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What Would YOU Do?
Gordon Pepper

Assuming you haven't been living under a rock, you know all about the situation with Mario Vazquez leaving American Idol under 'mysterious circumstances'. The rumors have been flying from everywhere, ranging from he was offered a contract to he's been sleeping with Michael Jackson (wha?). It would be silly to speculate on why he left, and as a 28 year old kid who has just been sprung out in to the spotlight, I think that it would be better off to leave Mario's personal life alone - until he wishes that it shouldn't be.

So the article is not going to be about why I really think he dropped out. The article will, however, be about one of the rumors, which brings up a very interesting aspect of American Idol. No, we're not going to talk about Michael Jackson - but we will talk about the contract issue. According to one of the many internet rumors, Mario was offered a contract by (fill in the blank here, though the Top 3 rumors have been P. Diddy, Madonna and Virgin) to quit the show and to work on an album for that person/company. I am not sure if I buy that (since if that was accurate, then the lawsuits of tampering would be flying), but let's look at this scenario. If you just made the Final 12 in American Idol, but you were offered a contract from a major American record label to drop out of the competition before signing a binding contract from American Idol, what would you do?

Let's look at the reasons why you would shrug them off and continue to perform on Idol. For starters, you would be guaranteed air time on a weekly basis on a national television station - and you would be watched by millions of people who you would be cultivating as your fan base. Obviously, if you won the competition, you would be virtually set for life, as Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino have realized. Even if you didn't win, you still have the potential to be incredibly successful - just ask Clay Aiken. Kimberly Locke has hit number one with her album and single, while Josh Gracin, Carmen Rasmussen, Frenchie Davis and even Justin Guarini (though his struggles have been chronicled, he has more than enough pay from the movie and from his many appearances being a commentator, etc.) have had success of their own, thanks to the American Idol machine. And even if you are one of the first people eliminated - you still get a nation-wide tour out of the deal and you still get exposure in front of millions of people - exposure that you wouldn't be able to get anywhere else.

With that being said, let's look at the dark side of Idol. We start by looking at the contract - most reports have the contract lasting from 5 to 7 years with their take ranging anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. This is much higher than what an agent would traditionally make (10-15 percent) as American Idol wishes to take as much advantage of your new-found popularity (which you really can't blame them on, as they are the reason why you are now famous to begin with).

The contract also means that American Idol is responsible for many aspects that you don't necessarily have control on. Part of that, of course, is control on when you are going to be releasing your material - which makes sense, as you don't want to release 5 Idol albums at the same time to families who may only be able to afford one of them per week. However, if you didn't finish as high as Ruben Studdard, then step aside - Ruben is getting released first, then Clay Aiken, then Kimberley Locke, and by the time your music is available in stores, you may have been lost in the crowd of just forgotten about.

Another incredibly crucial part is the publicity and advertising of your music. The only way people are going to buy your material is if they know that it's out there to be bought. If you are someone who received a following on the show, then Idol will have no problems promoting the tar out of it, as many of the Idol singers have returned as alumni to sing their new music - not to
mention the advertising for their music. What happens if you aren't one of their prodigal sons? Do you know that John Stevens just released a single? Yes, that red-haired crooning John Stevens? You didn't? Well, you can check it out on the internet music stores, but without my column, you may not have known about it. you may also not have known about singles released by Christina Christian, Julia DeMato, and other singers throughout the years - because Idol just didn't promote them as much as they have promoted their number one sons.

What happens to the singers who have a quick exit? Not much. Don't forget that thanks to the contract, American Idol still owns you for the next couple of years, so if you want to try to start your own career with a new label or try to create your own spotlight - it's not happening. The last time we saw Nikki McKibbin, who placed in third in the first season of American Idol, she was in Fear Factor munching on blended worms for $50,000 to try to help her struggling karaoke business. And no, she didn't win - though she did get to have a catfight with Omarosa and she got to bathe in blended worm soup. I don't think that this is what she had in mind when she auditioned to be a music star.

Part of the problem? The impression that the singers have made when they have been on Idol. If you sing badly in front of millions of people, it could be worse than no publicity because you are turning off the audience from buying your material. Let's look at last season. Jon Peter Lewis, Jasmine Trias and the aforementioned Mr. Stevens made headline news because of things other than their singing - Mr. Peter Lewis for his bad gyrations and Trias and Stevens for sticking around when many people were thinking racism as the more popular Jennifer Hudson and Latoya London departed. That gave the audience a bad taste in their mouth when it came to buying the performer's CDs - the sales for all of the singers in Idol 3 haven't come close to matching the sales from Idols 1 and 2.

An even bigger problem looms when the show is over and you try to get your material played. The thought of singers bypassing the 'earn your dues' format and being played on radio stations by winning a talent competition has always been a pariah to the music industry, and radio stations have consistently balked at playing music from winners of American Idol and other musical talent shows. Star Search's Tiffany Evans has gotten limited play on the radio - but that was only due to the fact that she has a dynamite song. Anyone remember Fame's Harlemm Lee and Shannon Bex? What about Jake Simpson or Freedom Williams from Star Search? Who? Enough said.

Clay Nation found out about this first hand as they had to petition many stations just to play his music - and this was from someone who has sold millions of CDs. By trying to get into the industry this way, you had better make that sort of impression on your fans or you just won't be able to hear yourself in the car unless you have created some homemade CDs.

So what's the answer? It depends on what you think of your own ability. The key to being successful is not even to place well on the show - it's to make a connection with the audience, as they are the people who determine your financial status down the line. If you think that you have what it takes to have the audience believe in you, then go for it - but if you fell that you just skated into the Top Twelve and you see far more talented people who you think America will be voting for, then it may be the time to bail out.

So if you had the opportunity to quit American Idol and take a safe (though probably less financially pleasing) contract - or try to take that risk for global megastardom - would you take that risk? Or would you be satisfied with a smaller piece of fame or a fade into obscurity if you leave much quicker from Idol than you planned to? What would YOU do?

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