Move over Simon Cowell, Open Mic UK and Teen Star founder Chris Grayston is back with a new round of auditions ahead of the final at The O2 Arena in January. This years competition is now in full swing, with the area finals about to start. "It's a bit exciting right now, we're starting to see all the acts shaping up... It's a good stage of the competition, it's probably my favourite." Whilst Chris remains tight lipped about the burgeoning talent in this years contest, he does tell me that "anyone's who's tipped to be a winner or get to the grand final, has the crew talking about it and there's a real buzz going on."
Chris, who has a background in recording and producing tells me "Open Mic started as a result of trying to find some singers to work with... and having a platform to profile and launch them. It just overtook I suppose...The need for the competition to be bigger and higher profile was prevalent. It's been a journey of two or three years to build it to that status." With an excess of 10,000 applicants which is growing every year, the Open Mic competition is ever expanding and gaining recognition within the industry. One thing that makes this competition stand apart from the others is that it encourages singers of all genres and encourages the acts to write their own material and be more creative.
The competition has already proved to be a platform for young talent, with Birdy winning Open Mic in 2008 at the age of 12. TeenStar, which started this year, also discovered the current X Factor finalist Luke Friend, who was the overall winner of the contest in July. Open Mic and TeenStar really are becoming a way of propelling acts into the spotlight and further success.
Talent contests have come under criticism for being exploitative and offering a quick route to success. Chris is quick to defend Open Mic and TeenStar as being very different to TV talent shows. " We're not a TV programme so we're not looking to mock anyone we just mark it (the singers performances) as we see it... and we take the best ones into the show, put them on stage and see what they can do."
He continues to explain "We're quite different in that we don't have that massive TV exposure, which can be good and bad. It can catapult these artists into the limelight, but sometimes they're not ready and not quite developed, that can be quite detrimental...It's a open criticism of TV because the singers are suddenly stuck in front of a camera with millions of people watching. But it's also an opportunity to show your talent. Why should they be denied that? People can criticise it but the alternative is a very long slog and one that may not be a fruitful one. The traditional route of building up your fan base is one that's still there, but its hard. I think Lucy Spraggen (who was a past contestant of Open Mic forerunner Live and Unsigned) is a great example of someone whose combined the two. She did a lot of gigs. As much as it was an easier route for her in the end, she wouldn't be the artist people took up on without that experience."
With none of the pressure that TV puts on the artists, Chris is keen for the performers in his competitions to get as much experience and feedback as possible, rather than forcing them into the limelight being inexperienced and unprepared. "We help the artists during the competition. We give a lot of feedback and we try to be encouraging with a view for them to be better, so they can get something good on their CV, get networking and hopefully build up to getting picked up by record labels and management."
With such high profile performers such as Birdy and Luke Friend now in the public eye, many people may be unaware of there previous involvement with Open Mic and TeenStar, but the competition was not a quick route to success for either of them. "Birdy auditioned the year before (she won) and didn't get through. It might have been that in the audition she was missed, but it may have been because she wasn't ready. With Luke he did Open Mic a couple of times before he did TeenStar. If you look back at the footage you can see, even his mum will tell you, he wasn't ready because he wasn't good enough."
Open Mic UK has been described by Joel James of BBC York and North Yorkshire as "one of toughest competitions in the country." I asked Chris how he felt about this and if he feels the competition is as tough as Joel says. "I hope it's not too hard for people, I hope there's an element of enjoyment and people find their level with it, whether it's just coming on and having a bit of fun and camaraderie with the other singers and learning from the experience...I wouldn't like to say people should come into it thinking oh this is tough, it's hard to win it. It's tough in that you do have one or two songs to impress people, I suppose in that respect it makes it a tough competition to win."
Chris sees competitions like Open Mic as the way forward for singers to showcase their talent in an ever game changing industry. " The music industry is changing but it gives the artists a chance to be pragmatic and break the mould. Artists are using tools like twitter,Instagram, Facebook to get stuff out there and promote themselves. It's changing by the day. I think it will change again over the next 5 years."
With unknown talent cutting their teeth from Open Mic UK and TeenStar before they appear on TV talent shows and music moguls like Simon Cowell not discovering some of these performers, it looks like the game is already changing.