Wednesday, January 21, 2009

American Idol has been and still is a hugely successful show. I actually enjoy watching it, although I’m not sure I’ve ever voted. Some of the great moments come when they discover someone who is genuinely great – someone who has a stellar voice, and/or amazing performance ability. Other great moments (which tend to be the ones that I prefer) involve the earlier stages of the auditions – where you find the plucky would-be artists whose understanding of their own musical skill is somewhat out of touch with reality. While I don’t like the cruelty the process sometimes involves, there is something strangely compulsive about those people getting up there and murdering unaccompanied a small section of a famous song.

What I’ve been thinking about more and more though, is the structure of the program. Firstly, it’s generally accepted that reality TV is “cheap” TV to make. You have a basic structure, people volunteer to ‘star’ on the show, and you then build the entire program simply by filming and editing what happens. No major plot writing is required, no characters have to be developed, and the conclusion supplies itself at the appropriate time. The voyeuristic element in the public psyche seems to mean that people will watch anything that involves people filmed in a half candid manner, even if they are aware of the filming and the situation has been elegantly contrived. Large audiences mean advertisers will shell out big money to advertise during the program, so it’s not only cheap at the front end, it’s a money-spinner at the back end.

So, reality TV costs minimal amounts to make, the characters volunteer to be the ‘stars’ practically for free, people will watch nearly anything that results in huge numbers, and advertisers will bankroll the whole exercise, giving a huge profit to a very basic idea. Despite the fact that the whole charade is completely based on mindless lowest-common-denominator entertainment, it makes large amounts of commercial sense. So far, so good.

Where American Idol and other reality TV shows which aim to find musical talent really excel is that they have taken this idea of dressing up nothing as something, and then converting it directly in to money, and stumbled in to a way to turn it in to far more than a simple “advertising revenue in return for viewing figures” equation. American Idol is the ultimate stacked deck, and the concept is utterly brilliant.

The Contestants

Firstly, you have a series of contestants who volunteer to enter. There is undoubtedly some marketing cost involved in attracting their attention, but by and large, these people come to the show of their own accord.

Secondly, contestants sign contracts as a condition of their participation in the show. It makes sense, as if money is flying about later on, the rules need to be set down early. The question is, what are the rules? These contracts cover how any earnings will be split up in the future, should they achieve success via the show. In short, they are locked in to a punitive contract situation should they become successful. This seems reasonable at the start – after all – what do they have to lose when they have yet to achieve any success? It may not look like such a great deal down the line, when millions of dollars of income generated by the winner is being allocated on a basis of a contract they signed when they thought they were splitting up zero.

The Judges

The famous judges. They add a certain glamour, a certain element of fame and success to proceedings. They banter among each other, offer sage wisdom about how brilliant/dire a performance was, and then occasionally pick songs for the contestants at later stages of the competition. While they can be highly entertaining, their contribution is mainly to keep the comedy/interest level up on the TV program, provide some pseudo-controversy and disguise what the "competition" really is, which is down to only one group of people…

The Audience

The audience (meaning the TV-watching audience) is where the cynical and perfectly aligned commercial genius of American Idol really resides.

Firstly, the public willingly watch this program and its close relations – in huge numbers, week after week. The numbers are important – so is the fact that people watch it as a habit.

Secondly, they are prepared to vote. More importantly, they are prepared to vote when it costs them to do so. This is the first part of the brilliance – the show is paid for twice! It’s already paid for by the advertisers (whose adverts the public watch, therefore subsidizing the program the first time) – and then the audience vote for their favourite artists, and pay for the program again...

So is that it? I thought so, until I started to think about it.

Then I realized that the votes from the public aren’t just useful because they raise cash. They are useful because they are an accurate representation of how the public feels about particular musical acts.

Setting aside the financial income from voting, not only are the voting patterns indicative of how the public feels – it costs money to cast a vote. This means not only are the voting results indicative of public preference, but the results come from a large group of qualified customers. People that are prepared to spend a little bit of money voting for an act, are highly likely to be prepared to spend a little bit of money on purchasing the musical output of the act. The results of the votes accurately indicate the preferences of people who are likely to buy the end-product.

Finally, the audience watches it as a habit. This means that if the program runs for 2 or 3 months, the audience has watched what is effectively a rolling advert for a quarter of a year, and an advert in which they have become emotionally invested in the end-product before it is even available.

It is stunningly brilliant. You have a program where the people supplying the content (who should be ‘employees’, not ‘contestants’) come free of charge. You have such a large sample of contestants, you are virtually guaranteed to find a very competent singer and performer. You have very low costs to make the program, offset with a steady and lucrative stream of advertising. You have an audience who will watch habitually, will increase your revenue by voluntarily paying to vote the most generically commercially viable act to the top spot (and pay for the voting privileges to do so), in doing so qualifying themselves as very likely purchasers of the end product, and who will watch and willingly pay to become personally invested in the creation of the act/product from start to finish, all the time watching a continuous advert for the eventual winner.

Calling it a "stacked deck" does it a gross disservice - it is nothing short of fiendishly brilliant.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Northern Exposure

There are some things that are not particularly enviable about being in the Northwest of Europe at this time of the year. Having lived in both Scotland and Ireland, I’m used to all of the problems - it’s damp, it’s nastily cold without ever being spectacularly cold, and it’s a bit depressing in that it’s dark until gone 8 in the morning, and dark again by 4 or 5 in the afternoon (or earlier, the further North you go in Scotland).

Another downer in Ireland is, you tend to hardly get any
snow, which is something I do miss about not being in Scotland. Then again, in Ireland it almost never hits -10 C even at night, which is something you can look forward to a few times a year in Scotland. As for the wind out of the East (which means Siberia via Scandinavia) that you get on the East coast of Scotland, don’t start – it makes me scared to go outside just thinking about it.

One thing that really is great about this time of year though, is the sunlight.

Between the long hours of darkness, you do get a few hours of daylight, and the light at this time of year is pretty special. I guess it must be because the sun is so low on the horizon for most of the time, because I notice it a bit in Ireland, and even more so in Scotland, which is another few
hundred miles north. You really notice how low the sun is in Scotland, because driving during any daylight hours apart from around noon means you are getting flat sun straight in your eyes the whole time.

Whatever the reason, the light at this time of year seems to alter the colours of everything you see. Everything from the most spectacular landscapes to the most seemingly unremarkable cityscapes are suddenly sprayed sideways with multicolour gradients of oranges, reds and dark yellows.

The most humdrum industrial estates and wastelands are suddenly caught in a permanent half-sunset, and it's worth the passage through this dark corner of the year just to see the magic of everything glowing deep orange for half the morning and half the afternoon.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Red Planet - Stardancer

The variety of sub-genres that catagorise dance music expel thousands upon thousands of records a year. Many of them are unlistenable dross, many of them are unremarkable filler, some of them are good records, a few of them are great. Every so often, a record issues from somewhere that is destined to become an all-time classic.

In the field of techno, the city of Detroit has been responsible for more of these genre-defining classics than probably any other location on earth. Some would say it's been responsible for more than every other location on earth put together. One of the more mysterious labels to come out of Detroit in the 90s was Red Planet, something of a sister label to Mike Bank's Underground Resistance.

In 1993 Red Planet issued their second release, "Stardancer". It was a typical Red Planet release - space-themed, warm, analogue, and emotional. What separated Stardancer from other Red Planet numbers was that it was written four-to-the-floor, and therefore translated effortlessly on to the dancefloor. Where some Red Planet 12"s were oblique, mysterious, and arty, Stardancer took the space theme and made it something very different - powerful, and astonishingly direct.

Starting off with a looping octave bassline and a thunderously deep kick drum, the tune announces it's presence with an iconic avalanche of cascading hand claps - usually the point at which club crowds would erupt in recognition of the tune coming through - and then explodes in an orgy of Detroitian 909 hi-hats. With all this up and running, the next element is a raking phased chord which fades in and continues to build and build, phasing up and down across bursts of snare drum. Just at the point this seems to reach a natural climax, a ride cymbal appears over the top and cranks the track up another notch, before another synth chord is added, following every other kick with a blip of 5th, adding depth to the stratospheric propulsion.

Epic, and surely one of the greatest dance records ever released.