Consensus Won’t Get You Success

One of the more passionate arguments I had at one of my jobs was to quit following what everyone said they wanted and start innovating. The fact is that the next big thing is going to be created without anyone asking for it.

If you’re strategy is to make everyone happy, you will spend every resource you have trying to make the next sale, keep up with the competition, add requested features, or just make modifications for the clients who scream the loudest. You’re going to work yourself to death.

I could draw some parallels to recent politics, but that’s just boring. Let’s look instead to American Idol – where more folks vote than in the presidential elections, anyways. How do sales compare with votes on American Idol?

7 million copies

images 3

  • Some Hearts, Carrie Underwood (winner, season 4)

6 million copies


  • Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson (winner, season 1)

3 million copies

  • Daughtry, Chris Daughtry (4th place, season 5)

2 million copies

  • Thankful, Kelly Clarkson
  • Measure of a Man, Clay Aiken (runner-up, season 2)
  • Carnival Ride, Carrie Underwood

1 million copies

images 1

  • Soulful, Ruben Studdard (winner, season 2)
  • Merry Christmas with Love, Clay Aiken
  • Free Yourself, Fantasia (winner, season 3)
  • My December, Kelly Clarkson
  • Taylor Hicks,Taylor Hicks (winner, season 5)

500,000 copies

images 2

  • I Need an Angel, Ruben Studdard
  • Josh Gracin, Josh Gracin (4th place, season 2)
  • The Real Thing, Bo Bice (runner-up, season 4)
  • A Thousand Different Ways, Clay Aiken
  • Small-Town Girl, Kellie Pickler (6th place, season 5)
  • Fantasia, Fantasia
  • Elliott Yamin, Elliott Yamin (3rd place, season 5)

Six seasons and 30 million + albums later, it’s interesting to look at who some of the winners (and losers) are. Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson account for over half of the overall sales.

Is that successful? In 6 years 2 ‘products’ made half of the overall sales. And only one of those ‘products’ was truly a breakout. (Kelley Clarkson since she was the first Idol.) I’m not a statistician, but if I were to plot out votes, years and record sales… I’m not sure this meets any notion of a Six Sigma success.

American Idol is a far better television show than it is a music talent search. The sales you see are really just thanks to the show’s popularity. Given NO show, I’m not sure any of the talent would have sold as many albums as they did.

You’re So Vain

This morning I saw an interview where Carly Simon consoled Brooke White on getting the boot last night. Carly told her to keep on doing what she’s doing. Carly even said that Brooke’s version of her hit was the best she’d ever heard.

Carly’s advice was this (paraphrased):

The winner of American Idol isn’t the best or the most unique, it’s the most popular.

The talent they are churning out all looks and acts the same (Daughtry didn’t match the bill at all!), but the unique talent is where it’s at. It’s those artists that will last a lifetime – the others will probably fade out of the spotlight (some have already!).

How would Bob Dylan do on American Idol? David Bowie? Sting? I’m not sure any of them would have made the first round. It’s their individuality that drove them, not their ability to look good on camera and hit a high note for a few seconds. I’m not taking cheap shots at the talent on Idol – they are incredibly talented people and they deserve their chance at making it big. I’m not knocking the talent. I’m knocking the process that’s supposed to be cranking out American Idols year after year.

American Idol is profitable as an overall enterprise. The television show is one of the best running for several years. With all of that momentum, press, audience size, etc., Idol should OWN the Billboard charts. But Idol record sales are continue to decline. Why? Because year after year, they’re using consensus to find their winner.


  1. 1

    Interesting post. I think that most people are better off copying a successful model, however, and having a reasonable amount of success with it. In order to have Dylan’s kind of success you have to BE that unique, talented and lucky. It’s never going to happen for more than a very few.

    Of course you never know, maybe it’s me. 😉

    • 2

      Hi Clark!

      I think folks are ‘safer’ copying a successful model but I’m not sure that they are better off. Once you have a model, you have to have a compelling reason to offer a second or third or sixth. I wonder if American Idol wouldn’t do better by having a country version one year, a rock version another, a hiphop another… I don’t think providing the same model each year is going to sustain the business – it’s definitely not sustaining record sales.

      Thanks for commenting – it’s a worthy discussion!

  2. 3

    Well, if unique is what it takes to last a lifetime, then we are going to be seeing Taylor Hicks around for a long, long time. Who knows if he will ever be that big, but hes going to be out there. And many of us really , really enjoy him. He different than any I have ever seen. Love his voice.
    Brookes voice is one that I enjoy also.

  3. 4

    Funny I was just saying to my wife last night that American Idol hasn’t produced a big superstar for a couple seasons now. Carrie Underwood was the last one (and Simon was spot on that she would be the most popular Idol ever). I challenge most American Idol viewers to name (in order) the winners of American Idol off the top of their head. It’s all about popularity… at the time. For instance, who won the Super Bowl three years ago? How long did you have to think about that?

    Shameless plug warning: As long as we’re on the topic of American Idol, if you want a good laugh, check out this site my friend and I just started a week ago. It’s a short blog about the rules *we* think all contestants should follow:

    • 5


      Our Idol Rules is hilarious. Mine would be, “Take a dig at Simon. Folks will vote just to see him get upset and snooty.” Doing it after your first Simonizing is too late.

      You’re right on with your other comments as well. Simon was correct re: Carrie; however, I would add that much of her popularity is driven by her incredible beauty, not just vocal talent. I’m not sure she would have been a Billboard 100 prior to this age of video.


  4. 6

    No question that Dylan’s success wasn’t because he was/is such a great singer. 🙂

    Curt Franke
    BitWise Solutions, Inc.

  5. 7

    After the first year, there’s nothing innovative about American Idol. As far as I’m concerned the people they selected to be on the show are all winners. They get noticed on TV and sign them up!

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