Why it’s time to rethink TV talent shows

Matt Griffiths, CEO of Youth Music

‘Old hat’ TV talent shows are on their way out – we need a new industry model, argues Matt Griffiths, CEO of national music charity, Youth Music.


TV talent shows have been around for decades. Arguably, the most prominent in the UK is The X Factor, which has been broadcast across our television screens since 2004. We’ve since had 445 episodes and 15 series, but in the past few years the show’s critics have turned up the volume while viewing figures have declined. Last year, it hit an all-time low with just 6.9 million.

You may have noticed Simon Cowell’s latest attempt at revitalising the show with spin-offs including X Factor: Celebrity – whose recent winner Megan McKenna is no newcomer to our TV screens. She’s been on, wait for it… Ex On The Beach, Celebrity Ex On The Beach, Celebrity Big Brother, Celebs Go Dating and Celebs on the Farm – but is best known for her appearance in The Only Way is Essex. X Factor: The Band, an almost carbon copy of Little Mix’s new show, The Search, is just about to start.

I will admit, the original show did well to provide a platform for contestants from all over the UK, showing that it’s not just those from privileged backgrounds who can succeed, unlike in many other parts of the music industry. In this way, The X Factor does reflect the lives of many of the young people we support through Youth Music’s projects.

However, we work with young artists every day, and see the challenges they face, so I have a number of issues with TV talent shows that follow The X Factor’s format.

According to Cowell, the show had been ‘a redemption’ for Megan McKenna following her time on The Only Way is Essex. It is potentially damaging to position winning the show in this way: as the ultimate achievement. For many contestants, returning to the gig scene is seen as a failure, almost shameful. When, in fact, making a career in music, in whatever field, is quite a feat in itself. It requires dogged determination, creativity, commitment, and a lot of luck along the way.

Aftercare and support for artists

These shows put an immense amount of pressure on artists who are expected to be the ‘full package’. The industry needs to provide more aftercare for contestants to support and protect their mental health and wellbeing. Many will be aware of Jesy Nelson’s story which, sadly, is not an uncommon one in the music industry. Earlier this year, Jesy of Little Mix spoke out about her experiences while appearing on the show, and in the years since. On the day she won, she recalls thinking, ‘This is the worst day of my life’. She now speaks open and honestly about the toll that the show, and the subsequent internet trolling, took on her.

Fair pay – promoting the Living Wage across the music industry

Carving out a career in this industry can be ruthless. A massive failing of the industry is that despite improvements, many budding musicians, interns and runners are still not paid fairly, if at all. Many dream of appearing on a TV talent show because it offers the promise of financial security as well as career success. Youth Music is a Living Wage Funder, and as part of this commitment, we are campaigning for the end of unpaid internships in the industry. Not all musicians will rake in fortunes like former X Factor winner James Arthur – and nor may they want to – but our aim is to ensure everyone working in the music industry is paid fairly.

An industry crying out for greater diversity

In addition to fair pay, there’s a vital need for more diversity, and the inclusion of voices and experiences which we still aren’t hearing. We’re here to give everybody the opportunity to have musical lives, whatever form that takes.

TV talent shows, including The X Factor, should be using their platform to give opportunities to people on stage and backstage, from pluggers and record label execs to production, lighting and sound specialists. Youth Music supports music-making projects all over England, funded by the National Lottery via Arts Council England. The people working on these projects are not solely musicians and many have a ‘portfolio career’ built of different skills and roles – teaching, gigging, recording, event management and office work – which in turn, helps the young people we work with to develop these skills too.

Calling time on the current model

Our research report, The Sound of the Next Generation, found that 97% of young people had listened to music in the past week, and 64% think they are musical (up from 48% in 2006). Evidence shows that music-making is a powerful contributor to wellbeing and social cohesion. It’s helping young people to deal with some of the big issues facing them today – including mental health problems, isolation and social inequality. However, we also know that too many miss out on music-making because of who they are, where they live, or what they’re going through.

We know that there are many barriers to getting a job in the industry, particularly for those who live outside London or have limited financial means. You need look no further than the recent political manifestos to see that the arts, including the music industry, is a crucial and growing area of our economy. Despite this, a gap exists between music education and the realities of working in the industry.

I believe that The X Factor – or a new music-focussed show – could be a powerful force for change in bridging this gap, if an alternative, more diverse and supportive model were created.

One thing is for sure: an industry-wide change is very much needed in order to nurture the next generation of artists and music industry professionals.


About Youth Music

Youth Music is a national charity investing in music-making projects that help children and young people develop personally and socially, as well as musically. It works particularly with those who don’t get to make music because of who they are, where they live, or what they’re going through. Young people take the lead in choosing what and how they want to learn, making music of every style and genre.

Youth Music logo

Youth Music’s work is funded by the National Lottery via Arts Council England, which enables it to support more than 350 music-making projects each year, reaching 89,000 children and young people aged 0-25. But there’s more to do. Right now, Youth Music can only invest in about 40% of the projects applying for funding, so it is calling for more donations to help even more children and young people.

It is grateful to People’s Postcode Lottery and the other trusts, foundations, companies and individuals who donate and fundraise to help the charity provide additional music-making opportunities.

About the author

Matt Griffiths originally trained as a percussionist and was a professional musician and music educator for ten years. This work included leading workshops and projects in prisons, young offender institutions, special schools and mental health settings. It was this work in particular where Matt saw first-hand the significant personal, social and musical benefits of music-making particularly for people facing challenges in their lives. It has been the focus of his career ever since.

His previous roles include founding Director of Plymouth Music Zone, Director of Arts for the Dartington Hall Trust and founder of the Devon School for Social Entrepreneurs. He is the chair of the Cultural Learning Alliance steering group, a member of the Music Education Council forum and a speaker for Speakers For Schools.

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