Simon Cowell Interview on his new project StemDrop
Interview with Simon Cowell at his Malibu home
When did you first become aware of TikTok?
Probably about three years ago but certainly in the last couple of years I really became aware of it through doing auditions [for America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent]. You know, our auditions are a great barometer for what's popular at any given time. Suddenly out of nowhere, and I'm not exaggerating, every single singer came out and just talked about TikTok. Every meeting we had with a singer or a record label it was TikTok, TikTok, TikTok.
Is that how you keep your finger on the pulse generally?
Yeah, you just listen, and if you keep your ears open, you'll normally get to understand what is popular, what is new, what records are blowing up. That's what I've always done.
Was there a particular TikTok moment that you loved?
I think there were a few occasions. I mean, the Sea Shanty was the one I remember. I thought it was just genius that, out of nowhere, a song does something that becomes global. It kind of took me back to those days when MTV first came along, when an artist would have a great video and the record would blow off the back of its first showing on MTV. It had that same feeling, which was that this is a platform which is going to break records and break artists. I thought, “This platform is great fun and it's going to be around for a long time.”
So suddenly we all wanted to work with TikTok. I met them about three years ago in London and everyone was just unbelievable. And I thought, “I really, really hope one day we can work with you.“ The question basically was just what that would look like.
So tell me about StemDrop: how did it come about?
A very good friend of mine called Tim, who I used to work with, came to see me in London to talk about a television format he was very excited about and again, I listened. The heart of his idea was essentially about somebody writing a great song, and that really resonated in my head. We met a week or two later after and then we discussed the idea of taking it somewhere else: we should simplify the idea and take it to one of the big social media companies. I quickly realised we should go to TikTok with this idea, and that's really where it came from. I suppose all of the big things I've been involved with throughout my career, it normally starts with a relatively straightforward summary; you should be able to describe the idea in a couple of sentences.
Then we got hit by covid and the idea evolved as there was this real sense of everybody being online, everyone trying to get a deal, and I realised this actually could help a lot of people right now. That's where we started to get more and more excited and use the time during lockdown to evolve the idea. But like I said: at the heart, it was a very, very simple idea.
TikTok videos often show how one song can be interpreted in so many different ways. Is that what excited you?
Yes, and I had a real-life example to use: Hit Me Baby, One More Time. That song was written for TLC, but TLC turned it down. I had a group signed to me at the time, Five, who were on the on the verge of breaking America. I got a call from Arista Records in America and they played me Hit Me Baby down the phone. I was like, “Oh my God, this is it” so I called Max Martin, who wrote it, and I said, “Max, I've just heard this demo. Please give it to me for Five”. And he went, “I can’t, I promised it to Britney Spears.” I went, “Who? Trust me, Max, nobody’s going to have a hit with a name like Britney Spears. Just think about it, please please please.” Twenty four hours later he came back and said “No, I’m going to give it to her”, and that was it.
But I think the point is, that song would have been a hit for anyone. I knew it would have been a hit for Five, it would have been a hit for TLC, it was a hit for Britney Spears. There have been country versions, alternative versions: it was just a hit song, no question about it, and having that first hit song is the most important part of an artist’s career, and also the most difficult part of breaking anyone's career.
So this really is at the heart of the idea of StemDrop: just imagine somebody who is on TikTok, trying to get some traction, who now has the ability to make their own version of a song written by the most successful songwriter of our time. It's very compelling.
When you listen to a demo, how quickly do you know you’re listening to a hit song?
It’s not always immediate but over the years we’ve had demos sent in – and Bleeding Love is an example – that demo had a male singer and one of my A&R guys played it to me as a possibility for a male artist but I said, “No, that’s a massive record but that’s a female song, we’ve got to get it for Leona Lewis.”
I kind of worked out very early on in my career that I needed to set up relationships with songwriters and producers before I signed artists, because without songwriter-producers, you're going to have a problem. And at the same time, if you're fortunate enough to get what I call an ‘a-list copyright’ – and Bleeding Love is a great example of that, or Hit Me Baby One More Time, or What Makes You Beautiful – those songs can change somebody's career overnight.
That's how important a hit song is because obviously, if you have one, there's a better chance of a second one. Nowadays I would say it's rare to have more than ten a-list copyright songs written in one year, because everything's got slower. Radio stations play records for longer, so they’re like diamonds, and that's why this idea is so important: if somebody can have the opportunity to have a song of that calibre for their first single, that's going to make an enormous difference.
With TikTok being quite a short-form platform, do you need to grab somebody’s attention quickly with a hook or an intro?
I think everything's gone full circle. Most of the big motown records, Baby Love or whatever, were probably under two minutes. Then over the years they got longer, and songs like Bohemian Rhapsody went on for an hour! Now we’ve gone back to short singles. You’ve got to hit the chorus in 20, 30 seconds, the chorus has to be enormous, and of course you’ve got to have a great hook. It's got to be a song you remember. That sounds easy but it’s the hardest thing in the music business, having the ability to write a hit records.
Songs often go viral on TikTok because of a dance craze that it sparks: Jason Derulo is possibly the most famous master of this. Is that a necessity for the artists taking part?
I think more than anything it's got to just be a great song. I think what we've done with this idea is that we've given people the ability to make any version of the song they want. If they want to turn the record into a dance track, they can; if they want to slow it down, they could. There are no rules, which is what I love about this whole idea. My advice to anyone thinking of doing this would be, “Just do whatever you want because this is basically your opportunity to do whatever you want with the song.”
And to answer your question, if that leads to some kind of dance craze off the back of it, I mean, that would be brilliant.
What about the personality of the singers? Obviously your show X Factor was called that for a reason, because it was about having the full package. Does that remain the same with a TikTok platform or not?
X Factor worked in so much as it found a lot of amazing people. However, once you found those amazing people, whether it was Leona or whether it was One Direction, you still needed a hit record and ironically the person who has co-written this StemDrop song also co-wrote One Direction’s first hit single [Savan Kotecha]. So I cannot stress this enough: it’s about hit songs. To have the ability to co-write with the very best in the world is such an important step because every artist needs to get x amount of records where they can tour off the back of it. And that's probably eight and above.
So that leads us nicely into talking about Max. He’s quite an enigma, so tell us from your point of view what it's like working with him.
I like Max because, first of all, he is unbelievably careful about what he does and who he works with. He has never sold his soul ever, he’s passionate about every record he makes: tomorrow’s record is as important to him as his first record. So that really summarises Max as a writer. As a person he is charming, kind, thoughtful, smart and wise.
What really resonated with Max about StemDrop was the idea that, you know, how many people have bought his records? We're talking about millions. So the idea of giving something back to the people who have supported him for years was really a big part of this for him. I basically said, “How would you like to write a song for the world?” and I explained and he said, “Why has no-one done this before?” and I said I didn’t know but I wanted him to go away and think about it. He came back a week later and said ‘yes’ and thank God because I said from the start, “If we can’t get Max, I don’t want to do it.” He’s the biggest songwriter in the world so when he said that, I cannot tell you how it felt.
When you say “Write a song for the world”, can you expand on that, and tell us a bit about the song-writing process?
Well, in other words, if you’re writing for Ariana, or The Weeknd or whoever, you’ve got a direction already. With this song, we don't know who's going to make the best version. We don't know whether it's going to be male or female, a group, whether they're rock, country or pop, we have no idea. So essentially, you are writing a song for the world. And that is quite a challenge, trust me: what is the lyric? What is the tempo? I said, “Look, I'm not the writer, thank God. That's not my problem.”
And then there was that moment where we've gone through everything, but it's like, I've got the demo and I'm really nervous now. What if I hate it? I put the song on and, of all the times I’ve ever listened to a song in my life, this was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I played it, and then I went, “I love it, I’m going to play it again” and then I was like, “I hate that I can’t get this song out of my head now”!
What’s it like?
It’s a song where, I believe if The Weeknd put it out tomorrow, if Britney put it out tomorrow, if Ariana put it out tomorrow, if Harry Styles put it out tomorrow, it would be a hit. It's just one of those. It's just a great, great, great record.
You mentioned all the different genres. Often on your talent shows you say from the start you are hoping for something particular. Is there something you’re hoping for with this project?
It’s a good question. Max and I were laughing about this because we both said, “We’re going into the unknown and we have no idea what's going to happen” other than the fact it's going to create an enormous level of excitement, it's going to give people an opportunity to do something they normally wouldn’t be able to do – which is to write with the most successful songwriter of all time – and I think it's going to give a lot of traction and that's what people need right now.
This is what I've tried to do with our TV shows: you get visibility and then after that, it’s down to you. This is the same kind of process. At the end of the day – using One Direction again as an example – once we'd signed them, it was, “Great. Now, what do we do?”. We had to wait about eight or nine months before that first record came in. When the record came in I remember where I was: I was in Miami. I got off the flight, the song was sent to me, I put it on in the car and it was like, “Whoa, that's huge”. So you know, those moments hearing songs for the first time are some of the most exciting times of my career.
Talking of One Direction: Harry has done incredibly well. How do you feel about him?
I mean, it's brilliant. If you’d have asked me twenty years ago, I never would have believed that we would be having a conversation twenty years later talking about people like Harry, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson: people who started their career on our shows, not really knowing what was going to happen next. I can say, “Yeah, I was there that day when they were auditioning for the first time” and that’s a great feeling.
I think what I've learned over the years is that on my shows, we give people a platform, but then it’s down to the artist to decide what to do with the platform. They’ve got to make the decisions, and obviously Harry has made the right decisions because he’s smart, like Britney. They’re smart people because they took that one shot then ran with it. A big part of what we do is charisma, that’s why we called the show X Factor, it’s something you can’t define. Our job is just to spot it.
Could you ever have guessed he’d be on the cover of Vogue wearing a dress or starring in a Hollywood film and trending on Twitter?
No [laughs]. Sometimes I pretend I know what's gonna happen, but I don’t. I wish for great things for everyone who comes on our show but I don’t have a magic wand. When I do something new like this, which I do believe is going to help somebody's career, I'm excited. I genuinely am excited because this is about people, I believe, giving something back: writers giving something back to the people who've supported them over the years. Don’t just keep with it to yourself, or give it to someone obvious. Give it to the world. It's cool.
Why did you choose Samsung and Universal as partners?
Lucian [Grainge] is a really, really good friend of mine. I’ve nearly worked with Universal throughout my career. We’ve got so close, so many times. So they were my absolute natural choice and I remember I was in my house when I told him the idea and he went, “Got it, do it, I don’t need to hear anything else” straight away. That was it. A week later we’d signed the deal.
Samsung, I've worked with a lot over the years and what I love about Samsung is how much they love their customers. I’m not just saying that because they’re partners: I mean, every conversation we have is always about the consumer.
StemDrop is about somebody who's going to have a life-changing experience and Samsung became so passionate about this, they really wanted to back it because they think it might change what's happening significantly, and they want to be the first to do that. So it was a very, very, very natural partnership, a very easy collaboration. They've been unbelievably supportive and they've got the technology to make this happen as well. So it's a genius partnership in my opinion.
Finally: are you actually on TikTok? Will we see you making any videos?
I don't want to be the dad who dances at the wedding, right? No. I’ll be doing my bit for this but no, I’m not going to be that person.
A lot of my friends are on it but if I start following one, I've got to follow everybody else. Howie [Mandel], for instance, he’s obsessed with TikTok. I think his whole day is spent on TikTok. But I’m actually quite shy, believe it or not, so I’m not very good at doing that stuff.