Art Marketing Lessons from American Idol

American Idol is a true phenomenon that offers visual artists marketing lessons.

Americanidollogo200 American Idol is a true phenomenon that offers visual artists marketing lessons. From humble beginnings, the Fox singing contest reality show program has grown to 27 million viewers making it the most-watched TV show in the US. Additionally, it is broadcast in a taped version to 100 countries worldwide.

The show makes for great water cooler conversational fodder for die hard fans. For others, including me, it is a guilty pleasure. I admit to overcoming smug somewhat elitist feelings of being too busy, too cool, too with it to spend time watching it. Somewhere around Season Three, I succumbed as it grabbed my attention. I imagine some reading this have noses turned up thinking what a crock. But, that’s okay, different opinions make things interesting and you are invited to freely express yourself by commenting below.

Most reality shows seem to be about taking ordinary people and putting them in stressful situations so they will make fools of themselves for the viewers entertainment. AI plays this game too as it winnows the more than 100,000 contestants down to a select few. But, when only a dozen contestants are left, it becomes truly interesting as real talent is put to the test.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

I’m sure some tune in to hear withering remarks from British judge, Simon Cowell. But, I believe more watch because they like the music, grow fond of the performers and enjoy the opportunity to participate and support them with their votes. The drama, talent and tension are played out in ways that offer lessons to visual artists seeking to create their own bond with an audience.


The judges are forced to provide commentary and insight. Most of it is forgettable, occasionally some tips are poignant classic reminders worthy of taking notice. Regular viewers hear the same repeated advice, which is spot on and can be boiled down to:

  1. BE ORIGINAL – The contestants most often sing songs well known to the audience. When one takes material and makes it fresh and new into her or his own, there is magic when what is familiar becomes original. On the other hand, when a watered down version of a popular song is sung, it always falls flat.
  2. MAKE GREAT CHOICES – It seems near impossible for a singer to make magic if they lack a true connection to the song. You’ve heard the phrase, “He could sing the phone book and it would sound good.” That said, no one will buy a phone book song, nor will a career be made. The audience cannot be fooled by a lackluster performance or a terrific technical performance where there is no connection of the singer to the song. Those who take and own a song are always sent to the next round. It is those who don’t, despite obvious talent, who risk being sent home.
  3. PRESENTATION IS CRUCIAL – As a potential singing star, presentation is crucial. This includes hair, makeup and wardrobe. Moving well with confidence on stage and playing to the camera also are important. This means nonchalantly acknowledging the camera without being mesmerized by it. Most importantly, presentation is a matter of being likable, or admirable or both. When an artist’s personality shines through the song and in the silly, sometimes cruel moments before and after singing, a further connection or bond with audience is established. When the song connection and the audience connection come together, you get what Cowell calls the “IT” factor. This as when you got it, you got it.

So, how does this all translate to a career as a visual artist?

BE ORIGINAL – In the observations of the common attributes shared by successful artists, I’ve long noted, even well before I wrote my book, the primary criteria or first matter is to create work that resonates with prospective collectors and to find interesting ways to repeat new iterations of the same theme. Be successful, be original, and by all means don’t be afraid to be IT!

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

MAKE GREAT CONTENT OR THEME CHOICES – Often the most successful artists are not creating a brand new look, but rather reinterpreting a style to make it original for themselves. Nothing wrong with being a pioneer, but it’s not necessarily a surefire way to amass collectors either. The artist who owns the look does not have to have invented it. You may have read it here before, but this adage is apropos and worth repeating. “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

PRESENTATION IS CRUCIAL – If the artist lacks confidence, or at least the ability to passionately portray confidence in the work, the job of selling the work falls solely to art. There is simply more to it than that. PerhapsĀ  it’s not fair, but most buyers would rather own a piece of art from someone they like or admire or both than from one who they don’t. This is far more critical for self-representing artists than for those who work in relative anonymity in the stable of a large publishing company. But then in those cases, the publisher has to shine in the way it conducts its business. As for poster publishers, there arguably is no better example than Wild Apple Graphics of a company that knows how to shine a light on itself.

Seven Savvy Points to Ponder from American Idol

  1. Don’t let the critics deter you when you are right, but be smart enough to know when they are right.
  2. The purest talent isn’t always the biggest winner.
  3. Find a niche large enough to carry your interest and to buildĀ  a market.
  4. You can sometimes stumble and fall and still pull through if you retool to come back strong with work that touches your audience.
  5. If you aren’t particularly likable, you have to be interesting, admirable or compelling in some unusual way.
  6. You can’t bore people into success or buying your art.
  7. If you become successful, use your clout to help worthy causes

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use


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  1. Very interesting analysis! Something I never thought of before, but spot on.

    I’d add one more lesson: understand where your critics are coming from. When you approach a gallery or enter a competition, understand the motivations and tastes of the gallerist or jurors. American Idol is looking for a specific type of singer, one who can interpret mainstream songs for a wide audience. If you approach them trying to out-punk Johnny Rotten, you will not win. Likewise, if you do abstract art, and you approach a gallery or show that specializes in representational art, don’t be surprised when you don’t get in.

  2. You are definately a visual artist in disguise: this post offers a familiar message but you’ve expressed it in your own voice, connecting with me on a fresh level of understanding. Different segments of the art world value different things; by learning to recognize where what you do actually fits, you can save yourself a lot of frustration.

    Also, I love the other message of American Idol: there is often success after failure, as contestants voted off the show go on to achieve their dreams.

  3. Good post Barney – which I’m afraid I only spotted for the first time yesterday. I’ve referenced it in my blog post today, added some thoughts of my own and suggested people come across and read this post.

  4. An interesting “take” on American Idol, Barney, enjoyed reading through your points.

    I have always wondered whatever happened to Fantasia Burrinio?? Do you know who I am referring to. I may have spelt her name wrong. I thought she was excellent and was interested to find out what music /records she would go on to make following her win of American Idol. But have been unable to find anything on her, on the net??


  5. Bravo! I have long noticed the relevance of American Idol and the marketing lessons that exist within the dynamics of this show which has become a huge success and snowballed success for other creative shows, dancing. I wonder also why, the art aspect is taking so long to catch on. I also heard that there was a show in the making in NYC. (not sure). I guess we all need to consider as artists if we would sign up for a show like this, would we be able to perform, act, create, and sell the persona? I think AI teaches us a lot about, audience, telling a story, and the various factors that you mention in your blog. Thanks for the input. I also wish to add that many try out for the show. And the pros tell it like it is with brutal honesty (there is a definition for great). I only wish the art world would do the same.!

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