Does British Pop Still Need Saving From ‘X-Factor Culture’?

A rare outburst from reclusive genius Kate Bush has appeared on her blog. No, dear readers, it’s not an announcement of that long-awaited tour. Bush penned an open letter to a contestant on The Voice booted off the show on Saturday. Liam Tamne had covered her ‘This Woman’s Work’ in April, which she described as “absolutely stunning”. The Queen of authenticity was ‘sad to see that Liam didn’t get through on The Voice this week” but is sure his “nan would be very proud”.

It seems that every week another artist weighs in on the great TV talent show debate. Brian May recently labelled The Voice “the ultimate insult to music”. The guitarist, who chose American Idol winner Adam Lambert to replace Freddie Mercury in various Queen shows last summer, called the British reality show “dull, dumb and depressing.” Vigilante Jake Bugg’s “keeping that X Factor shit off the top spot”, Dave Grohl hates the way “they make everyone sound like fucking Christina Aguilera, and according to Laura Marling, it’s an “awful part of our society.”

What’s new, you ask? Step forward the Arts Council. The development agency has created a fund to support artists trying to break into the music industry. It’s the first time they’ve done this for pop music; traditionally the money goes to opera or classical – and pop’s been able to fend successfully for itself.



Why now? To counter ‘X Factor’ culture, apparently. The Council thinks “short-termism” is ruining the music industry. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Alan Davey, chief executive of the Arts Council, said the culture has led labels to concentrate on “giving the public what they think the public want, rather than exploring and getting the public to find things that they didn’t know they want”. He continued:

They want talent to be delivered to them ready-made. They’re not prepared to take a risk over a long period of time investing in talent


The X Factor began in 2004 (series 10 will air this year), with Fame Academy and Pop Idol a few years earlier. The Voice, a franchise that originated in Holland, started in 2010 and has taken the baton. When music historians look back at the first 13 years of the 21st century, what will they see? An age defined by TV talent shows, for sure. They will see the success of One Direction, and they will see Steve Brookestein. They will hear Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ sweetened by Alexandra Burke and Simon Cowell’s cackle as broken Hollywood dreams transform into Versace jeans for his wardrobe. ‘X Factor’ culture has changed the shape of music in the 21st century; it has ushered in a golden age for karaoke.

But they will also see a shit ton of amazing new music – and labels who’ve spent money on new acts aimed at career longevity. Is there any truth to what Davey says? Head of the British Phonographic Industry(BPI) Geoff Taylor’s pooh-poohed the Council’s remarks, telling NME:

Alan Davey’s remarks about the lack of risk-taking in pop music are ill-informed and out of touch. UK labels have invested £1 billion over the last five years in new music. The results speak for themselves: five out of the top ten best-selling albums last year were from the UK. It is difficult to see that global breakthroughs such as Adele, Mumford & Sons, Emeli Sande, Ed Sheeran, Muse and Jessie J represent short-termism, or a failure to back talent. And huge successes such as One Direction who emerged from the X Factor should be celebrated

The industry spat shows no signs of cooling. David Joseph, chief executive of Universal Music in Britain, described Davey’s comments as “pure fiction”. In a letter to The Times, Joseph wrote: “The X Factor is a facet of modern pop music but to characterise an entire industry by one TV show feeding into one label is breathtakingly simplistic and ignorant.”


Davey has clarified his comments on the Art Council blog, saying:

Let’s be clear from the start, this does not amount to a failure of the whole popular music market – but to a specific need to help artists who are on the cusp of breakthrough to achieve their creative and commercial potential

Still, reality TV ‘music’ certainly takes up a lot of space on our screens, TVs, radios and national events. The UK is engorged with the stuff, and the thirst shows no signs of slaking. Despite falling ratings, The Voice has just been recommissioned for another series.


While there are many exceptions, and Davey’s comments are narrow, the commercial merging of music with entertainment for television has contributed to the homogenisation of pop over the last decade. Cowell, and others like him, latched onto the power of selling music as entertainment, or entertainment as music and, at times, it feels as though entertainment sits at the top table, while music scrabbles around on the floor for scraps.

There is entertaining pop music and there is karaoke entertainment. Personally I want to experience pop music that expresses ideas and emotions, that allows me to be a voyeur and scream at the top of my lungs. That takes me to the heights of angels and the pits of darkness, that makes me think and changes the way I see the world. There is no genuine expression in ‘X Factor culture’. It’s about profit and short-term buzz. Sitting in front of the television on a Saturday night with millions of people on Twitter is relaxing, but it isn’t the same experience as going to a gig.


But perhaps it is filling a void. Look at the hysteria around Daft Punk and David Bowie’s album releases this year. We desperately want ‘events’ in music. Can it be a coincidence that the rise of reality TV music over the last decade has happened alongside the birth of very few music scenes?

It’s no bad thing the Arts Council is putting money into artists such as Kwes but let’s hope the backlash against the seeming monopoly of music today continues organically. ‘The Voice’ might be a bit of fun on a Saturday night and X Factor isn’t killing our children, but it could well be constipating the country’s creativity.