Wanted: pop star. Poor pay, no prospects

Two thousand wannabes applied for ITV's new series Popstars. At least the losers will have one consolation - they could have won
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The Independent Culture

We've had soldiers, sailors, shopping-centre workers and learner driv-ers. Now ITV have announced the latest reality-TV extravaganza - a 13-part series called Popstars, which will chart the selection, formation and development of a teen-pop band, from the first auditions right up to the release of their debut single. More than 2,000 wannabe stars who would happily belong to any S Club 7 that would have them as a member have already strutted their stuff. The first episode will be shown tomorrow (Wednesday) and ITV are confidently expecting a ratings-grabbing example of "event TV".

We've had soldiers, sailors, shopping-centre workers and learner driv-ers. Now ITV have announced the latest reality-TV extravaganza - a 13-part series called Popstars, which will chart the selection, formation and development of a teen-pop band, from the first auditions right up to the release of their debut single. More than 2,000 wannabe stars who would happily belong to any S Club 7 that would have them as a member have already strutted their stuff. The first episode will be shown tomorrow (Wednesday) and ITV are confidently expecting a ratings-grabbing example of "event TV".

The wrecks, of course, being the shattered egos of the half-witted egomaniacs who are desperately scrabbling for glory, only to be cruelly disappointed. Whatever happens, they can't win. Either they fail to make the grade, in which case their humiliation is broadcast to the nation. Or they succeed, which is even worse. For the cruellest illusion promoted by this programme is not that some tone-deaf bottle-blonde with a shaven chest or artificially-inflated breasts could actually make it as a pop star, but that being a pop star is in any sense a worthwhile activity. Because it isn't. I have spent the best part of 20 years playing Boswell to strummers and warblers of all descriptions and I'm here to tell you that theirs is a dog's life.

And if you don't believe me, just ask Courtney Love. The former Mrs Kurt Cobain recently gave a dazzling speech in New York in which she successfully demonstrated how a band could sell a million albums, and still end up broke. In an oratorical masterpiece that rapidly became a musicians' manifesto, she perfectly skewered the economics of a business whose working practices make feudalism look like a liberal, worker-friendly social democracy, no less. Courtney's basic maths went as follows:

Suppose a really hot young, four-man band signs a recording deal for a $1m advance against a royalty-rate of 20 per cent. Virtually no one actually gets that much, but no matter: perhaps they've had a 13-week TV series as advance publicity.

They take their million and disappear into a studio to make the first LP. And here they encounter their first problem: bands have to pay for recording costs, which could easily reach $500,000. So there's half their money gone straight away. Out of the remaining $500,000, they give their manager his 20 per cent (the standard rate), which is $100,000, plus another $50,000 on legal, business and accounting fees. With those costs paid, the band has $350,000 to split among themselves, which makes $87,500 apiece pre-tax. That's 60 grand in good old British Sterling, which is an okay income. But it's hardly wealth beyond their wildest imaginings. Never mind. The record comes out and sell a million copies - a platinum disc in the States, or more than triple-platinum in UK terms (you have to sell 300,000 copies in this country to qualify for platinum status). This is, obviously, a fantastic achievement.

So now, surely, the musicians are loaded? Actually, no. The band's 20-per-cent royalty-rate works out at roughly $2 per disc, so their gross, in theory, is twice their advance. Except that they now discover that they owe their label a lot more than the up-front cash. They will, for example, be liable for a standard 50 per cent of the production costs of their videos (a fact that pop stars very rarely consider before agreeing to that two-week shoot in Rio or the Maldives). Plus, the record company will advance them tour-support to underwrite the cost of going on the road, which is a loss-making business until you're big enough to pack arenas. Both payments will be recouped out of royalties, as will a number of promotional costs. All this can easily mount up to around $1m. Add that to the first advance, and their total costs are $2m - which is exactly what they've grossed in royalties. So they've made precisely nothing.

Meanwhile, the record company has, from their much bigger slice of the same million-seller, racked up a profit of around $6.6m - or £4.4m in real money. Courtney left publishing royalties out of her equation. A pop star who composes their own material makes far more from the writing than the performing. But the hopefuls who struggle through ITV's Popstar series probably won't turn out to be budding Paul McCartneys or Joni Mitchells. The vast majority of pop acts, from Steps to Britney Spears, sing songs written by composers who earn far more than they do, and live in blissful obscurity to boot.

In fact, many boy and girl-band members spend the early years of their careers on wages. And, in most cases, early years are all they ever get. The days when rock music could provide an ambitious young musician with a lucrative long-term career are over. The giants of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties may have rolled on for decades, but modern acts have the lifespans of fruit-flies. These days, your first album is almost certainly your biggest. A few stars may enjoy multiple massive hits. But the Spice Girls' third album has been a disaster, B*witched came a cropper on their second, and even the Corrs have had a hard time following the massive success of Talk on Corners.

But perhaps money isn't a wannabe popstar's motivation. Perhaps it's fame and a fabulous lifestyle they crave. In which case, they need to know what it's really like. A pop star works hours which would have EU employment legislators foaming at the mouth. Last year, for example, I interviewed a 15-year-old teen starlet called Mandy Moore. We met in Paris on what was the 63rd consecutive day of promotional work. I was her fifth or sixth reporter of the day. When we finished at 7pm, she still had a couple more to go. Two days beforehand, she'd done a photo-shoot in New York, despite running a temperature of 102. The following day, she was jetting off to New Zealand and Australia, with a spin round the Far East to come.

It could be worse. Mandy has never been the victim of a tabloid sex-scandal. She's not been chased by paparazzi searching for evidence of anorexia or plastic surgery. She's not had half the record industry logging on to www.popbitch.com to spread tall tales about drug-abuse or bizarre sexual preferences (unlike the British babe known to music gossips as Chaz-Baps because of her alleged fondness for letting men snort cocaine - aka Charlie, abbreviated to Chaz - off her breasts). But you can bet your bottom dollar that the Popstars kids will have all that in store. They'll have stories sold to the press by their friends, lovers and even family. They won't be able to walk down the street in peace. Even if they make any money, they'll soon spend it. And then, in a few years' time, people will start saying, "Weren't you that bird who was on that telly programme about pop stars?" They'll appear in "Where are they now?" columns and be mocked by Graham Norton in nostalgia-packed TV compilation shows. What a bloody awful fate. What a tragedy. I can't wait for the first episode.

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