by Author Matt Griffiths

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Looking beyond the X Factor

Fame is not the only measure of success in the music business.

So I'll start by confessing I'm an X Factor viewer. Saturday evenings usually involve sitting in front of the TV with my lovely family, often with a take-away, watching the show and generally enjoying the whole circus, in a similar way to how I watched New Faces and Opportunity Knocks all those years ago with my parents and sisters. I'm pretty relaxed about seeing the X Factor for what it is - a piece of entertainment - without resorting to the kind of pompous criticism that exists amongst parts of the music fraternity. Millions of viewers, albeit a reducing number, can't be wrong: or perhaps they can?

It makes me feel sad for the contestants that winning the X Factor competition is positioned as the single, pinnacle achievement, almost as if anything else they achieve just isn't enough. What never gets mentioned in competitions such as these is that making a career in music, in whatever field, is a considerable achievement in itself. Often you'll hear losing contestants say “well I'll have to go back to the regular gig circuit in pubs and clubs”.  And what's wrong with that?

Here at Youth Music, we fund music projects up and down the country because we, and those we work with, understand the transformative effect music can have on young lives. Whether it’s learning an instrument, developing DJing skills or working in sound production, there is enjoyment to be had in learning these new skills. But more than that, we hope that young people walk away from these opportunities empowered and confident in tackling a broad range of life’s challenges, rather than solely seeking fame and fortune. 

Sadly, in becoming fodder for the carefully managed headline-grabbing spats between X Factor judges, it’s often soundbite criticism of participants’ musical potential, rather than praise, that wins out. This can destroy the confidence of participants who are often good musicians. So let’s focus more on celebrating their achievements, I say!  Praise builds confidence and encourages musicianship better than criticism.

Sunday's episode was gutting in that Ella and James, both engaging musicians, were in the bottom two and Ella lost. I’m sure she'll be fine and will no doubt achieve a career in music doing something she loves, as will James. Great to hear him doing a proper unplugged song on Saturday, the first time I've seen that. Musically, they don't need X Factor in my view: they will make it anyway.

With the right amount of motivation and support, a whole host of pathways should open up to them in ways that are not obvious right now. This is something we must get across to aspiring young musicians watching the programme. It’s important that we help aspiring musicians to understand that there are many different ways of 'making it' and that the X Factor isn't the only entryway to music industry success.

Thousands of young musicians are working hard, learning from others, developing their skills and musicianship, securing crucial live experience and promoting what they do. For some, performing on stage will be their living, for others it's working backstage, and for some they’ll do both together along with being a music leader, as part of their 'portfolio career'.

For many, I'm sure it'll purely be about the fun and thrill of making and performing music and perhaps nothing to do with a career but everything to do with feeling good about themselves. That’s to be celebrated too and merits our praise: making music for the sheer joy of it!

You may remember Sam Kelly, a finalist in Britain’s Got Talent this summer. He achieved a lot on the show, and throughout all the hype Sam continued to sing with Youth Music Voices, a 100-voice choir brought together by Youth Music to celebrate the Cultural Olympiad. As he said himself: "The feeling I get when singing with the choir is matched by nothing else!" Sam sensibly understood that there was more than one way to make and enjoy music.

Hard work, persistence, originality and standing out from the crowd is the order of the day. Hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks have worked hard at developing their craft.  Jordan and Harley were long term participants of the Youth Music funded AudioActive project in Brighton and eventually, through their You Tube videos, they were picked up by Island records: achieving chart success without ever seeking out the 'instant' fame of reality TV shows.

In fact, the evidence shows that the X Factor is something of a sideshow that hasn’t really helped the long term career of many. Susan Boyle, Will Young and Leona Lewis may be among the few that have been given a chance to do what they love - singing - through reality TV programmes but there are other routes to, and measures of, success in the music business.

So let's celebrate all our aspiring musicians without playing second fiddle to the X Factor, where not enough is done to support emerging artists in honing and developing their skills. And let’s remember that away from the limelight of reality TV shows and record charts, thousands of musicians are pursuing interesting careers, making a living and feeding their families. That’s success too!