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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

X-Factor's cultural contribution: Community music

X-Factor’s cultural contribution: Community music

Simon Cowell’s inspired television production X-Factor has made a significant impact on UK culture, demonstrated most poignantly by five of the seven Christmas number one UK singles since 2005. When not leading the chart, the X-Factor acts ran in second place, with a number of losing acts going on to achieve commercial success. The Yuletide number one has often been the biggest selling single of its year, historically dominated by charity and novelty acts, until the arrival of Syco (Simon Cowell) produced X-Factor. Cowell’s role as lead judge in a weekend prime time show, that innovatively put emphasis on the celebrity panel, combined with tie in contractual agreements for successful acts, symbiotically helped push the music producer towards the centre of the industry spotlight. Might the X-Factor become recognised as one of the defining movements in the history of music, along with Sony Walkman (individual, mobility) and Apple iPod (accessibility) ?

The shows reality TV format offers wanna be stars the chance to be plucked from mundane, obscure lives and dropped into a media cauldron, until voted off the show in dramatic style by the public. The dream of a prize of a guaranteed recording contract with marketing support has proven to be enduringly successful as a lure to engage willing participants at relatively low cost. This genre of reality talent show format has been popularised worldwide, the innovation a more democratic selection of acts using weekly audience voting, engagement which appears to be a critical success factor.

The music industry benefits from this talent development offering a peak television audience slot for established acts to promote their product and show casing live music performance to the masses.

However, digitisation has required significant re-engineering of the music business model, which had relied upon heavily promoted singles to drive more profitable volume album sales, discs sold through retail distribution, a function of fragile vinyl data storage. A failure to control internet based intellectual property right piracy saw iTunes and 89 pence single downloads emerge, with technology companies such as Apple taking a powerful role and significant revenue slice of the sales and distribution channel.

The cart-and-horse single promotes album model significantly weakened as albums were made available on a pay per track basis on line, where clips can be listened to free, prior to purchase. Other music streaming and file sharing services such as Napster and YouTube made music product widely available at no and low cost to consumers, with an impact on legal music spending. The record labels, who historically had a powerful role in identifying and nurturing commercialisable talent, have experienced dramatic changes to the nature of their industry.

Music labels thus became more reliant on other artist based revenue streams and particularly live performances, with opportunities sought to further commercialise the concert tours and any other valuable intellectual property that remained within their control.

Shows like X-Factor have helped put live music further towards the front of public consciousness, by making TV content out of talent selection. They have also offered opportunities for squeezed record labels to take near finalist, but losing, acts to market with lower risk and costs, thanks to the TV exposure they had received and the fan base they had developed.

Whilst the plethora of traditional music merchandising, from clothing to calendars, remains, somewhat subconsciously, value is being drawn from music lovers using the explicit text-to-pay and premium rate automated telephone call voting mechanisms, consumers are being lured onto the ITV X-Factor web site to download paid for live recorded tracks and also in the paid advertising that surrounds the multifaceted content that is generated by the X-Factor promotions arm and immaterial labour from social media participants. Carefully worded, quickly spoken disclosure statements seek to mitigate against potentially unethical breeches of broadcasting codes of conduct. Buyers beware.

In the X-Factor model the financial exchange for access to the music is less central, it becomes more concentrated on the co-created experience, supported by weekly affirmation and reaffirmation of their appreciation of an artist or group of artists via the much promoted paid voting systems. Pleasure is derived from social interaction, anticipation of and participation in multi-media coverage in, around and of the X-Factor experience. Ownership of the music, which is not always of the highest quality, has become a less central factor.

Driven by digital technology change perhaps music can be seen as coming full circle, assisted by X-Factor and its facsimiles, re-orientated in its pre-recording technology position, less of a product, more of a co-created community experience, which encompasses both the physical and virtual dimensions.

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