Why Don’t Idolists Make Hits Anymore?

Recently a long-time loyal follower of these Musings texted me about her surprise that the Top 3 Idolists “don’t do more with it” and was curious as to why that has changed. She specifically mentioned Candice Glover who won Season 12 (2013) as someone who is no longer heard from. Actually, that can be said about EVERY winner since then.[1]

The short but not sufficient answer is that most of them haven’t been very good.

The longer and the more accurate answer is that the music business – and by the business I mean the industry – has gone through profound changes that have impacted the Idolists’ future careers. This answer is what follows.

Those Were the Days My Friend

The glory days of Idol – Seasons 5-10 (2006-2011)[2] – have long been over. Those days were characterized by large (30 million viewers), diverse audiences who purchased music they primarily discovered on radio and TV. Back then, it was common for many Idolists, not just the winner and runner-up, to get record deals. In Season 5, all of the Top Ten signed deals with nine going with major labels; eight Idolists got deals in Season 8; and nine in Season 10. Those deals produced hit records: 19 Idolists had gold albums but none since 2012 (Phillip Phillips).

Today, Idol viewers are a small (6 million viewers), older, non-diverse (mostly non-coastal white female) audience. Music is streamed rather than purchased. This is an enormous change for the music consumer. Instead of buying specific pieces of music they want to own, consumers today instead pay for on-demand access to a huge library. Using books as an analogy, it’s like moving from buying the book you heard Oprah talking about from your local bookstore to paying for access to all the books in the Library of Congress.

Music Consumption #1

In the glory days, being on Idol was an effective launching pad for a career. Today, it means nothing, and here’s why. As is clear from the chart above, streaming has replaced purchasing as the way music is consumed. About 160 million Americans stream music on the top three services, Spotify, Amazon, and Apple. Idol’s 6 million viewers represent less than 4% of the streaming market. Said another way, 96% of music streamers don’t watch Idol. Moreover . . .

Music Consumption #2

. . . the target audience the streaming services desire is 18-34 years of age. That only captures 20% of Idol’s audience. Put #1 and #2 together and the story is this: the audience the Idolists are performing to is an insignificant percentage of the music business and the streaming services aren’t even trying to reach the typical Idol viewer.

(Have I mentioned that most of the Idolists haven’t been that good?)

Music Consumption #3

And here is what the Idolists are up against and it’s an overwhelming obstacle. 77% of the music streamed comes from only 1% of the artists. For those who don’t like percentages, let’s imagine that the entire music industry consists of 1,000 artists. And in one imaginary month, one million songs are streamed by those 1,000 artists. BUT 770,000 OF THOSE STREAMS ARE FROM ONLY TEN ARTISTS!!!!

Yes, you read that correctly. And that means in my imaginary music universe, the other 9,990 imaginary artists are left fighting over a small piece of the market that’s only getting one-third of the attention as the big piece being served by 10 imaginary artists. That little piece is where the Idolists have had to make their name.

More People Into the Pool

It gets worse. Getting music onto one of the major music platforms is much easier than having a CD made and put into a store or e-tail warehouse. Spotify adds 60,000 songs per day to its catalog and you can assume Amazon and Apple are doing close to the same. By the time an Idolist leaves the show, gets into a studio, and makes some music, their competition in that little slice of pie that 99% of artists are fighting over has grown by another 10 million songs!

A Point about Hip-hop

I’ve always felt Idol’s (and The Voice) day of reckoning with hip-hop was coming as that genre became mainstream. By 2019, hip-hop was 31% of the streaming market and 52% of the top 100 streamed songs. With an orientation towards old-school popular music, all the Idolists are auditioning for their careers with a style of music that fewer consumers are buying.

And the Loser(s) Is

In summary, here’s why post-Idol success is so difficult to achieve today as compared to pre-2012. The audience Idolists are performing to is small, very narrow in terms of its music taste, and doesn’t buy music the way it is being sold. As a result, the music providers are not trying to attract this audience. And once the Idolists leave their TV bubble, they face an extraordinarily competitive marketplace that is overwhelmingly dominated by artists already familiar to younger music consumers who tend to prefer pop and hip-hop – or pop featuring a hip-hip artist – as compared to a TV audience who also listens to rock, R&B, and country.

(Have I mentioned that most of the Idolists haven’t been that good?)

The days of many Idol finalists getting record deals and making hit records are way behind us. Going where their customers are, today a music executive has to convince themselves that an Idolist has a chance of competing in that top 1% which generates 77% of their revenue. This may help explain why last year’s Idol winner Just Sam is no longer on her music label or represented by her management team. In March, she independently released a song under the name Samantha Diaz[3].

But a couple of Idolists have done well recently. Who they are and my thoughts on how they did it will come in my next blog post. 😀


[1]  Caleb Johnson, Nick Fradiani, Trent Harmon, Maddie Poppe, Laine Hardy, Just Sam.

[2] Winners: Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen (The Year of Adam Lambert), Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery (and Lauren Alaina)

[3] https://open.spotify.com/track/2Qhci9TaAqMkMW1B2HJic8?si=lB-KKv8KTEiSehfsZXbEUw

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