggest boyband of all time. They did not, however, win the show. They didn’t even come particularly close. They came third in 2010, and the show was eventually won by someone by the name of Matt Cardle. Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and (to an extent) Zayn Malik are still huge stars in 2020. Your guess on where Matt Cardle is and what he’s doing is as good as ours. You would probably need to employ a private detective to locate any winner of the American version of the show.
The X Factor might not have done much good for the careers of many ‘musicians’ in the long run, but it did plenty of harm to the music industry in the process of not doing much good. It gave birth to the idea of music and musicians as being ‘disposable.’ There would be a new winner every year, and each time that new winner arrived, the previous one became disposable. ‘Stars’ would appear, release one single, and disappear. That single would clog up the charts, and usually prevent a more deserving act from achieving chart success. Perhaps most objectionably at all, the show took up time on television that used to go to more organically-generated music. There’s only so much musical output that any mainstream television network is willing to put out. While it was airing the X Factor, the quota was full.
A lot has changed in the years since the X Factor first aired. Back then, we used to buy music on CD. We then evolved to buying downloads, and now we just stream it. Artists make less from their music than ever before. The X Factor encouraged us all to think of musicians as being disposable, and so now we treat them like they are. We take the work they produce, and yet we pay them nothing for it. Much as we’d like to believe that this might change now the X Factor has finally come to an end, there are still shows like the X Factor on television every week. American Idol somehow manages to get renewed every year, despite the fact that fewer and fewer people are watching, and the majority of people would struggle to name more than three of the past ten winners.
Very few people who are serious about loving music will mourn the passing of the X Factor. We suspect that the majority of you reading thing will be glad to hear that it’s finally become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the attitudes that it built in the minds of the general public about what music is and how they should engage with it are likely to live on for a very long time yet. We’re not saying that you can pinpoint the creation of the X Factor as the moment when everything started to go wrong for the music industry – because piracy via the internet had a lot to do with that – but it certainly didn’t help. Its legacy will be cheapening the very thing that it claimed to celebrate.