Where is Kris Allen now? Twelve seasons of “American Idol” have shown that even if you beat the odds and win the competition, it’s hardly a guarantee of success within the music industry. The direct link to fame that the show seemed to initially provide has eroded, and the number of winners who failed to maintain success after their initial splashes is stifling. But that won’t stop thousands of hopeful contestants from making the trip to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA — the only audition in the Northeast — on Friday and Saturday.
Neither will the fact that this past season was “American Idol's” worst rated since the show began airing in 2002. In fact, it's doubtful that any of the difficulties that the show is facing will impact anybody who planned to set up camp outside of the stadium to audition for a group of strangers. (They don’t sing for the celebrity judges you see on TV in the first few rounds.)
Let's review the current woes of the show: The judges' table will feature only one returning judge after feuding divas Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj and veteran Randy Jackson announced that they won't do another season. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe was fired in June. And most recently, 10 former contestants filed a suit against senior executives last week, claiming that the show exploited the criminal backgrounds of African American contestants to “publicly humiliate — with maximum fanfare — virtually every top-ranking black ‘American Idol’ contestant who had a record of arrest.” It’s doubtful that even this hint of public scandal will deter anybody who was already planning on singing for strangers this weekend.
Patrick Lynn, senior supervising producer of “American Idol” says he isn’t able to comment on the lawsuit, but the exits and the ratings are of no concern to him.
“The ratings were up and down,” he says, before pointing out, “the ratings for us were still up and down within the top 10 [most viewed shows each week] , the top five for us, even. So people can say what they want to say, but you know what? We’re still a good show. People still like us. They love being a part of ‘American Idol’ and that’s why they turn on.”
Lynn has been with “Idol” since the show’s inception, starting out as an associate producer. The landscape for finding talent is more densely populated than it was in 2002. In addition to the rise of self-uploading technology on sites like YouTube, talent competitions like NBC’s “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” all followed in the wake of “Idol's” success. And then there's FOX’s own “The X Factor,” which original “Idol” judge Simon Cowell famously jumped ship to bring to the U.S. after the eighth season of “Idol,” bringing with him Paula Abdul, also one of the original “Idol” judges.
"They’re out there looking for talent just like we are," says Lynn. "It's kind of funny because a lot of my friends work on 'AGT,' and I've always had a good relationship with them and they’ve always been looking for talent at the same time we have, and of course they look for singers as well. But people choose what they’re show is."
So if it's tougher for the shows to find talent, it's also tougher for the talent to find an audience. Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks tells Metro that he is happy to have won when he did, because while “Idol” itself is competitive, now that the show has to compete with other competitions, it’s even more of a challenge.
“I think it is harder because the marketplace is saturated with similar shows,” he says. “You have to work extremely hard at creating, making and sustaining your name. The show’s gonna give you a name, but in this day and age, sustaining it is very tough.”
But Lynn says what those other shows don’t have is a legacy.
“The lucky thing that we have going for us is that there are people that have grown up with ‘American Idol.’ They don’t know television without it,” he says. “I have people telling me, especially 15-year-olds, [how excited they are] that they’re finally old enough to try out.”
Not everybody in the show business world seems to think this is a good thing.
In March, Dave Grohl told an interviewer with the in-flight magazine Delta Sky that he thought shows like “Idol” and “The Voice” were “destroying the next generation of musicians.” His quote instantly went viral.
“I think about kids watching a TV show like ‘American Idol’ or ‘The Voice,’ then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f—ing hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not f—ing good enough,’” he ranted.
What Grohl misses is that there are more than 800 kids outside these convention centers. A lot more!
“We saw 8,000 people in Detroit," says Lynn. "I’m not really sure about exact numbers but maybe 3,000 in the other cities. There is a pretty good chunk of people trying out. One of the things that’s good is that people understand you don’t have to be first in line all the time so that’s why we are literally open for 36 hours. … Out of 3,000 to 6,000 people, how many are going to actually get through? Literally 300, maybe 400 get through for the next round, which is the executive producer round, and then they make the decision if it’s going to fit for TV. The [celebrity] judges see more people than you’d think though. They see 120 people and we do 60 a day. Then maybe 15 people [from each city] actually make it on the show.”
But further in Grohl's rant, he encouraged aspiring musicians and would-be stadium campers to instead buy crappy instruments and take time to be bad at playing, but to have a good time doing so with friends, saying that’s what happened with Nirvana.
Another popular criticism from detractors is that finding success on a televised reality competition doesn’t prepare musicians for the grimy side of business that they would see first-hand, slugging it out in the clubs and coming up through the traditional channels. Hicks offers a word of caution for anybody going out for a show like “Idol” now.
“You have to have really good intuition to make decisions — not just from an artistic perspective but from a business perspective as well,” he says. “There’s show and there’s show business; they’re two different things. … Doing the show and performing is the easy part. The actual business of performing is a completely different monster and I think nowadays you really have to be especially intuitive and smart about both of them, or you will get taken for the proverbial ride.”
Lynn says watching first-hand as stars graduate from “Idol” to the music industry at large has been fascinating to him. Because these unknown singers come into “Idol” and are transformed, and then catapulted into a vicious industry where few thrive. It’s like going through the audition process all over again, but with an even more fickle public.
“Some winners become Carrie Underwood, and some become Lee DeWyze,” he says, before clarifying that DeWyze shouldn’t be deemed as a failure because he hasn’t won the Grammys that Underwood has or scored the number of No. 1 hits she has.
“He has an album coming out, so he’s still doing it; he’s still living his dream,” says Lynn. “It’s a matter of ‘Are they still out there? Are they still doing what they want to do?’ That’s been kind of the point of it. Too many people try to pigeonhole them into what they want them to be. Someone will say ‘You should be a superstar because Carrie Underwood is a superstar.’ Not everybody is going to be a superstar, but they’re all Idols.”