Fifty years have elapsed since Simon Cowell’s desert island disc – Mack The Knife – scaled the charts. It’s no surprise that so much of Cowell’s favourite music was made in the very infancy of rock’n’roll, less still that he has spent the last decade attempting to send the music industry reversing back there. At the heart of it all, Cowell is an A&R man, or Artists & Repertoire to use the old handle – someone whose job, in his own words, is to “guess what’s going to be popular.”
That may seem like a disingenuous way to describe a vocation which has, next to Oprah Winfrey, has made you America’s single highest prime-time earner. In the modern music industry, A&R men have become somewhat put-upon characters, trawling insalubrious holes in backwaters like Rayleigh and Dudley for a band they might be able to mould into the next Oasis or Radiohead. Cowell, of course, has never been interested in being that sort of A&R man. The A&R men with whom he aligns himself are venerable Americans moguls such as Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun – key players in an era when the business of finding the right song (the repertoire) for the right singer (the artist) was regarded as an art in itself.
Cowell’s regard for the tradition of great A&R – and his pretensions to being a part of that pantheon – revealed itself a few weeks ago when his protégé Olly Murs sang a version of Stevie Wonder’s arrangement of We Can Work It Out. “That’s a great Stevie Wonder song,” he said, feeling no need to mention that the original was, of course, by The Beatles. To Cowell, the best thing about We Can Work It Out was the A&R process that brought the song to Wonder in the first place.
As a songbook to be plundered for the likes of Gareth Gates, Steve Brookstein, Il Divo and Leon Jackson, The Beatles have clearly had their uses. But, of course, ironically – by writing and performing their own songs – it was The Beatles who effectively seized the means of control, elevating the role of the artist at the direct expense of A&R departments.
In another time, it might have been easier to begrudge Cowell his masterplan to return the music industry to its feudal pre-Beatles structure. But it isn’t as simple as that. In a digital age, with an entire generation of music listeners unwilling or unable to pay for their music, Cowell is one of the few people able to make people go into record shops and buy CDs – and not just his own. Established acts who perform their new single on X-Factor invariably see their records shoot up the charts the following week. Calvin Harris’s pineapple-wielding mid-Jedward stage invasion may have been the sanest reaction to the national obsession that briefly took hold around Ireland’s answer to The Cat in the Hat’s Thing 1 and Thing 2. But, as a Sony act, he remains as much a beneficiary of X-Factor cash as the brothers he attempted to usurp. If you’ve ever bought a “quality” album on a major label, you’ve also enjoyed the benefits of “low” popular art subsidizing the cooler stuff. The Velvet Underground’s debut album wouldn’t exist had James Last not been selling millions for Polydor at the same time.
And yet, for all of that, a cloud hangs over the aptitude for which Cowell would most like us to recognize him. By presiding over shows in which the public get to vote for the person whose records they want to buy, Cowell has created a risk-free way of doing his job. He has used his casting vote as an X-Factor judge to eliminate talented vocalists on the basis that, to have come in the bottom two, they mustn’t be making a sufficient connection with the general public. Contrary to his claims, he doesn’t “guess what’s going to be popular.” The public tell him what’s going to be popular.
In the days before X-Factor, without a focus group of 15 million people to fall back on, his touch wasn’t so sure. In 2000, his attempts to launch Girl Thing – a new girl group with a similar demographic appeal to Spice Girls – foundered. It still rankles with him that Pure & Simple, the mega-selling song performed by Hear’Say, was a Girl Thing song that never saw the light of day. A question mark surrounds his ability to oversee the creation of records that stand up to scrutiny without the backstory of a big budget TV show. When I interviewed Il Divo earlier this year, they were openly scornful of his attempts to get them to record Nessun Dorma every time they make an album.
But should Cowell mind that even his poperatic man-band are mocking the extent of his arrant populism? Damon Albarn might put him down as a “self-styled Nero of trash culture”, but as Cowell never ceases to remind us, he’s a businessman first and foremost – a point underscored by the co-writing credit he gave himself for merely suggesting that Leona Lewis record a cover of allegorical Christian poem Footsteps In The Sand. But even in the shallows of mainstream, mum-friendly pop, the choices made on his watch – with the possible exception of Leona Lewis’s Run and Susan Boyle’s Wild Horses – have lacked imagination. Justifying his talent for scoring hit singles with novelty records, Jonathan King said that as long as the public wanted to buy any old crap, he was more than happy to make it. In the past, Cowell has taken a similar approach. Using early sampling technology, he once oversaw the release of a single by Wonder Dog called Ruff Mix, which comprised a series of barks over over a disco beat. We also have him to thank for Robson & Jerome.
All of which is fine, of course. Who wouldn’t do the same, given half a chance and the promise of a windfall at the end of it? He may once again have made the record company man a force to be reckoned with. If the music industry has a future at all, we may even have him to thank for it. But is he one of the all-time nurturers of talent? If – as happened with Clive Davis – a Janis Joplin or a Bruce Springsteen – came to his attention, would he spot them? Can he do for Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle what, say, Ahmet Ertegun did for the Drifters or for the Bee Gees? Ten years from now, let’s see how many of his acts we’re still listening to.