Magazine article Variety

How Simon Cowell Built His Hit Factory

Magazine article Variety

How Simon Cowell Built His Hit Factory

Article excerpt

Skip around the radio and you're bound to hear an artist who's one degree of separation from Simon Cowell. Disciples of his brand of musical boot camp include "American Idol" season one winner Kelly Clarkson and season four victor Carrie Underwood; "America's Got Talent" champ Grace VanderWaal; "The X Factor" alums One Direction, Susan Boyle, Camila Cabello, Bea Miller and James Arthur; and supergroup Il Divo.

"Look at the careers of artists that Simon has been a part of and you will most likely find one common denominator: confidence," Clarkson says. "I'm not sure that Simon could ever work with people that are insecure, and if he has or does, I'm almost certain he would be annoyed by it. Simon has been a part of so many careers and all the artists are very different from one another, but I do think, for the most part, he is attracted to working with people that know who they are, are good humans and are hard workers."

That goes back to his earliest years in the music business when the hardest-working person in the room was Cowell himself. It says a lot that one of the most powerful men in the industry started at the lowest rung of the ladder, toiling in the mailroom at EMI Music Publishing. His segued to record labels with a move to form his own E&S Music and later Fanfare Records, whose specialty was making exercise videos until Cowell's golden ears discovered Sinitta's 1986 hit "So Macho." Other successes penned and produced by Stock Aitken Waterman (Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman) followed.

"In the early days I could see that he was driven," says Waterman, whom Cowell cites as a mentor from early in his career. "If you worked 10 hours, Simon worked 14. As a record producer, you couldn't ask for a better partner championing your records. His energy was limitless. Simon would literally walk through a wall to break a record."

Cowell would next jettison to an A&R position at BMG to produce novelty records for such brands as the Power Rangers and World Wrestling Federation, and then in a stroke of genius, persuaded actors Robson Green and Jerome Flynn to record what "Idol" viewers know is his all-time favorite song, "Unchained Melody." The cover was a smash, spending seven weeks at No. 1 in the U.K., and netting Cowell his first million. His signing streak continued with Five, the Teletubbies and the Irish boy band Westlife, scoring 26 hit singles.

Salty and brash but surprisingly charming, Cowell's demeanor and reputation led to an early judging gig on the British "Pop Idol," predecessor to "American Idol." The American show, which debuted in summer 2002, didn't catapult Clarkson only into the superstar stratosphere, but Cowell, too. For nine seasons, Cowell steered the voting viewers toward contestants he thought were best poised for success. During some of those intervening years, his track record rivaled the most successful of record companies'.

"Simon lets people steer their own ship, but he definitely challenges artists," says Clarkson. "He's not a yes man, but he's also not a bully and he's aware other people have great ideas as well. That is pretty uncommon, in my experience, when it comes to music executives."

Then again, Cowell is not the typical "suit," as it were. He's known to involve himself in every step of the music-making process and has made it his business to support rising songwriters and producers.

"Simon has always been the person you ring if you wanted a big song or to work with big producers like Ryan Tedder, for example. He's always heavily involved in A&R for his artists," says Louis Tomlinson, who will sit beside Cowell as a judge on the 15th season of the show that started his own career, "X Factor U.K." "In One Direction, he gave us the opportunity to work with so many amazing writers and producers. For big sessions, you call Simon."

One Direction bandmate Harry Styles echoes that notion. "Simon gave me my first opportunity and I am so grateful for that," he says. …

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