Antonio “L.A.” Reid has won Grammys, written and produced numerous hit songs and albums, and he has been the head of major record companies. But being a judge on “The X Factor” U.S. is an entirely new challenge for him as he enters the world of being a TV personality. Reid (who is currently chairman/CEO of Sony Music’s Epic Records) will most likely end up signing at least one act that come out of “The X Factor” U.S., which launched in 2011, and which Fox televises in the U.S. from September to December. The grand prize for “The X Factor” U.S. consists of $5 million and a record deal with a Sony Music label.
Reid and the show’s other judges (Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger) are mentoring contestants in the following categories: male solo singers under the age of 30 for Reid; female solo singers under the age of 30 for Cowell; solo singers ages 30 and older for Scherzinger; and groups for Abdul. The Top 17 “X Factor” U.S. contestants of 2011 have been chosen, and the field will narrow down until a winner is announced on December 22.
Two days after the Top 17 contestants were revealed to the public, Reid did a telephone conference call with journalists on October 20 to talk about “The X Factor” U.S. and what he thinks about some of the contestants. I participated in the conference call and asked Reid about how songs were selected during the “judges’ homes” phase of the competition, since the song selections weren’t shown on TV. I also asked Reid what Justin Bieber (whom Reid helped make a star) thinks about 14-year-old “X Factor” U.S. contestant Drew Ryniewicz, who said in her “X Factor” audition that she idolizes Bieber. (I would not be surprised if Bieber ends up performing with Ryniewicz on “The X Factor.”) During the interview, Reid also addressed some of the show’s controversial decisions to eliminate contestants whom many viewers thought deserved to be in the Top 17.
Can you talk about your decision process with “X Factor” finalist Chris Rene (a recovering drug addict) and how you worked through the issue of his past to give him a shot?
Chris Rene has been one of the most popular contestants on this show thus far. So the only thing that was difficult was the fact that my category had so many guys that I really liked and some really incredible talent, and just narrowing it down to four was a very tough thing. But Chris was always a standout from his very first audition and I’m really happy to have him.
“The X Factor” is a contest between the four judges all set to see what team wins, but what happens now that Simon has an extra player on his team, and how will that work with the 17 contestants if the season is sort of mapped out for 16 people?
Well, I’m not exactly sure what that process is, and I don’t know if it means that we will end up cutting two in the first [live] episode. I’m not exactly sure. This is for me sort of my first time at bat, my first barbecue, so I’m learning it as I go, but I was very happy though that Simon did go back and rethink Melanie [Amaro] from Miami. I thought she was really fantastic in the auditions. So however it works out, I think so far it’s working out for the better.
Simon Cowell had initially said before “The X Factor” U.S. started that anything under 20 million viewers for the series premiere would be a disappointment. The ratings haven’t really hit that point yet, so were you surprised by the ratings?
Well, the fact of the matter is that we have a very successful show and we have an average of over 12 million viewers [per episode], so it’s a very successful show, and whether we hit 20 [million] or not. You know, I’d like to hit 30 [million]. I’d like to sweep it, but that’s not really what is important to me. That’s a statement that Simon put out there and I think it was an aspirational statement and I hope that we can at some point get there, but I’m not disappointed that we’re not there.
Would you have done anything differently with the choices Simon Cowell had to make to choose which contestants in his category would make the Top 17?
I won’t trash-talk his decisions, but I have a very different taste than Simon, so I may have made some very different choices, but Simon is incredible and the most experienced guy at doing what we’re doing here with “The X Factor” and with talent competition on television. So I’m actually here to learn and watch and see exactly what Simon does. But my taste is different, so the answer is, “Yes, I would have made some different choices.”
Was Caitlin Koch one of the contestants you would have kept?
That one I’ll keep to myself.
You’re not going to name names?
No names. No names.
Going back to Chris Rene, what kind of coaching would you give him?
You know, he has a very unique talent. Chris is somewhere between a singer and almost like a rapper. I don’t know what the right word is for it, but he really just has to nail the material. He has to find the right material and then he has to give a compelling performance — a really competitive and compelling performance. If he gets into the moment and he really feels comfortable with the material as he did with his own material when he did his initial audition, if he finds that same comfort with the material that he’ll do on the show, then he’s going to be fine.
Is anything being done by “The X Factor” to keep them on the right track of sobriety?
Chris gave us his word that he would stay straight. I’m going to take him at his word. When I see him, he looks amazing, and every time I see him he looks even improved from the time before, so whatever he is doing in his own time, it looks like it’s working, and I have faith in Chris. I think that he’s going to really emerge as an amazing star and also a man that we can be proud of who does have the strength to overcome his illness and the disease he calls “addiction.”
What do you think of Nicole’s decision to take homeless contestants Dexter Haygood over some of the other contestants over the age of 30? Is it all about the spectacle and is it just because he can put on a much better show? Would you have made a different choice than that?
Well, first of all, I like Dexter a lot, and I respect Nicole’s decision to put Dexter through. Dexter is clearly an artist, a performer, and in this case, a contestant who’s gone through some very, very tough times in his life. I don’t think it was so much a focus on spectacle. I think it was more believing in someone and giving someone an opportunity to rebound and to really get their life on track, because he’s clearly talented. And yes, he’s a showman, but I don’t think it was a decision based on spectacle. I think it was based on opening a door and giving someone an opportunity to straighten up.
How aware are you of the TV cameras when you’re kind of feeling the music?
I don’t see a camera. I don’t think about a camera. As far as I’m concerned, I’m sitting in my office and I’m admiring talent, or I’m sitting in the theatre and I’m admiring talent and responding to it, but I don’t do anything for the camera. I don’t see the camera, I don’t notice the camera, and I have no concerns for the camera.
A lot of people who have been saying in recent years that these televised competitions will actually replace A&R departments at record companies because of the fact that the different promising artists get all this visibility. As somebody who is a record company executive, do you believe that this is the wave of the future or do you just see these reality show competitions as just an enhancement, just another way to discover talent?
That’s a really good question. The answer is that it’s an enhancement because it doesn’t replace A&R. If we look at the charts today, if we look at the most popular songs in the world today, you’ll see that they are largely made up of artists that are found through traditional sources. And yet, we do have some talent that is developed from TV reality contests, but for the most part, it hasn’t changed much.
The good news is that between “The X Factor” and other talent competitions and things like YouTube, we now have more resources for talent. And as a record executive, what we’re looking for are more opportunities to discover talent. So for us, it’s only an enhancement, but clearly not a replacement.
We hear on so many of these talent shows how important song selection is for a contestant, and during the judges homes phase of the competition “The X Factor” U.S., we didn’t really get to see how the songs were selected. So can you tell us about how the songs are selected — things that we may not have seen on TV?
Well, we spend a considerable amount of time going through material and trying to find things that we think are sometimes a fit for the contestant and sometimes a stretch for the contestant — because in the traditional world of records, when artists are selecting material or when we as record executives are selecting material for them, it may not always be their comfort zone, and there are times when we’ve forced them to stretch that they’ve actually had their biggest successes. We spend a considerable amount of time going through material and trying different versions of it, different variations on it.
What we try not to do is to just simply do karaoke. But we do spend a considerable amount of time on material. I love music and I love song, so the most difficult thing is I have about 30,000 songs that I go through to try to find … It’s insane. I make myself crazy.
So as a mentor, you have the final decision on the songs that we saw performed from your category?
Drew Ryniewicz, one of “The X Factor” U.S. Top 17 contestants, says she’s a huge Justin Bieber fan, and you’re friends with Justin. What has he said about Drew, if anything, since you said he’s been watching the show? And hopefully, we’ll see him perform on this season’s finale with Drew. That would be great.
Yes, that would be great … The thing is I love Drew. I have not spoken to Justin about Drew at all. I think she’s amazing. I think she’s really a contender here, a really competitive talent, and Justin is a good sport and he takes it all in the right spirit. He doesn’t take it seriously when somebody says that they want to be better than him or beat him at what he does. He’s a good sport and he’s got a level head. He takes it all in fun.
What is “The X Factor” going to do to really sort of bridge that gap of winning the show and becoming a major star in a way that similar shows haven’t been able to do?
Every time we sign a talent in the traditional world, it’s a roll of the dice. And if there were a crystal ball, then this would be a very simple job, but the fact is, it’s trial and error, and it will continue to be trial and error. And yes, we will make every effort to turn some of these contestants into global stars, but no differently than our traditional world of records it’s going to be a crap shoot and we’ll see how it comes out. I’m hopeful. I do see talent that I think has the ability to go the distance, but it’s going to ultimately be up to the public as it always is.
Why do you think that each contestant that you chose to be in the Top 17 has the potential to win?
Why do I think they have the potential to win? Well, I think that my guys are very unique. I think, as an example, Astro being a 15-year-old rapper who entered the competition doing original material, as far as I know, now I could be wrong, but I think that’s a very unique approach and it may be a first. So I like his uniqueness.
Phillip Lomax — for a guy to be 22 years old, and to have been so influenced by an era of Frank Sinatra and others, I find that pretty fascinating. So I think he is a very unique guy and he has a great shot.
Marcus Canty is just a great singer. All I can tell you is that Marcus is a great singer, and ultimately I’m moved by talent and I really love his talent.
And Chris Rene, who is arguably the most popular contestant in the competition, is just really special and also entered the competition with original material and has this style that’s somewhere between singing and rapping. He’s just a really special guy and a really lovable guy with an interesting voice and an interesting story. So I feel really good about the contestants and the guys in my category.
Now, I will say that there were people in other categories that I loved equally and, some of them I wish I had, I have to tell you.
That I won’t tell you, but you’ll see as the show goes on. You’ll see. I am going to be pretty obvious because I don’t have a poker face, so if I like something, I react to it, and my reaction will tell the story.
One of the talking points in your criticisms or of your evaluations of “The X Factor” candidates is the $5 million prize. How much does that influence the final choices as you go through the talent and judge it?
First and foremost, it’s the talent. It’s about the talent and the uniqueness of the talent, and their reach and their appeal and their ability to deliver material and to try to show some range and some diversity. That’s the first and most important thing. Yes, we talk about the prize, the $5 million, because it’s a lot of money. It’s probably the most money anybody has ever won on a talent competition such as this. So yes, we put emphasis on it, but for me, the most important emphasis is actually the talent itself.
Regarding your reactions to Brian Bradley, the young rapper who’s one of the Top 17. At times, you seem very enthusiastic about him and then at times, you wonder if he’s a novelty. Do you think he’s the real deal? Can he find an audience out there?
Well, we have to see, we really do have to see. He’s quite popular on YouTube, and YouTube is a great indicator. He gets lots of hits. He’s probably a million-and-a-half hits or something like that. That’s nothing to sneeze at. So he certainly has the ability to have popularity. But again, we’ll do the best that we can.
I really like him, by the way. I should say that even though I make comments that sort of go back and forth. Those are just me voicing my concerns. I would voice my concerns about a superstar. I voice my concerns to Mariah Carey about her life and her music, so me having concerns is not an indication that I don’t like or believe in a contestant or an artist, but ultimately, it’s going to be up to the public.
Is there anything about your Midwest upbringing in Cincinnati upbringing that kind of shaped your taste in some way?
That’s a very good point, and I wish I could take credit for it. I can’t in any fashion. I grew up in a household where there was a lot of music and my mother listened to music and my family enjoyed music and I listened to music from all genre’s and I think it helped me develop my taste, but I don’t know. I don’t quite know why, because Quincy Jones is from Seattle and he has amazing taste, too.
One of the biggest surprises was to see former “X Factor” contestant Caitlin Koch get eliminated from the competition. What, in your estimation, was the biggest surprise cut from your team or from any of the other teams?
There were a few surprises, but for the most part, I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on it. I didn’t really try to think other people’s categories through. I had my hands full with my guys and it was very tough for me. I like Caitlin a lot. There were others that I liked as well, but I don’t criticize the decisions that the other judges made. I don’t really criticize those decisions. I have my own taste and they have their taste. And I’m now in the competition to win and to beat them, so I’m focusing more on my guys then I’m focusing on the decisions that they make.
How difficult was it to pare your team down from eight contestants to four?
It was tough, it was tough. What would have been simple is if I could have had five. If I was Simon and I could have five, it would have been a little more, a little simpler. But I’m not Simon, and I can only have four and that’s what made it tough because there were actually five that I really liked.
Is “The X Factor” U.S. going as well as you thought it would be?
It’s going amazingly well. I’m having a great time. I’m really enjoying the contestants. I’m really enjoying the judges. I’m really enjoying the time I spent with Simon, learning a lot, having a great time — and yes, it’s everything I hoped that it would be.
Who do you think will be the first winner of “The X Factor” U.S.?
I don’t know who’s going to win. I wish I knew who’s going to win. I have no idea. We have 17 contestants, 17, and we are long ways from knowing who’s going to win. Seventeen may sound like a small number, but that’s a lot of people and a lot of opportunities and a lot of performances and a lot of decisions, and it’s going to be really tough. I just hope that it comes out of my category whoever wins.