Don't Take "American Idol" Lightly

Carrie Underwood performs during FOX network's "American Idol" finale at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles Wednesday, May 25, 2005. Underwood defeated fellow finalist Bo Bice to win the "American Idol."
Getting to the Grammys usually takes a lot of practice and a lot of luck. But these days some musicians are getting help in the form of "American Idol."

The show has created some formidable stars. For example, season four winner, Carrie Underwood, is nominated for four Grammys tonight. The winner of season one, Kelly Clarkson, won two Grammys last year.

"I think 'Idol' is basically the 'Rocky' story set to music," Randy Jackson, one of the show's three judges told Sunday Morning correspondent Sandra Hughes. "It's about that underdog kid, or that underdog person that doesn't have the perfect look that the labels say they need, that doesn't have the perfect sound that the labels say they need."

"American Idol" is so big, you don't even have to win to win. Jennifer Hudson, who came in seventh three years ago, is up for an Oscar this month for "Dreamgirls." Chris Daughtry's dream of playing to sold-out clubs and releasing a number one CD all came true after a fourth-place finish on "Idol."

"Had I not gone there, who knows if I would have got recognized," he said.

Daughtry and his band mates worked for years in small honky-tonks, trying for a big break.

"It was tough for me," he said. "It was probably about 10 years trying to get your name out there. It felt like you were spinning your wheels."

These days Daughtry could be filling stadiums, but he still feels like he needs to pay his dues.

"Yeah, I'm no different than any other rock band," he said. "And it's great to get back where you started, in the smaller clubs."

Daughtry's struggle to get noticed isn't unique, in a music industry struggling to chart a new course. CD sales continued to decline last year, off 5 percent. The giant Tower Records chain couldn't compete, closing its 89 stores late last year.

"It's ultimately the public that says, 'This is what I want and this is how I wanna get it,' president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Neil Portnow, said.

What the public increasingly wants is to download its music, single by single and often illegally. Meanwhile, bands are bypassing traditional record promotion by marketing themselves online.

"Technology ultimately has always been a friend to musicians and the music industry," Portnow said. "We're, however, at a tipping point. Because the technology is so radically different, and the times are so different, that the way that people receive and listen to their music is changing and is different."

Jackson, who is also a prominent record producer, says it's about time for a shake-up.

"As a record company, you sit and you play God in between the people and the music. You tell the people, 'Here, this is what you like,'" he said.

Unlike "Idol," which Jackson characterizes as more democratic. "We've completely turned that middle guy off. 'Here, public, you tell us what you like.'"

In fact, the public has a long history of voting in talent contests that produced major stars.

Is Frank Sinatra big enough for you? He was discovered in the '30s on radio's "Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour," with his group, the Hoboken Four.

Ted Mack continued the tradition. One week the winner was 7-year-old Gladys Knight, another week it was Pat Boone, not to mention a 10-year-old Beverly Sills. But will "American Idol" produce stars of that caliber?

"Duke Ellington used to say that there's only good music and all the rest. And most of this falls into the 'all the rest' category," Jonathan Taplin, an adjunct professor of communications at University of Southern California, said.

Taplin was tour manager for some of the greatest — Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Band.

"I don't think anybody who's been on 'American Idol' has reached that level of talent of an Otis Redding or an Aretha Franklin," he said.

But Jackson says "American Idol" is ultimately a reality show.

"People have to get over themselves," he said.

But it's not "just a reality show" for young singers all over the country, with dreams of stardom. In Buffalo, N.Y., singing teacher Debbie Bello has been taking her students to "Idol" auditions for four years.

"They don't give up," she said. "They just keep going back every single year."

You can see the determination in her students like Amanda Nagurney, who sees "Idol" as a prime ticket to the big-time.

"I think it really made a big influence on all the singers of America," she said. "Because they're going for this one goal and they just want to make it and they just want to be big and it really is a tough competition. And it's a tough business out there."

Two weeks ago, one of Bello's students, Brian Miller, broke through. And now, even the Grammys are getting on board. Although the Academy has always allowed only music professionals to vote on the awards, this year the public will get in on the action online.

Three-thousand singers sent in home videos for a chance to sing a duet with Justin Timberlake. The field is now down to three, and tonight, one of them will be announced live.

"This is the ultimate career development opportunity on the planet, for a young, unknown person to be able to step on that Grammy stage," Portnow said.

Jackson said he is flattered that the Grammys are imitating "American Idol."

"Well, what I'm happy about the Justin Timberlake thing — I'm really happy to know he's a huge 'Idol' fan, therefore he would allow himself to kinda copy the 'Idol' thing," Jackson said.

So how do you get to the Grammys? These days there are more paths than ever before. And for artists like Daughtry, there's fame, there's fortune, but still, a Grammy would be nice, too.

"The Grammy would be nice," Daughtry said. "So, I'm not opposed to that."