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Susan Boyle: Latest star in music's new business model

Talent shows find "ugly ducklings" and turn them into record sales

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2009

Susan Boyle, whose performance on the television show "Britain's Got Talent" wowed the judges, poses with a hairbrush at her home in Blackburn, Scotland on April 16.




If you thought the stir surrounding the global debut of Susan Boyle was something, then perhaps it's time to put on your seatbelt.

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Yes, she finished in second place in Britain's Got Talent. But you don't have to win to be successful. This TV show – and others like it – are becoming the music industry's premier platforms for launching new talent.

And the middle-age Scottish spinster with a voice that touched the hearts of millions is preparing to carve out the singing career she's always wanted.

Ms. Boyle first performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" has now been viewed almost 300 million times (click here to see it) on, She will be releasing her debut album later this year on a label owned by Simon Cowell, the pop music svengali behind Britain's Got Talent and "X-Factor" (as well as the bluntly honest judge on "American Idol").

Bono and Boyle

Boyle also just signed Ossie Kilkenny, the business manager of choice for stars such as U2, to help her with the fortune many expect her to reap.

But while Bono's Irish rock band epitomizes the traditional route to success by artists whose fame is a culmination of years of gigs and creeping critical acclaim – Boyle owes her rise to overnight stardom to a television talent show.

Some in the industry say that shows such as Britain's Got Talent (BGT) and X Factor (Britain's version of American Idol) are remaking the music business model. The TV talent show is emerging as one of the best ways to find and market new stars. And it's a global franchise: there are more than 50 versions in 110 countries.

Proponents cite the following evidence of this new model:

• In Britain, every one of the past five winners of X Factor has produced a song that entered the United Kingdom singles chart at No. 1.

Leona Lewis, the 2006 X Factor winner, has sold more than 6.5 million copies of her first album.

• In the US, American Idol's first season winner, Kelly Clarkson, has sold more than 10 million albums since 2002.

• Season four (2005) American Idol winner, Carrie Underwood, has sold 11 million albums and has won four Grammy awards in the past three years.

• Even those who don't win can go on to become hugely successful. Chris Daughtry came in fourth on American Idol in 2006, but has sold some 4.5 million albums since then.

Remake of an old Hollywood formula

Some argue that this is really just a reincarnation of an old model.

"It's clear that this is not a new phenomenon," says Mark Borkowski, a leading public-relations agent and the author "The Fame Formula," in which he posits that there is a scientific formula for fame.

"The media have always been used by format owners to create cheap talent," says Mr. Borkowski, who adds that the lineage of Britain's Got Talent can be traced to the Hollywood studio system that turned "ordinary" women such as Vivian Leigh and Marilyn Monroe into stars.