Simon Cowell greets Music Week warmly in his dressing room-cum-office at West London’s LH2 Studios. The former BMG A&R guru was once a regular in these pages, at least up until his mainstream break as television’s resident “Mr Nasty” on Pop Idol in the early 2000s when Cowell’s withering assessments of deluded wannabes made for instant TV gold and turned him into the most famous music exec on the planet.
Despite a long day of rehearsals, planning and perfecting ahead of the weekend’s live shows, Cowell is in genial mood: The X Factor Class Of 2017, he insists, is its strongest talent pool in some time.
“You get good years, you get bad years,” he asserts. “But you always know you’re doing a good year when you feel the enthusiasm from the label [Syco Entertainment, Cowell’s joint venture with Sony Music], because I don’t force them to do anything.
“This year, they were more like fans. They got excited from the auditions and that, for me, is always the best way of making it work. When they’re excited, they contribute more. So for the label, it’s great. If you can break an artist off the show, it is the best A&R process in the world.”
For a franchise often accused of producing mere flashes in the pan, The X Factor has enjoyed a remarkable shelf life. Now in its 14th series - having debuted on ITV in 2004 - it remains a weekend institution, adored and derided in equal measure.
“If you’d have asked me [when Pop Idol began] in 2001, I would’ve said if we could’ve got two or three years, we’re doing great,” reflects Cowell.
“You could feel the train coming - it was obvious what was happening - but what I didn’t know was how many great people we were going to find along the way.”
Indeed, the implication that The X Factor doesn’t create lasting stars simply doesn’t hold water. For every Steve Brookstein, Leon Jackson, Sam Bailey or Ben Haenow, there has been a Little Mix, One Direction, James Arthur or Olly Murs.
The likes of Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, Joe McElderry, Ella Henderson and JLS have sold bucketloads of records, while others such as Jedward and Rylan Clark capitalised on their X Factor infamy to launch highly successful showbiz careers. Shayne Ward - the 2005 victor - currently stars in Coronation Street.
“It’s not just the winners - look at Jedward, they made £5 million. I know, because I got it for them,” grins Louis Walsh, judge for all but the 2015 series.
“It’s a great platform for people like that. You don’t have to win the show; you just have to have a talent. It brings you into everybody’s house and if you’ve got something good, people will love it.”
“The proof is in the pudding. If you look at the track record, it’s incredible,” beams Cowell. “Having said that, I never like to look back in the past too much because it’s only the present and the future that I care about.”
Cowell is yet to see the new BBC One music show Sounds Like Friday Night, but is compelled to fire off a flurry of questions about it: “What was it like? What did it rate? Who’s producing it? Who reacted off the back of it?”
He muses: “The funny thing is that music [on TV] on its own, for whatever reason, is quite boring. It’s the drama element, together with the music, that works.
“The positive thing I would say is that, regardless of who produced it and which channel it is on, broadcasters are suddenly realising that music’s an important thing to do. A few years ago, there was literally nothing to put your artist on. It was all daytime - and daytime TV doesn’t have the effect of primetime. That was the whole idea behind these shows in the first place - that was the incentive.”
Artists discovered by The X Factor UK have scored 44 domestic No.1 singles and 25 No.1 albums, and sold more than 300m records worldwide.
Its US spin-off meanwhile, discovered the girl group Fifth Harmony and former member Camila Cabello, currently riding high at No.1 in the UK singles chart with Havana.
The X Factor format has been locally produced in 54 territories. Its UK edition airs in 165 and is contracted to ITV until 2019.
Explaining its continuing importance to the UK music industry, Jason Iley, Sony Music UK and Ireland chairman and CEO, said: “Every artist wants to be on The X Factor because, quite simply, it is the show that has the most positive impact on sales. You see a reaction virtually every time someone performs. No other TV series can get anywhere near matching The X Factor’s importance to the UK music industry.”
Viewing figures may have dipped below 5 million of late but the overall picture is much healthier, according to Cowell.
“We probably get 7m to 8m people watching, whether it’s repeats or catch-up - it’s still a lot of people,” he states, puffing on a cigarette.
“It’s the best platform for somebody with talent anywhere in the world,” declares Walsh. “I know we can all look at One Direction and Olly Murs, and all those people, but I remember G4, Cher Lloyd…
If you put them on a list you think, ‘Wow, no other show has done that - especially The Voice,’” he says, bellowing into the dictaphone for maximum comedic effect. “Especially The Voice!”
He continues: “[X Factor will go on] as long as the public wants it - as long as we keep making a good show and love what we do. And this year has just been a breath of fresh air.”
For 2017, the regular broadcast has switched from Fountain Studios in Wembley to the more compact LH2 in Park Royal.
More drastic is the change to the show’s format, which has seen the climactic elimination sing-off replaced by a duel between the two contestants with the most votes.
The act that receives the fewest votes from the public now exits automatically.
Also gone are the novelty contestants; the likes of Honey G, Wagner and Chico have been shipped out in favour of more traditional talent.
Boldly, acts are now encouraged to perform their own compositions on live TV. It's a move that has reaped instant dividends – songs by this year's frontrunners Rak-Su and Grace Davies reached No.1 and No.2 on the iTunes chart, respectively.
“What you’re actually trying to do is have a hit record every week,” notes Cowell. “And the strain that puts you under…
“I’m always thinking, ‘Are we making a show where a new, young artist would trust this show enough to risk their career on?’ When we started, there was no YouTube or social media.
For artists like Kelly Clarkson, American Idol was almost their only option if they couldn’t get a record deal.
“An artist like Rak-Su, for example, probably went through a mental process which was, ‘Do we trust the show enough that it’s going to work for us? Or do we use social media and post videos to build a fanbase? Luckily, they trusted us. So if they do well, or Grace does well - they’re the two obvious ones at the moment - then you’ve got the confidence that other people will want to be on the show.
“It’s the legacy of the show and the present legacy that will dictate its future because, if you’re not attracting great talent, then the show can’t continue.”
Songs by special guests have also impacted: Stormzy returned to the iTunes Top 10 and Liam Payne leapt 13 places, both on the back of X Factor performances.
Music Week attends rehearsals two days before the Saturday live show. Sharon Osbourne has been and gone but her fellow judges Cowell (whose partner Lauren and son Eric also drop by), Walsh and Nicole Scherzinger hang around. Their mentoring - Cowell is looking after the groups, Walsh the boys,
Osbourne the girls and Scherzinger the over 28s - is not just for the cameras; all spend hours nurturing their artists.
“I’m available 24/7 and they know that,” stresses Walsh. “I always research the songs. I think, ‘What’s going to get the votes?’ I kind of know who votes - it’s middle England - so what’s going to make them lift the phone and vote for that person? The best part is when you hear the audience react and you think,‘Wow, I was right!’”
How real is the judges’ on-screen rivalry? “We all want to win but I want the show to win,” says Walsh. “I want to be in the final this year - and I’m going to be - I’ll have one person in it, but I want the show to win.”
“Nicole is very competitive if she believes in someone,” points out Cowell. “Louis, mega competitive, again, if he believes in someone and I would say Sharon, from the minute we started working with her, is quite fanatical about winning.
“When you work in the music business, you have an ego and you’re not doing this to come second. That year when One Direction came third [the group finished behind Rebecca Ferguson and winner Matt Cardle in 2010], I still remember the moment when their name was called out that night. It felt like I was being punched in my stomach. I was so pissed off, because I really wanted them to win.”
Music Week sits down with Cowell for an exclusive one-to-one on the show’s format change, streaming, the future of TV and 14 years of The X Factor…
Is The X Factor still the most important platform for music on TV?
“It probably is the most important and reactive show that you can put an artist on, but it’s always down to the artist and the record. If we had X Factor, or a show like this, running every week, I’d be the happiest person. When it’s not on, what TV show are you going to go on? Interestingly, even with YouTube, if you look at the amount of artists who are breaking through on that platform, it is minute. You can count how many artists X Factor’s broken and then if you ask the same question of YouTube, it’s a very, very small number, so the shows still have relevance.”
How has streaming changed the game for X Factor?
“I don’t think it has, funnily enough. iTunes is really important to us. It’s the best market research you could ever have, because it’s so brutal. Streaming takes a lot of time; iTunes is instant. It’s a very quick snapshot of how badly or how well you’re doing, so I love it.”
What were the reasons behind the new format this year?
“You can always play it safe and just stick to what people know, but sometimes you have to try different things. Our issue is how you balance between the older audience which has gravitated towards BBC One. You suddenly see Antiques Roadshow, Planet Earth and Countryfile doing incredibly well - shows that five years ago you would never have said are going to get those audiences. But then with a music show like ours, if you try and make it too old-fashioned and you lose the young audience, then you’ll never have a future - because if you don’t have the next generation watching your shows, you’re fucked. So we have to find that balancing line. Like anything, you’ve just got to adapt to what your gut feeling tells you what to do. You can’t please everybody. It’s a question I ask myself every week. I don’t worry too much about the demo, I try and just make a great show. Most importantly you’ve got to attract great artists. If you don’t have great singers, you’ve got no future.”
How do you choose the show’s special guests?
“Well, that’s always a punch-up. We’re always pushing to put our own artists on, obviously, then you’ve got Sony pushing us, and then you’ve got all the other labels. The only way you can do it is that you’ve got to be fair and you’ve got to think of the audience foremost. That’s really the answer. If you’ve got an artist on and they’ve got a bad record it’s not going to move the dial.”
How do you decide the weekly theme?
“I thought Latin was relevant because the biggest change I’ve felt in the music business this year was the rise of Latin-influenced music. You could just feel it everywhere and it is so reactive. When we decided to put the CNCO & Little Mix record out there was no promotion or marketing, we put the record out and bang! I’ve never seen anything like it. Then literally, before you walked in, we sat here and asked if everyone liked the theme for the following week? 'No. I want to do George Michael'. So that’s how we do it - last minute [Laughs].”
Does winning the show matter to an artist in the grand scheme of things?
“Winning, I think, is important to [the contestants]. It’s like anything in life: if you come third, but are still successful, it’s nice but it would still be nice to win and be successful. If you’ve won the show, you’ve won the show historically and I still think that’s a big deal. We had that sing-off when Rak-Su got beaten by Grace, I was really pissed off when I was watching it, I mean really pissed off - because that’s my competitive streak.”
Only one group has won The X Factor in 13 series – Little Mix in 2011. Why do you think that is?
“Groups are hard. It takes a long, long time to get a group to work, for so many reasons. It’s hard enough with a solo artist, but when you’re dealing with four or five people it’s really, really difficult. And look, if you’re a girl group, you’ve got to appeal to a female audience as well as the male audience. More girls vote on these shows than guys; where Little Mix got it right was that they managed to appeal to both guys and girls. I think girls really related to them. One Direction, to this day, I have no idea why they didn’t win the show. It still pisses me off [Laughs].”
Does the rise of services such as Netflix threaten the future of shows like yours?
“No, I think everything’s positive at the moment. Going back to when I first started, realistically, you had probably three options on who you would go to with a new show in terms of your customer base.
What everyone’s recognising now is that, whether it’s Netflix, Apple TV, Channel 4, or Sky, everybody’s looking for their own X Factor or Got Talent. Your customer list is 20 times what it used to be, so I think it’s good for us. The alternative would be a nightmare; if you just had only two people to sell to, it would make your life difficult.”
What are you proudest of in 14 years of the show?
“Oh, 100% the contestants who’ve come through it. I can remember Leona [Lewis] singing Summertime like it was yesterday and there were a couple of moments with James Arthur where everything just clicked.
That’s what you pray for - that the artists themselves work out their path and nail it on the night. The great thing about it is that, in this day and age, it becomes viral and lasts forever.
To this day, people still share those clips and when you’re where I’m sitting on the night, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Music Week returns to LH2 for the Sunday live show. It’s pure panto: every positive comment from the judges greeted with deafening cheers; every minor criticism booed out of the room.
Cowell addresses the audience during the advertising breaks, imploring them to turn up the volume (particularly when jeering Walsh).
Not that they require much encouragement, as performances are stellar across the board.
With the judges now powerless to save their favourites, it is Tracey Leanne Jefford, from Scherzinger's over 28s, who bows out after finishing bottom of the public vote.
Elsewhere, Kevin Davy White’s cover of Santana's Smooth edges out Rak-Su’s self-penned Dimelo to claim this week’s prize - a recording session with a top producer - while special guest Rita Ora, herself a former X Factor mentor, dazzles with a visually spectacular rendition of Anywhere, ironically, the song that pipped Rak-Su to the iTunes summit (the group finally make it to the top with Dimelo following the show).
Once the cameras stop rolling, Cowell takes the mic again to declare the crowd the best of the series so far. A well-worn tactic, perhaps, but it works. Fourteen series in, X still hits the spot.