July 2nd 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY CFA dispute may end up burning Victorian Labor electorally

CANBERRA OBSERVED July 2: Independence Day or Groundhog Day?

EDITORIAL Expect shockwaves as Britain votes on EU exit

CLIMATE CHANGE Coral bleaching way overdone by reef saviours

EUTHANASIA Victorian report closer to truth in dissenting voices

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump v Clinton race revealing of state of U.S.

SEXUAL POLITICS Transgenderism and the triumph of marketing

EDUCATION Deconstruction and other rot at school

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS Two heretics: Hilaire Belloc and R.H. Tawney

FREE SPEECH From disagreement to discrimination: section 18C

LITERATURE Tolkien, Golding and Hell

SOCIETY New lease on life for freedom machine

MUSIC AND ENTERTAINMENT Talent shows grind down singers, grind out drivel

CINEMA Puppet people pull the plug: Me Before You


BOOK REVIEW Friendship under fire

Books promotion page

Talent shows grind down singers, grind out drivel

by David James

News Weekly, July 2, 2016

Television talent shows are not quite as barbaric as the modern equivalent of feeding Christians to the lions. But they are certainly more hypocritical. Under the guise of fostering new talent, these shows are intensely predatory. Their coinage is more cruelty than generosity.

Dami Im

To understand how they became so prominent we need to look at some history. The music “industry” in its post-World War II form has largely collapsed. Because of the internet’s almost complete destruction of the notion of actually paying for music, it is becoming progressively more difficult to make significant returns from selling records or CDs.

Record companies are now so risk averse that they will usually only fund individual songs. Long gone are the days of the seven-album deal for a popular band.

That is not entirely bad news for musicians. Most of those record contracts would have made Dracula blush. A succession of highly successful and prominent Australian bands made large amounts of money for their record companies, yet finished up burdened with punishing debts. They were not told that they were personally liable for all the expenses incurred, including costly marketing campaigns.

The grubby little secret of the industry is that only the absolute cream of musicians become wealthy, and many do not even earn a living. The rest are more likely to end up impoverished. Ever wonder why there are so many benefit concerts for well-known pop musicians who are ill? Usually it is because they are broke and need financial help.

For better or worse, that particular version of exploitation, is up. Music talent shows are emerging as a partial replacement. They are based on the same mix of paternalism and exploitation.

They do have a different commercial rationale. The revenue for the most part does not come from the sale of recorded music; it comes from advertising and telecommunications income. The chief source of entertainment is not the music – although many of the contestants have undeniable ability – it comes from watching would-be stars deal with intense disappointment.

Each is encouraged to aspire to fame, but told that it will only be available if they are to push themselves to their absolute limit, as if they can only succeed if they develop an intense monomania. Then, when they fail, as most will, they are subjected to moralistic criticism that implies they lack character or purity of expression stemming from inadequate personal development.

All this from judges who are not only being paid absurd amounts of money, but whose main interest is in promoting themselves. Any interest they may profess in their protégés is only pretence – and usually a poor one at that.

It is also noticeable that qualifying to be a contestant on the shows is as much dependent on the performer’s “story” as their ability. The more poignant the contestant’s personal history is, the greater their chance of success. It adds a level of tabloid interest.

There is no attempt to treat the performers as professionals. None is paid for their appearances, and they are asked to sign away any rights to their own work on the shows – and usually for subsequent performances if they are fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to win.

Sometimes, the exploitation can sink to awful depths. One example that this author saw while helping the Musicians Union, concerned a performer in a talent show. Let’s call him Harry. Harry was required to give his personal history before being selected. He mentioned some shows he had done based on the works of a well-known American musician. Harry did not get into the talent show.

Shortly thereafter Harry was contacted by an Australian lawyer who claimed to represent the aforementioned American musician. This lawyer said that the American’s copyright had been infringed and Harry would have to pay financial restitution. Needless to say, this caused Harry a great deal of distress. He was not well off and could not afford legal representation.

That Australian lawyer, it turned out, was working with the talent show. He had seen Harry’s references, saw a commercial opportunity, and had contacted the American musician, offering to act on his behalf. To make matters worse, Harry was reluctant to fight back because he was worried that he would get a bad name and would never get an opportunity in the “industry” again.

It is not suggested that all talent shows sink to these depths. But the primary myth they create – that they are intent on developing up-and-coming musicians’ careers – is pure fiction. These shows are just a cynical exercise in exploitation.

Happily, some of the musicians are of sufficient quality that they can transcend the grubbiness. For example, South Korean-born singer Dami Im is such a fine singer – her performance of Prince’s Purple Rain is worth listening to because it is comparable with the original – she is likely to have a career from the sheer force of her musicality.

But she is the exception. The norm is a rather cruel exercise in exploiting the vulnerable that has very little to do with music.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.


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