Skip around the radio dial 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 tells Variety. “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.”
“His energy was limitless. Simon would literally walk through a wall to break a record.”
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. “He has always been a great friend and has taught me a lot.”
Even hits by artists one wouldn’t associate with Cowell, including Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, have his stamp on them.
“People probably don’t realize how involved he is on every level of the album making process. From song choices to album art to the promotion schedule, he has input and final say on everything. He’s still as involved today as he was on day one and for an artist like myself, and that means so much,” says songwriter Savan Kotecha.
|Susan Boyle found fame on “Britain’s Got Talent” and calls Cowell a “wee pussy cat.”|
Cowell gave Kotecha a break by having him pen songs for boy band Westlife. That relationship led to Kotecha’s breakthrough hits with Usher and a gig on “X Factor U.K.,” where Cowell connected him with a newly assembled act he believed in: One Direction. A song initially written as a love letter to Kotecha’s wife, “What Makes You Beautiful” launched both a songwriter and a band into the stratosphere.
Another signature Cowell trait is his ability to spot talent in the unlikeliest of places. Perhaps the best example is Susan Boyle, whose “Britain’s Got Talent” audition in 2009 of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” became an instant viral phenomenon and showed that Cowell did, in fact, have a heart and functioning tear ducts.
Having Cowell in your corner is a life-changer, says Boyle. “He’s a champion for all his artists, not just me,” she says. “To be a part of the Syco family — and it really is a family — means so much. You feel safe and protected having such a great support network around you. He goes above and beyond for all of us.”
Syco Music is the manifestation of Cowell’s vision for that entertainment business sector. Distributed by Sony Music, it has the freedom to align with the label it feels is the best fit for its artists. That means Camila Cabello can opt for the more edgy and urban-leaning label such as Epic, with whom she partnered for one of the biggest releases of 2018, her debut “Camila.”
“He always wants things that are exciting and fresh, which pushes artists to go to the next level,” Cabello says of Cowell. “I think it’s a very vulnerable thing to be an artist and to have someone behind you so strongly is a really special feeling that helps you be your best.”
“America’s Got Talent” season 11 winner Grace VanderWaal, now also signed to Syco Music, says Cowell’s guidance was instrumental in her still-blossoming career. She landed the opening slot on Imagine Dragons’ summer tour of arenas, as well as a role in the forthcoming film “Stargirl.”
Of her reality television experience, she says: “I knew that I wanted to perform my own songs on the show — I just had that gut feeling — but I didn’t really have the authority to make it happen. Simon believed in me and understood what I wanted, and he used his influence on the show to let me follow my gut. I truly don’t think I would have won the show, and be where I am today, if it wasn’t for him.”
“People probably don’t realize how involved he is on every level of the album making process.”
Tomlinson, who is signed to Epic through Sony, learned just how Cowell ticks working alongside him in his own indie label venture, Triple Strings. Two years into his tenure in One Direction, the singer began to “lean on him for advice.”
Says Tomlinson: “With Simon there isn’t that old-school smothering approach; he’s always open to hear what you have to say. In One Direction he put in sessions for us to write our own songs really early on. He has trust in you as an individual and also as an artist, and he listens, which is really important.”
Among the industry, he is just as revered and respected. “Simon has always been a brilliant maverick, talent-spotting entrepreneur whether it be in music or in television or both genres combined,” says Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer. “He has been successful in four decades now so his unique ability to create and develop hugely popular mainstream entertainment is no fluke! He also happens to be a loyal and trustworthy friend and a business partner who is a joy to work with.”
Sony Music chief creative officer Clive Davis, who worked closely with Cowell during the first decade of “Idol,” credits a certain crystal ball ability in the Brit. “He has the wonderful and rare quality of being able to see the future and know when to act upon it,” says the industry veteran who discovered Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys, among others. “He’s very creative, very astute and very practical. He’s both a pioneer and a hugely successful businessman and definitely one of a kind.”
Adds Doug Morris, chairman emeritus for Sony Music and founder of his own 12 Tone Records: “Simon has been a tremendous influence on pop culture. He is both a brilliant executive and a creative talent. In addition, he’s a delight to work with.”
And according to friends and colleagues in the music world, he really hasn’t changed as his star has ascended. “I knew him before he was famous, and he’s still very honest,” says Kotecha. “His gift is to know what the common person likes, where like creative people like myself, we can be very hip or trying to be cool. And he always used to tell me, ‘I never made any money trying to be cool.’”
Adds Boyle: “He has always proved to be genuine, straightforward, and on occasion charming. Even if he’s being an ass!”
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