Recently my inbox has been overflowed with emails inviting me to take part in different singing competitions. I guess I’ve brought it on myself because when I’d just moved to Bristol I signed up to every single competition I could think of. X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, Open Mic UK … you name it, and I’ve probably auditioned for it.  So I thought, while the talent scouts are embarking on another national search for the contestants, I’d share with you my personal experience in dealing with those shows.

As every young and aspiring (and most definitely naive) musician, I thought that there’d be no quicker way to fame and glory than a feature on one of those programmes. Understandably, everyone has their own opinion as to how authentic those shows are, and some people even think that this quick popularity that the participants get is undeserved and plain wrong. However, if someone offers you an opportunity to get such exposure, you really can’t turn it down, can you? There’s no straightforward formula for success in the music industry, and you want to try all the options available, especially when you’re just at the very beginning of your journey and you aren’t quite sure how the music business operates. So there I was, back in the summer of 2015, standing in a queue for over 6 hours in a crazy-high temperature near Wembley Stadium, trying to get to my first X Factor audition. And let me tell you what a day it was!

Queuing up

There’s no need to say that the conditions for the contestants are quite horrible. First, you stand in the huge mortified crowd under the boiling sun. Then you find yourself in the same crowd but on a different ground full of cameras and spotlights. Suddenly all those people who, just an hour ago were lying on the pavement exhausted and sunburnt, transform into the happiest loudest bunch, frantically waving at the cameras and shouting their names in hopes to get their “3 golden seconds of a live broadcast”.

When you finally get inside the stadium and start cherishing a silly hope that your sufferings have now ended and that you’re about to get your chance to showcase your talent, you realise that there’s actually another queue to join. So you join the new queue and waste another three hours in a massive hall among the huge spotlights and lots of cameras, listening to the singing battles of other contestants who try to out-sing (or more like outshout) each other in order to attract the attention of the cameramen. From time to time the broadcasting crew would ask a few people to come with them to strike a pose or to walk back and forth pretending like they’re on the way to their audition and are super excited to be there. In all fairness, all the contests are genuinely excited to be at the audition but they’re also ridiculously tired and exhausted from the heat but TV doesn’t show this kind of stuff. I was asked for a quick shot too, and so I ended up walking the same path back and forth for at least 15 times, swinging my guitar, striking different poses and trying to showcase different emotions.

You might have guessed by now that once you reach the main hall of the stadium where the auditions are held, you have to wait again… Then you wait in order to get into another queue, which only leads to another and then another queue until you eventually get to the arena where the auditions take place. Everybody kept joking that it must be a dream for all the Brits who love queuing but in all seriousness, the whole experience is quite traumatic and it sucks out all your emotion before you even get to the audition.

Finally, it’s time to shine

So after all of this, you finally enter a tiny little booth from which you can clearly hear the future Christina Aguilera auditioning and someone’s worst ever cover of “Baby” by Justin Bieber. You speak to your judge for a few seconds to break the ice and it’s clear that they’re just as tired as everyone else around. You hesitate for a second if the song you’ve chosen is as good as you thought a few hours ago, then you start singing it anyway because it’s too late to make a new choice, you finish the last note and hold your breath in anticipation of the judges’ decision… Some contestants are lucky and some are not. To my relief, the judges pass me a little red ticket and congratulate me on making it to the next round. Then they immediately send me to the queue of “the lucky ones” to wait again. The whole audition took under 5 minutes and the waiting took over 10 hours…

At this point, you almost don’t care anymore how long the waiting will take. You’re overwhelmed with joy and so exhausted that it really doesn’t matter how long it takes until they schedule your next round. Obviously, no one asks when it’s convenient for you to come for another 10 hours of waiting, so my audition gets scheduled for the next day. I run to Victoria Coach Station, catch the last coach to Bristol and return to London bright and early the next morning. I guess these are the crazy things we do for our dreams…

Round 2

I must admit that the second round is much more civilised! You still have to queue for hours in order to get your chance to stun everyone with your talent but it’s nothing compared to how exhausting it was the day before. There are almost no cameras around and you can definitely sense much more anxiety in the air. Instead of a huge stadium, you’re sent into a little room with 3 judges that refuse to look up and mainly focus on their papers. A few seconds of chitchat and it’s your time to shine again! The judges keep looking at their papers making lots of notes and finally warm up at the end promising to give you a call later on to announce the results. Ta-dam! Mission accomplished and I can finally return home for some well-deserved rest!

Reality hurts

If you did bother watching X Factor 2016, you probably noticed that I wasn’t featured. I could pretend like I’d missed their call or couldn’t fit the shoot around my busy schedule but the truth is that I never really received an answer of any kind. And that wouldn’t have been so bad if only other contestants with whom I kept in touch afterwards also didn’t receive any response at all.

This is the saddest thing about the open audition to the TV programmes like X Factor: no one among those young and aspiring boys and girls, who spend hours and hours each year queuing for their lucky chance will ever get in the show… And it’s not because they aren’t good enough, it’s because the 10 lucky finalists get chosen long before the open auditions take place…

I guess it’s safe to say that the time when TV shows actually discovered new talents in the crowd of strangers and made them famous is long gone! Each year ratings of these TV shows keep falling and competition gets tougher, so producers can’t afford to rely on a random chance that they might pluck a good story out of nowhere. In order to get their ideas implemented as perfectly as possible, they send out talent scouts who select the perfect candidates separately from the open auditions that we all watch on TV. It’s sad but that massive crowd of young and talented artists, who waited for 10 hours to test their luck and get noticed, had been brought there for one purpose and one purpose only: to allow the producers to get shots of large crowds.

As for the talent scouts, it’s important to understand that just as with real and fake auditions, there’s a real and fake talent scouting. Near the time when the dates for the big auditions get announced, lots of talent scouts from those TV shows start attending open mics in different UK cities, hosting what they call “pre-auditions”. You might think that going through a scout is actually a much better alternative than queuing for 10 hours near Wembley Stadium.  So after my bad experience with the big audition day, I indeed tried to go through the scouts from the Voice, Britain’s Got Talent and my favourite, the X Factor. Unfortunately, at the end of those open-mics and pre-auditions, all you get is a referral to the main open audition day, which means absolutely nothing because you have to register like everyone else and go through the absolutely identical process as if you never auditioned before! As annoying as it is, the scouts that loudly announce their arrival to the city and chat you up at the open-mics, do it purely to promote the show. The real scouts, who select future contestants, go through special agencies and try to keep it private with little to no publicity involved. So unless you’re lucky to work with agents who do the so-called closed doors auditions, I really don’t recommend investing time, effort and resources in auditioning, unless it’s a local open-mic you were going to pop into anyway.

Despite joking that I was quite naive when I embarked on that auditioning nightmare back in 2015, I had quite a rational attitude and knew from the start that I shouldn’t really wait for a miracle to happen. I did hope that the competition would be genuine and that I would be able to test how far I can get through but it wasn’t really the victory I was after. What I wanted was to peek behind the veil of how such a TV giant as The X Factor is produced and maybe, if I was lucky, to meet someone important within the industry who might express some interest in my music.

I doubt I’d ever go through the auditions again, but I’m really happy I did it at an early stage of my career at a relatively minimal expense. The reality of making programmes like the X Factor is quite mortifying and after talking to quite a few professionals working in different spheres of the industry, I was shocked even more by the scale of the pre-formatting of these types of show. Just like many people say, it’s indeed a music “soap-opera” and nothing else. I guess the magic of The X Factor was lost on me for good. With slight differences in how they present themselves, all these TV singing competitions use the same formula, and to the great disappointment of thousands of young aspiring boys and girls, in that formula, there’s no place for random talent.

Photos by Ria Timkin