Is it finally time TV started showcasing alternative talent? I explored the issue with Portuguese post hardcore band, Nowhere To Be Found.
We’ve seen them all. X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice. And if you’re old enough to remember – Pop Idol and Popstars: The Rivals. We’ve suffered terrible outfits, pitiful dancing, allegations of fixing, Cheryl Cole giving singing advice, and of course, Simon Cowell and his high-waisted trousers. But in the words of a befitting 1984 Kit Kat ad, “You can’t sing, you can’t play, you look awful. You’ll go a long way!”
Traditional TV talent shows do seem to be on a steep decline, though, with X Factor 2018 averaging 6.7 million viewers – the lowest in the show’s history. 2019’s series was a ‘celebrity’ special, (I’m not sure who they think they’re kidding) in a bid to win back views, but only managed to scrape a measly 2.95 million during the first live show.
And other than One Direction and Little Mix, do any of the contestants actually find success? Don’t answer that – we all know they end up eating kangaroo penis on I’m a Celeb at best, and as occasional Loose Women panel guests at worst.
With Billie Eilish becoming the thing that kids are into these days, and faux ‘goth culture’ becoming all the rage, 15-year-olds just don’t want to see a pop group complete with all but jazz-hands on the TV. They don’t want to listen to a fellow 15-year-old girl dressed in heels and hair extensions singing Katy Perry covers. So is it time that TV payed attention to that and started playing on the more alternative side of the tracks?
Take Matt McAndrew of The Voice US 2014. He finished as runner-up on the show, despite being covered in tattoos and covering rock songs. His performance on the show with Fall Out Boy certainly beats anything I’ve seen on a talent show before. JLS performing ‘Flying Without Wings’ with Westlife on X Factor 2008 seems to pale in comparison.
McAndrew is now fronting US post hardcore band Slaves as Johnny Craig’s replacement. In the year since he’s been in the band, he’s toured the UK, US, and Europe, released two singles, and has an album coming this year. His pre-Slaves solo career, however, wasn’t as fruitful.
As a solo pop singer, his last single, ‘Counting on Love’ failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, and despite having arguably the best voice a talent show saw last decade, his solo achievements just didn’t stack up. It just wasn’t him. Place him at the reigns of a post hardcore band, though, and you’ll see him at his best.
It’s like McAndrew was made for post hardcore; it’s a wonder he hasn’t been involved in bands for years. Pair his perfect look for a band of Slaves’ ilk with the talent to replace Johnny Craig and sing old Slaves songs and get away with it – with flying colours, and you’ve got yourself a winning deal. He’s even managed to win over the most dedicated and hard-to-please Johnny Craig fans who doubted the future of the band after his departure.
Name me another contestant from The Voice US or UK who you’ve heard from recently. I’ll wait. But McAndrew is making big waves in the alternative scene, with Slaves’ hotly anticipated forthcoming album, To Better Days, tipped to be one of the big releases of the year. That’s not something you usually get from talent show contestants.
Now, let’s imagine something really out there. Imagine a talent show for bands. No, not boybands or girl groups. Alternative ones. The ones with instruments. That’s where Sounds of the Underground comes in.
Developed by Johnny Zirkel, Season 1 aired on CBS in the US in September/October 2019. It showcased up-and-coming alternative talent – both full-band and solo – along with some names you’ll have heard of before, like Craig Owens of Chiodos and Frank Iero of My Chemical Romance.
One such band is Nowhere To Be Found, hailing from Portugal. To give you a bit of background on the band, I’ll let them explain. “Well, we go way back; we’re high school friends and have shared other bands along the way, but Nowhere To Be Found is still a very young band,” they say.
“Manel (bass), Migalhas (drums), and Tiago (guitar/vocals) used to be a post-grunge power trio called Insch, but after recording our debut album Safe Haven, we decided to change things and grow into something else.”
“We enrolled Quintais (guitar) and decided to make heavier music, and the result was Nowhere To Be Found’s sound – somewhere around alternative metal or post hardcore. We released our first single in mid-2018, and from there to here it’s been an incredible ride, and we feel the best is yet to come. In a nutshell, we’re close friends playing some heavy tunes.”
So, have these close friends who play heavy tunes watched talent shows in the past? No. “To be honest, we don’t really watch talent shows, and Sounds of the Underground’s invitation came as a surprise – a good one – but a surprise none the less. The thing with talent shows is they usually are built to be a mass entertainment product, and not so much an underground talent promoter. Even though we listen to a lot of genres (even pop, a lot), it’s really rare for one of those shows to draw our attention.”
Nowhere To Be Found are not alone in their lack of appreciation for mainstream talent shows. When was the last time you heard someone talk up a show like the X Factor? 2014? Before that? Times are changing. People like ‘different’ now, and even record-breaking artists like Taylor Swift are struggling to keep up with Billie Eilish.
For most of the 2010s, if you told people you listen to rock music, they’d probably ask you if you’re a goth and if you shower daily. “Why do you listen to that noise?” was always a common musing. Now, in 2020, ‘goth culture’ has become cool. Alternative talent hasn’t been given its moment in the spotlight for decades. But now maybe it’s finally time.
How important do Nowhere To Be Found think Sounds of the Underground is in terms of giving alternative talent a platform? “Well, the obvious answer is: it’s fundamental, even more so for independent bands such as ours,” they say.
“It’s a tough industry, with lots of bands and labels promoting their artists, so every chance to get to new and bigger audiences is so important. Sounds of the Underground’s producer’s vision is kind of unique in that particular aspect. They invited only bands they felt deserved the chance and not bands someone told them to. In an era where the new battlefield is not recording your music but fighting for people to listen to it, Sounds of the Underground’s validation felt really special.”
Having a show like Sounds of the Underground is all good and well, but how big of an audience does something like that draw, realistically? I can’t imagine the viewing figures were as high as X Factor even at its worst – but give it time. ‘Build it, and they shall come’, as they say. “The audience is obviously out there to be hooked, but the show itself – the quality of the bands, the type of interviews, the platforms used to broadcast – will define its success,” the band say.
“Quality will always be decisive, especially when you’re fighting with increasingly quality content from Netflix, HBO, cable channels, YouTube, etc. The thing is, if the show is good and the platform is convenient, people will respond. It doesn’t really matter if the music is different from what they usually listen to or if they’ve never heard of those bands before. The truth is, there are not many ‘band shows’ out there.”
On the show, Nowhere To Be Found performed their song ‘Traverse’, featuring Matty Mullins of Memphis May Fire. What was it like working with such an essential figure? “A dream come true,” they say.
“Matty was just an amazing human being every step of the process, as well as the incredible artist everyone knows he is. Super professional – he was super open to understanding our vision and created on top of that, delivering even more than we were expecting. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to know him as well as we would like to, but we have only good things to say about him. We’re such a small band, starting our way in this tough industry, and he was just like, ‘Yeah, I like this; I’m in!’ He didn’t have to do that. Gladly, he did and changed our lives.”
Since appearing on the show, Nowhere To Be Found are working on new music and ‘would like to inspire people’. “We’re a small band from a small country with no tradition in heavy music, and somehow music found a way. We recorded these songs with Henrik Udd (Bring Me The Horizon, Architects), mastered in New York with Grammy-winner Ted Jensen (Metallica, Green Day, Slipknot), and had super talented artists like Matty in our songs. Not bad for an indie, new band who creates and owns all their music, right?”
Not bad at all.
So, is it time for TV to finally take note of alternative talent? In the UK, Deaf Havana have had three UK Top 10 albums since 2013. You Me At Six have had five UK Top 10 albums (including reaching the no. 1 spot with Cavalier Youth in 2014). Reading Festival – famed for its collective but largely alternative lineup – isn’t just popular amongst ‘alternative kids’ anymore.
On the other side, when was the last time you saw an X Factor contestant in the charts, other than Little Mix and the individual members of One Direction? Matt Terry – the last winner to actually release an album – failed to reach the UK Top 10 with Trouble. Similarly, Louisa Johnson – the winner before him – has spent her entire career having other artists prop her up the charts by way of featuring on tracks from the likes of Clean Bandit and Sigma.
As for V Festival, the ‘anything mainstream goes’ festival – home to talent show contestants and the place where previously popular acts go to let their careers die – after 22 years, the festival was finally laid to rest in 2017.
Underground music is everywhere to be found. So yes, it would appear that both the TV and music industry need to start putting their eggs in different baskets.
Will Sounds of the Underground be coming back for another season? And will we be seeing more shows like it in the future? Is this the start of a new brand of talent show? Who knows.
One thing I do know, though, is that Simon Cowell will continue to flog a dead horse.