The elaborate cross-media spectacle, ‘Australian Idol,’ ostensibly lays bare the process of creating a pop star. Yet with so much made visible, much is rendered opaque. Specifically, ‘Idol’ is defined by the use of carefully-tuned strategies of publicity and promotion that create, shape and reshape a series of ‘authentic celebrities’ – pop stars whose emergence is sanctified through a seemingly open process of public ratification. Yet, Idol’s main actor is the music industry itself which uses contestants as vehicles for crafting intimate, long-term relationships with consumers. Through an analysis of the process through which various contestants in ‘Australian Idol’ are promoted and sold, it becomes clear that these populist icons are emblematic of an industry reinventing itself in a media environment that presents remarkable challenges and surprising opportunities.
Curiously, the debates, strategies and motivations of the public relations industry have received little sustained attention in popular music studies. While much has been written about the contradictions between the rhetoric of rebellion and the complicated realities of corporate success (Frank; Negus), less has been written about the evolution of specific kinds of publicity and the strategies that shape their use in the music industry. This is surprising given the foundational role of public relations strategies within the culture industries generally and the music industry in particular. Specifically, what Turner et. al. define as ‘the promotional culture’ is central to the production and marketing of mainstream popular music. The ‘Idol’ phenomenon offers a rich opportunity to examine how the mainstream of the popular music industry uses distinct and novel marketing strategies in the face of declining sales of compact discs, an advertising environment that is extraordinarily crowded with all manner of competing messages, a steady rate of trade in digital song files and ever more effective competition from video games and DVDs. The ‘Idol’ phenomenon has proved to be a bundle of highly successful strategies for making money from popular music. Selling CDs seems to be almost ancillary to the phenomenon, acting as only one profit centre among many. Indeed, we can track the progress and deployment of specific strategies for shaping the creation of what has become a series of musical celebrities from the start of the first series of ‘Australian Idol’ through a continuous process of strategic publicity.
The Attention Economy
It has been somewhat hysterically estimated that the average resident of Sydney might be presented with around 3000 commercial messages a day (Lee). It is this kind of communication environment that makes account planners go weak in the knees in both paralysing anxiety and genuine excitement. Many have taken to paying people to go to bars, cafes and clubs to talk up the relative merits of a product to complete strangers in the guise of casual conversation. Similarly, commercial buskers have recently appeared on City Trains to proclaim the virtues of the wares they’ve been contracted to hawk. One can imagine ‘Cockles and Mussels’ has been updated as ‘MP3 Players and Really Cool Footwear.’ These phenomena are variously referred to as ‘viral,’ ‘tipping point,’ ‘word of mouth’ or ‘whisper’ marketing. (Gladwell; Godin; Henry; Lee; Rosen) Regardless of what you call it, the problem inspiring these promotional chats and arias is the same: advertisers can no longer count on getting and holding our attention. As Davenport and Beck, Brody and even Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon have noted, the more taxed public attention gets, the more valuable it becomes. By most industry accounts, the attention economy is an established reality. It represents a significant shift of emphasis away from traditional methods of reaching consumers, instead inspiring new thinking about how to create lasting, flexible and evolving relationships with target audiences. The attention economy is a complicated and often contradictory response to a media environment that appears less and less reliable and to consumers who behaviour is often poorly understood, even mysterious (Elliott and Jankel-Elliott).
This challenging backdrop, however, is only the beginning for a seemingly beleaguered music industry. Wherever one looks, from the rise of the very real threat of global piracy to the expansion of the video game industry to mobile phones and hand held players to increasing amounts of money spent on DVDs and ring tones, selling CDs has become almost a sideline. The main event is the profitable use and reuse of the industry’s vast stores of intellectual property through all manner of media, most which didn’t exist ten years ago. Indeed, the ‘Idol’ phenomenon shows us how the music industry has been incorporating its jealously-guarded intellectual property and familiar modes of industrial self-presentation into existing media environments to build long-term relationships with consumers through television, radio, DVDs, CDs, the internet and mobile phones. Further, ‘Idol’s’ producers have supplemented more traditional models of communication by taking direct and explicit account of how and where audiences use a wide variety of media. The broad range of opportunities to participate in ‘Idol’ is central to its success. It demonstrates a willingness on the part of producers to accept the necessity of bending somewhat to the audience’s existing and evolving uses of the media. In short, they are simply not all that fussy about how participation actually happens so long as it does. Producers allow for many kinds of participation in order to constantly offer more specific and more active levels of involvement. ‘Idol’ has transformed consumer relationships within the music industry by coaxing into being ever more intimate, active and reciprocal relationships over the course of the contest by encouraging increasingly specific acts by consumers to complete a continual series of transactions.
The Use and Reuse of Celebrity
In many quarters, ‘Australian Idol’ has become a byword for bullshit. The competition seems rigged and the contestants are not seen as ‘real’ musicians in large part because their experience appears to be so transparent and so transparently commercial. As the mythology of the music industry has traditionally had it, deserving pop stars are established as celebrities through what is a more or less a linear progression. Early success is based on a carefully constructed sense of authentic cultural production. Credibility is established through a series of contestable affiliations to ostensibly organic music cultures, earned through artistic development and the hard slog of touring and practice (see Maxwell 118). The fraught possibilities of mainstream success continually beckon to ‘real’ musicians as they either ‘crossover’ or remain independent all the while trying to preserve some elusive measure of public honesty. As this mythology was implicitly unavailable to the producers of ‘Idol,’ a different kind of authenticity had to be constructed. Instead of a ‘battles of the bands’ (read: brands) contest, ‘Idol’ producers chose to present ‘unbranded’ aspirants (“Sydney Audition”). These hopefuls are presented as appealingly ambitious or merely optimistic individuals with varying degrees of talent. Those truly blessed, not only with talent but the drive to work it into saleable shape, would be carefully chosen from the multitude and offered an opportunity to make the most of their inherent yet unformed ability. Thus, their authenticity was assumed to be an implicit, inchoate presence, requiring the guiding hand of insiders to reach full flower. Through the facilitation of competition and direction provided in the form of knowledgeable music industry veterans who never tire of giving stern admonitions to indifferent performers who do not take full advantage of the opportunity presented to them, contestants are asked to prove themselves through an extended period of intense self-presentation and recreation. The lengthy televised, but tightly-edited auditions, complete with extensive commentary and the occasional gnashing of teeth on the part of the panel of experts and rejected contestants, demonstrate to us the earnest intent of those involved.
Importantly, the authenticity of those proceeding through the contest is never firmly established, but has to be continually and strategically re-established. Each weighty choice of repertoire, wardrobe and performance style can only break them; each successful performance only raises the stakes. This tense maintenance of status as a deserving celebrity runs in tandem with the increasingly attentive and reciprocal relationship between the producers and the audience. The relationship begins with what has proved to be a compelling first act. Thousands of ‘ordinary’ Australians line up outside venues throughout the country, many sleeping in car parks and on footpaths, practising, singing and performing for the mobile camera crews. We are presented with their youthful vigour in all its varied guises. We cannot help but be convinced of the worth of those who survive such a process.
The chosen few who are told with a flourish ‘You’re going to Sydney’ are then faced with what appears to be a daunting challenge, to establish themselves in short order as a performer with ‘the X factor’ (“Australian Idol” 14 July 2004). A fine voice and interesting look must be supplemented with those intangible qualities that result in wide public appeal. Yet these qualities are only made available to the public and the performer because of the contest itself. When the public is eventually asked to participate directly, it is to both produce and ratify exactly these ambiguous attributes. More than this, contestants need our help just to survive. Their celebrity is almost shockingly unstable, more fleeting than its surrounding rhetoric and context might suggest and under constant, expected threat. From round to round, favourites can easily become also rans–wild cards who limp out of one round, but storm through the next. The drama can only be heightened, securing our interest by requiring our input. As any advertiser can tell you, an effective campaign must end in action on our part. Through text message and phone voting as well as extensive ‘fan management’ through internet chat rooms and bulletin boards (see Stahl 228; http://au.messages.yahoo.com/australianidol/), our channelled ‘viral’ participation both shapes and completes the meanings of the contest. These active and often inventive relationships (http://au.australianidol.yahoo.com/fancentral/) allow the eventual ‘Idol’ to claim the credibility the means of their success otherwise renders suspect and these activities appear to consummate the relationship.
However, the relationship continues well beyond the gala final. In a fascinating re-narration of the first series of ‘Australian Idol,’ Australian Idol: The Winner’s Story aired on the Friday following the final night of the contest. The story of the newly crowned Idol, Guy Sebastian, was presented in an hour long program that showed his home life, his life as a voice teacher in the Adelaide suburbs and his subsequent journey to stardom. The clips depicting his life prior to ‘Idol’ were of ambiguous vintage, cleverly silent on the exact date of production; somehow they were not quite in the past or the future, but floated in some eternal in-between. When his ‘Australian Idol’ experience was chronicled, after the second commercial break, we were allowed to see an intimate portrait of an anxious contestant transformed into ‘Your Australian Idol.’ There could be no doubt of the virtue of Sebastian’s struggles, nor of his well-earned victory. ‘New’ footage began with the sudden sensation reluctantly commenting on other contestants at the original Adelaide cattle call at the prompting of the mobile camera crew and ended with his teary-eyed mother exultant at the final decision as she stood in the front row at the Opera House. Further, not only is the entire run of the first series dramatically recounted in documentary format on the Australian Idol: Greatest Moments DVD, framed by Sebastian’s humble triumph, so are the stories of each member of the Final 12 and the paths they took through the contest. These reiterations serve to reinforce not only Sebastian’s status, but the status of the program itself. They confirm the benevolent success of the industry it so dutifully profiles. We are taken behind the curtain, allowed to see the machinery of stardom grind inevitably to a conclusion, knowing we will be allowed back again when the time is right.
Whereas ‘Idol’ is routinely pilloried for its crass commercialism, it remains an unavoidable success. Viewers keep tuning in, advertisers still clamour to sponsor all aspects of the production and the CDs keep selling. Most importantly, the music industry has a showcase for its own operations. The structures of feeling it exists to produce take on a kind of subtle explicitness that ensures their perpetuation. Within an industry faced with threats perceived to be foundational, the creators of ‘Idol’ have produced an audacious and arrogant spectacle. They have made a profitable virtue out of an economic necessity. The expensive and unpredictable process of finding and nurturing new talent has not only been made more reliable, but ‘Idol’ has shown that it can actually turn a profit. The brand of celebrity produced by Idol possesses no mere sheen of populist approval, but embodies that more valuable commodity: popular attention, however reluctant or enthusiastic it may be.