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How To Best Succeed on Idols SA And Beyond

Heading into my fifth year working on the popular reality music show Idols SA, I’ve picked up on many traits that have made for successful Idols contestants. Success on a show like Idols SA does not necessarily imply that you need to win Idols SA but in my obsevation the contestants who have shown the most success, both on the show and beyond, have had one key thing in common.


Let’s be honest, a show like Idols is ultimately a show where singers cover popular songs. The final 3 are the only ones lucky enough to have an original song released and hopefully for them that origional song is good enough to take them to the next level of stardom. In 12 seasons of Idols SA, only a handful of singers to have gotten as far as the top 10 have actually become artists who have released albums full of origional music. Zama Jobe and most recently Amanda Black spring to mind. The vast majority of those top 10 contestants will be plying their trade as cover singers at corporate events, clubs and various other functions.


I truly believe that music reality shows often serve as a smaller version of the much bigger music industry. In the “real” world, the vast majority of singers worldwide survive by singing other people’s songs i.e. cover gigs. In South Africa the vast majority of professional singers pay their bills by doing this.


So beyond just having the voice, the musical ability and perhaps the look, the key ingredient of a successful Idols contestant is simply knowing a lot of songs. This might sound all too simplistic but it’s actually far more complex than you would expect. When learning a massive repertoire of songs, you gain many strengths that somebody with a limited pool of songs at their disposal will just not have. The only way to build a big repertoire of songs that you can sing at any given moment is to simply knuckle down and learn songs. In doing so, you instinctively learn what songs work for you and what songs don’t. You also instinctively start challenging yourself by trying to prove to yourself that you can sing that certain artist you felt was a bridge too far. An added benefit is that by memorizing a large list of songs, you are training your brain to learn fast. No one wants that dreaded experience of forgetting lyrics on a massive show like Idols SA. Twitter will have your head and maybe even your soul for breakfast.


In recent years, I’ve noticed that Millenials and particlarly Born-Free’s do not know the amount of songs that a Generation X-er like myself would know.  It’s the difference in the musical knowledge between an 18-year-old and a 38-year-old. Most ‘youngsters’ will not know any older music, certainly not music before the year 2000. The big difference, in my opinion, is that my generation grew up in homes where our moms and dads had turntables or record players and a variety of vinyls or LPs, sometimes dating back to before our parents were even born (in my case this would be pre-1949). Curiosity probably got the better of most of my generation and, despite being told not to touch the record player, we most certainly did. As a kid under 10, I didn’t necessarily know who the most popular artist on earth was. I just wanted to find out what was on this giant, black, disc-like piece of plastic that music came out of. I explored back then, discovering music that had long been forgotten on radio but I didn’t care. It was beautiful music, that’s all I knew. Perhaps that upbringing is why I still explore wherever I can for new music to fall in love with. This culture of wanting to know more songs also gives me a better understanding of the history of music and my understanding of how and why music is ever-evolving.


Where must the youth of today find new music? Most adults do not have the vast CD collections they used to have and even if they do, why would a born free bother listening to a CD when they can simply get onto Youtube and listen to a whole host of music. The problem for the Millenial and Born-Free generation is that if they’re only consuming what’s heard on Youtube and possibly the radio, then they’re probably only listening to whatevers new and whatevers hot.


A show like Idols thrives on different themes week after week. If you count the theatre week phase from the group stages, then there are essentially 12 – 13 different themes you will have to compete in, depending on how far you get. Once you get to the top 16 stage on Idols SA, you are handed song lists which have gone through several clearance processes. The more songs you know, the easier it is to pick from these lists. When you have no repertoire of songs that you know, you’ll simply have to learn a new song from scratch. This is high pressure in a situation of high pressure. Chances are that you’ll be competing against singers that are just as good as you are and if they’ve picked songs that they already know inside out and backwards, you’re on the backfoot. 


If you are lucky enough to make it to the top 10, there’s a good chance you’ll be booked for loads of cover gigs post-Idols. There’s lots of money to be made but be warned, you will be required to learn a lot more than one song a week. The more songs you know, the more songs you have in your repertoire, the easier this process becomes. The top corporate singers in South Africa can earn as much money as the most successful South African recording artists.


If you’re currently an Idols SA contestant who will soon be competing at Theatre Week…GO AND LEARN SONGS! You have been warned. 

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