What All Unsigned Artists Need to Learn From Simon Cowell

Mark H | October 19, 2011 | 10 Comments

simon cowellSimon Cowell – love him or hate him as you see fit – personally, I think the bloke is a genius.

If you are an independent artist or band, you know how hard it is to get people to listen to new music. You could be coming out with amazing quality stuff – but getting heard is still incredibly difficult. Many artists resort to giving their music away – and even struggle with that. Cowell, on the other hand, manages to get millions of people to pick up the phone and pay money every weekend to vote for mediocre acts to win a show, to release a cover, which thousands will rush out to buy. Even better, he has masses of people paying to vote for excruciatingly bad acts, just to try and stop another act winning because of some contrived rivalry or drama. Brilliant.

The X Factor certainly didn’t invent the talent show format. It has, however, refined it so well that for around a quarter of a year it holds the UK in thrall and has totally redefined our record industry. In 2008 Cowell’s acts accounted for 70% of Sony UK’s profits. Now he’s taken the X Factor stateside he’ll probably have the staunchest republicans in the major labels willing to tear up the Declaration of Independence for a sprinkle of his magic on their sales figures. The ‘Got Talent’ format is also massively successful worldwide. The final of China’s Got Talent in summer 2011 raked in an astonishing 575 million viewers.

How can independent artists and bands hope to compete with that?

For most artists, the answer almost certainly isn’t to go on one of the talent shows. The majority wouldn’t fit the mold. Others just wouldn’t want to sacrifice their artistic integrity. Last year’s winner of the X Factor UK, Matt Cardle, recently admitted he felt that he had compromised himself , “I wore yellow trousers and sang Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ for f***s sake!”

“In 2008 Cowell’s acts accounted for 70% of Sony UK’s profits.”

For the 99.99% of indies not going on one of these shows, what does it all mean? I’ve discussed elsewhere what I think the impact of the shows are on the industry as a whole. But what does it mean to the individual artists and bands? Well, I believe that getting angry or upset about this stuff is pretty pointless. No amount of complaining or campaigning is actually going to change anything. Take the campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s  ‘Killing in the Name’ to Christmas No.1 a few years ago. Rage Against the Machine were actually signed to a Sony subsidiary – just like the X Factor winner. So either way, the only real winner was the record company.

By far the better response is to learn from Simon Cowell – the guy definitely knows how to sell records!

Recently, I was thinking about how I would probably watch the X Factor more often if they just got on with the singing and left out all the backstory stuff – the interviews with relatives, the tears, drama and so on. But all that stuff really is the point of the shows. It’s what makes people pick up the phones and rush out to the record stores. When the viewers get to to the record stores there will be thousands of better CD’s they could pick up – but they don’t. Why? Because they feel connected to the X Factor artists – they feel like a part of their story. It’s the same thing that is happening psychologically, when viewers see an actor from their favourite TV show and address them by their character name as if they knew them personally.

This is incredibly powerful stuff. Feeling a part of an important cause is scientifically proven to be a greater motivator than money (personal gain). Think of a job that pays commission only, based upon performance. Once that job is finished there is no loyalty or genuine relationship left with the employer. What about an employer that pays a good salary to start with and treats all employees as vital to the success of the company – regularly seeking their input etc? They are much more likely to inspire loyalty and retain staff through tough times.

“Megastars might be able to get away with attempting an aura of distant, unapproachable mystique. Indie artists that try it just end up looking like arrogant, standoffish pricks.”

This is the dynamic that Simon Cowell utilizes so well – the part that independent musicians need to understand. In the example of the different employers, money wasn’t enough. For musicians, good music isn’t enough. If you presume you will get fans just by bringing out good music you are in trouble. There is loads of good music out there that never gets listened to. Even if yours is a bit better, it isn’t going to win you an army of fans overnight. You have to make people feel a part of a greater cause – a part of your story. Megastars might be able to get away with attempting an aura of distant, unapproachable mystique. Indie artists that try it just end up looking like arrogant, standoffish pricks. Period.

Here are a few practical pointers:

  • Have a personal/band website tying all your other online presences together, selling your music, gig dates, news/blog etc.
  • If you don’t have a mailing list that you grow each time you play a gig or get a visitor to your website, start one now.
  • The social media are useful for finding new fans and as a credibility piece. But be honest with yourself; the thousands of Facebook/Twitter/ReverbNation ‘like for likes’ you’ve gathered aren’t your fans – and you can look a little silly (and waste time) if you act as if they are. The people who’ve been to a gig or bought a CD are your fans. Communicate to them first via your mailing list and website.
  • Do you your fans know where you have come from? The opposition you have overcome, your dreams and the the obstacles you face now? If not, start letting them know – they may well want to help you.
  • Make sure to repeatedly thank everyone who comes to a gig, buys a CD, merch etc. Let them know you do it for them and couldn’t do it without their support.
  • If you post music on sites like Musicians Together remember to thank people for their comments and feedback – and check out some other artists now and again. You really don’t want to be perceived as thinking yourself above common good manners.

You get the idea. There are two key points you need to get across. First, you are a real, humble, well-mannered, approachable, likeable person. Second, it is you and your fans against the world. This will get you the kind of loyalty that will have fans sticking with you, even when you bring out a bad song/album or two (yes you will). It’s the kind of loyalty that carries the potential to turn a large portion of your fans into evangelists for you or your band. You just won’t get this with the ‘fake it til you make it’ approach. If you act like a star – like you have already made it – not only will you look like an idiot, but you’ll lose any hope of winning the kind of loyalty mentioned above.

Here’s a real life example: I went to see Iron Maiden in Manchester a few weeks ago. They are one of the most successful metal bands of all time and having been playing to sold-out, massive capacity venues worldwide, for over three decades. This year alone they have already played over seventy major gigs. During the show, the frontman, Bruce Dickinson, stopped now and again to chat to 21,000 of us about the weather, the political situation in Egypt and various bits of band trivia. No arrogance, no airs and graces. You could easily imagine sitting in the pub having a few pints with him and the rest of the band. In all honesty, I haven’t bought an album of theirs for a few years. I haven’t been into them that much recently. But that doesn’t matter – I’ll always be a fan of the Irons – it’s like we’ve known each other for years…In fact, I doubt they’d have made it this far if it wasn’t for me buying all those cassettes, videos and t-shirts when I was a teenager…

Mark Halsall

by Mark Halsall



Category: Other Music Promotion Articles

  • Tonyfloydkenna

    Great article Mark, a lot of common sense, hope EVERYONE reads it! T.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/MusiciansTogether-Mark/100002833822000 MusiciansTogether Mark

      Cheers T.

  • http://twitter.com/Jaydontwhistler Jaydon

    yep, makes good sense…

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/MusiciansTogether-Mark/100002833822000 MusiciansTogether Mark

      Thanks mate.

  • Dean_martin_749

    Good article mark! :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/MusiciansTogether-Mark/100002833822000 MusiciansTogether Mark

      Cheers Dean :)

  • johnogrady

    Brilliant article and so true but kinda depressing cause yu realise that there is no such thing as art for arts sake (Yea 10 cc lol) its all tied in with human contact/understanding etcf of the artist. Van Gogh would be a no no but for his story. The realy disheartening thing is that with todays pwerful media engines all of this is so malleable and totally open to corruption and manipulation

    John O Grady

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/MusiciansTogether-Mark/100002833822000 MusiciansTogether Mark

      I hear you.

  • Lunaticmusicmaker

    Very well written Mark!! You are multi-talented my man!! All jokes aside, that article made alot of sense, and hopefully everyone will take the time to actually read it through. Wxcellent work, man…. :)

  • Doctor DJ

    I love the last 2 paragraphs as attitude says alot. My motto and many of us said so too whether it was an audition,presenting a demo,meeting fans ect. to “leave the attitude at the door before entering”…The attitude to being able to sit and just chat with no arrogance will get you much further.I’ve met many in the music business and were great to hang out with because they were humble while others- you just wanted to smash them in the face.lol..Great article Mark .