After years of hardship as a Ballyfermot-based single mum, Mary Byrne is finally flying high as a number-one selling artist. Elsewhere, Lucan twins Jedward have proved that a lack of talent isn’t necessarily an impediment to success.
Even though Jedward were dropped by their label Sony BMG last year, they are still thought to be on course to make £2m (€2.3m) a year. It’s surely the stuff of dreams, that even a Hollywood screenwriter would be hardpressed to conjure up
Yet, according to a recent report, things may not be quite as they seem in Simon Cowell’s dream factory. The man dubbed the ‘Karaoke Sauron’ may be worth an estimated $200m (€140m), yet the same cannot be said for many of his charges. Just last month, it transpired that Byrne was living off her savings, despite landing a €1m record deal in January. She may have a number-one album on the shelves of her former workplace, yet Mary claimed that she had only been paid €7,500 since she became an overnight celebrity last August.
While Mary earns thousands per show on the ‘X Factor’ tour, Cowell has yet to cough up a paycheck. “I know there's going be so much from the album. I haven't got a penny. I did two gigs in England and I think I got seven grand for it, but I haven't received anything so far,” she revealed.
“There will be an advance from the album but I haven't seen any of that. And then I have ‘The X Factor’ tour, but I won't get that until the tour is finished. I'm still the same as before, except with the extra seven grand from the two gigs. I haven't got a steady income at the moment,” she said. “I had a few bob saved and the daughter had a few bob saved, so she's been paying the rent and the gas and electricity bills. When I get sorted we'll work it out. We know where we stand — no debts, thank God.”
Past seasons of ‘The X Factor’ have left us with many indelible moments: an eyewatering parade of fashions, Simon Cowell’s steely and unwavering nerve, and the almost audible crash and burn of ego upon a contestant’s elimination. Yet they all pale in comparison to the money shot: the moment when a contestant has realised that he or she has won the series, meaning they’ve been granted passage into Cowell’s pop paradise. It all makes for a televisual shuddering climax, but what happens when the studio lights dim?
For every Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke or JLS, there are several others for whom a summer performing in Butlins has become a career zenith. Despite a number of confidentiality agreements written into each contestant’s contract, several ‘X Factor’ alumni have blasted the set-up. According to a report last year, Cowell’s division of Sony BMG ties contestants into an 80-page contract, which is enforceable “in the world and solar system”.
While Sony BMG reportedly pays for acts to take independent legal advice, anyone who refuses to sign must leave the show. And while it is largely believed by viewers that the eventual winner will land a £1m (€1.14m) record deal, the triumphant act can often expect a much smaller payout. According to a contract leaked to a British newspaper in 2008, the show’s winner receives a £150,000 (€171,450) advance, the runnerup receives £75,000 (€85,725), third place wins a £50,000 (€57,146) advance, while the person who comes in fourth can expect a £10,000 (€11,429) advance.
The winning act receives 15pc from single and album sales, and must sign with agent Modest Management in a deal which has the potential to last 14 years. The only chance of hitting the £1m mark is after at least four albums. “We make more than a millionpound commitment to the winner. That's why it's described as a £1m recording contract,” countered Cowell. A Dublin-based record label insider agrees that “£1m is a headline figure. It sounds great. It’s not that it’s not true, but it’s more a representation of the potential interest alabel has with an artist, over a period of time”.
At the time of the memo leak, a Sony BMG spokesperson was prompted to note that “no one has ever said the winner walks away with a £1m prize. That is the value of the record deal, which includes paying producers and video directors and covering recording and marketing costs.
“The prize is a record contract with Sony which you would not otherwise have. The contract which all the finalists sign is a very fair, standard employment contract.” Another clause (Clause 32.4) states that “artists must not without consent make any statement which may be considered unduly negative, critical or derogatory of the company — including its personnel and in particular Simon Cowell”.
Clause 36.4 stated that “finalists can only sing in pubs for three months after the last show – unless the concert is being recorded”. Cowell himself laughed off the leak at the time, saying: “I didn't put that [clause] in there. Very embarrassing. I wasn't aware that one of the clauses said you can't be horrible about me. It's probably the most useless clause in the history of contracts, because everybody does talk horrible about me. And do you know what? I don't care.
“It sounds ridiculously hypocritical of me to slate most people who come on the show and then to go: ‘And, by the way, you've got to be nice about Simon'.” Yet despite this caveat, many past contestants have spoken out about their treatment at the hands of Cowell. The show’s first winner, Steve Brookstein, has been anything but circumspect when mentioning his old boss. Brookstein won the show in 2004, yet parted company with Cowell’s Syco label nine months later after a spat about the format of his debut album. He was reportedly offered severance pay of £12,000 (€13,715). “Simon wanted it to be covers; I wanted a couple of my own tracks on it. But he wouldn’t even have a discussion,” revealed Brookstein.
“In one meeting, he just looked at me and said: ‘Listen. I know what I’m doing. Don’t argue.’ And that was that. To be honest, it was like Cowell had given up on me before we even started. There was no real plan.
“When I’d released the album, I had nothing else going on — no gigs, appearances, nothing. I was sitting at home doing nothing. It was really frustrating. “It’s amazing how many doors close when you part company with Cowell. It’s almost like leaving a mafia family,” added Brookstein. “Simon Cowell has such an enormous ego, he believes that if he can’t make you a star, then no one will. Because he’s so powerful, it’s virtually impossible to get any attention once he’s lost interest.
“Simon was [then] quoted everywhere saying I just couldn’t sell records. I felt completely done over. I emailed him asking him for an explanation, but I got a message back from his lawyers asking me not to contact him directly.”
Brookstein also revealed that his earnings in the wake of his ‘X Factor’ appearance barely exceeded £100,000 (€114,278). Elsewhere, ‘X Factor’s’ 2005 winner, Shayne Ward, has experienced mixed fortunes. Since releasing his second album ‘Breathless’ in 2007, Ward had reportedly spent some time waiting for the record label to release his next opus. “It certainly wasn’t my choice to go away for three years,” he said. “The fans were left out; I know they were wondering what was going on. All I could tell them was I was recording; I couldn’t tell them a date because it kept on getting moved back.
“Of course I was frustrated and the label could see that. I felt like I was pushed aside. They are such a busy company and there is so much going on; every year there is a new ‘X Factor’ winner and I felt like I wasn’t a priority.”
Yet even on his own comeback trail, Ward has been waiting by the phone. “I haven’t spoken to Simon since I was back on ‘The X Factor’ (in 2010),” he said recently. “You want to hear from the main guy.” Yet on the eve of the release of his third album, ‘Obsession’, Ward enthused, “Simon is still my boss, we just wanted to get the album right,” he told ‘The Sun’. “Simon has 100pc belief in me, so we're all very excited.”
After winning the show in 2007, Leon Jackson admitted that Cowell’s pop machine had placed him under “a lot of stress and strain”, and that Cowell booted him off Syco when his debut album didn’t reach number one. Of his rejection, he said: “It sold 150,000 copies and went gold, but to Sony it wasn’t good enough. You receive an advance and it’s up to you how far you make it go. It was a crushing moment, especially when, to my eyes, I hadn’t done anything wrong.” Of course, it could be argued that such tales of rejection are legion in every corner of the music industry. In an economic climate where failure is not an option, artists are dropped from record deals on a regular basis.
“In reality, a lot of these artists don’t get it that a lot of hard work off their own steam is needed to make this work,” notes the label insider. “Most of them don’t have the musical background to make it, because essentially they’ve been TV performers for the past six months. “They get the record deal through the show and then wait to see what happens. But guess what? Simon Cowell is already wondering about what’s going to happen on the next series. Simon Cowell has a responsibility, as a TV producer, to make entertaining shows and find suitable performers.
Anyone involved in the show, all they care about is themselves and their own careers, not the four artists they’ve mentored. “Would I advise a new artist to try out for the show? I wouldn’t, as a rule. If their head was screwed on tight, and they knew the nature of the beast — that you can get chewed up and spat out — and have the backbone to survive that, then maybe. But so few people can do that in reality.”
Above all else, there is a smack of sour grapes to the griping of his previous charges. Buoyed by a meteoric rise into pop’s premier league, many of these artists find it hard to come to terms with “‘The X Factor’ effect”, where fame is more fleeting and easily revoked than ever before. As in Las Vegas, punters should only partake if they can afford to lose. Because as we know, Cowell’s house always, always wins.