If you're over the age of 17 and live in America, odds are high that you didn't hear about the British boy band One Direction until some time in the last two months. The group has been gaining a huge audience of teens and tweens on Facebook and Twitter since forming on Simon Cowell's The X Factor in 2010, but they've only recently started to break through to the mainstream press in America. While the group was in New York last week prepping for an appearance on Saturday Night Live, flocks of young girls stalked them around the city, Beatlemania style. Their song "What Makes You Beautiful" is Number Nine on the Billboard Hot 100, and their album recently knocked Bruce Springsteen off the top of the charts. Rolling Stone spoke with Cowell about the group's incredibly swift rise to the top.
Tell me your first impressions of the boys after you met them on The X Factor.
I met them as solo artists to begin with. Each of them individually had very good auditions. We had high hopes for two or three of them in particular, and then it all kind of fell apart at one of the latter stages. Interestingly, when they left, I had a bad feeling that maybe we shouldn't have lost them and maybe there was something else we should do with them. And this is when the idea came about that we should see if they could work as a group. We invited these five guys back. They were the only five we cared about.
The minute they stood there for the first time together – it was a weird feeling. They just looked like a group at that point. I had a good feeling, but then obviously we had about a five-week wait where they had to work together. They had to come back for another section of the show where they performed together as a group for the first time. I was concerned whether five weeks was long enough, but they came back five weeks later and were absolutely sensational.
How quickly did you realize that they could be huge?
(Chuckles) When they came to my house in Spain and performed, after about a millionth of a second. I tried to keep a straight face for a bit of drama for the show. I remember sitting next to this girl who I was working with. The second they left we jumped out of my chair and said, "These guys are incredible!" They just had it. They had this confidence. They were fun. They worked out the arrangements themselves. They were like a gang of friends, and kind of fearless as well.
Were you surprised by how quickly they broke out and became massive?
Once they were on the show, it was unusual because in an instant, we had hundreds of fans outside the studio. That doesn't happen very often. The more I got to know them, the more I liked them and the more I trusted them. They had good taste and they understood the kind of group they wanted to be. They didn't want to be molded. I'm not interested in working with people like that either.
They had their own views and they all brought something special to the table. I thought, "As long as we can get the right record, they've got a great shot." This was such an important signing, we let three or four of the Sony labels make a presentation. I didn't automatically give it to my own label. I thought, "This is so important, if somebody can come up with a better idea…" I was actually willing to pass them along to another division of Sony because I thought the group were that important. I thought they were going to be so massive, I was prepared to do that. I let my own team work independently. They actually did come back with the best plan. I felt they understood the group better. It was good. I was able to give my own label the group.
It's interesting that so few British boy bands have broken big in the States. Even a group like Take That, who are massive in England, didn't do much of anything over here. Why do you think that is?
I nearly did with a band called Five a few years ago. They had one hit in America ("When The Lights Go Out.") Then they went out to Sweden a few weeks later to record a song which they famously turned down, called "Bye Bye Bye." And it really was bye bye bye after that. That would have been the record that broke them. I would have broken that band.
I think most times if you're British, then you have to be British. I think with most of these bands, you end up with a sound that sounds somewhere between England and America – which means you fall smack down in the middle of the ocean. You don't appeal to either. It was important they had their own British sound, something different, and something they liked themselves. Every record we made and we progressed with, it was always based off the feedback from the boys in the studio. If they liked something, we went ahead. If they didn't like it, we threw it in the bin. They were a big part of the selection process of the songs on the record.
Do you think the timing is right in the U.S. for a new teen sensation? The Jonas Brothers are pretty diminished, and Justin Bieber is appealing to a slightly older audience.
No question. No doubt. Most things in music go full circle eventually. I was surprised that there's been a lack of bands in the charts. I grew up when the whole Motown thing was huge. The charts in those days were dominated by groups more than solo artists at one point. In the 1990s, we had New Kids (On the Block), Backstreet, N'Sync. Then it all changed. It's very much at the moment all about solo artists. Interestingly, you're seeing a lot of these artists collaborate with so many people and they're putting out seven or eight singles a year. So the charts become very track-led. Thank god kids love following an artist. When you get a group who pop, it's the best thing in the world. It's just been waiting to happen for years.
It's interesting that they broke through in the States by using virtually no mainstream media. It was largely Twitter and Facebook. It's so different from how N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys did it.
Oh my God, it was incredible. I remember years ago, we had to do something on Disney. That's how we initially broke this band Five. Normally we hassle the American labels when we think something is going to work. This time we said, "Let's just wait for the phone to ring and see who phones first." I wanted them to find out about the group first in a more buzzy way rather than us forcing the band on them.
(Columbia Records chairman/CEO) Rob Stringer was the first person to call, and he said, "I really think we can break this band in America." I said, "It's going to take a little while." We wanted to put the record out in the U.K. and Europe. When I was out in America doing the auditions for The X Factor, everywhere I went there were blocks of One Direction fans going, "When are you going to bring this band to America?" I was going to put them on the final of The X Factor last year, but there was a conflict on the dates so they weren't able to do it. I was willing to take a chance on them even then, because I had a feeling they were going to make a big impact.
It was a strange time for them. So many kids knew about them, but they got very little press. It was pretty much invisible to adults.
I think it's great news. When it becomes something where people discover it, I think that's much more important than hyping something. Traditionally, these bands had some sort of Svengali figure pushing the band. I think those days are over. The band has to make it happen by themselves. I think that's what One Direction did. We worked as a partnership, but without their input and the way they spoke to the fans and the kind of people they are, it wouldn't have happened in the way that it's happening now.
I've never seen any group build their way up to arenas so quickly. It seems that social networking is really a game-changer.
For the music business, social networking is brilliant. Just when you think it's doom and gloom and you have to spend millions of pounds on marketing and this and that, you have this amazing thing now called fan power. The whole world is linked through a laptop. It's amazing. And it's free. I love it. It's absolutely brilliant. But there's tons of groups out there. It doesn't happen to everyone. If you're good – and I've always believed this – and you're patient and the management is smart, it'll work perfectly.
I'm not going to lie to you. I didn't sit here two years ago with some master plan. We just had five brilliantly talented people who I really liked. We made the best record we could, and we hoped for the best.
What is your role in the day-to-day operations of the group?
First of all, you've got to listen to them. I've constantly done that. Our job now is to make sure that going forward, we can encourage the best songwriters and producers to work with them and make the best possible records. As I said to them from day one, "You have to enjoy yourselves. You're going to make a lot of money, but you have to enjoy every single minute of it." When I see them now, they look fresh and they're having a good time. They know they can call me any time they have an issue. They have a fantastic relationship with management. It's been an absolute pleasure from day one to work with these guys.
Many of these groups get huge but burn out after three or so years. What's your plan to make sure that doesn't happen?
Be sensible and treat them as human beings, genuinely. That's the most important thing. Traditionally, record companies would put out the most possible product in a short period of time, thinking you only have two or three years. I don't think that's necessarily the case now. If you're sensible and you don't burn them out, you don't have to put a time limit on this anymore. And they're so young, these guys.
Part of the reason I brought The X Factor to America in the first place was that I thought the show was able to produce global pop stars. That's why I left American Idol and launched X Factor in America. Seeing the success of One Direction, I think, in America, validates why X Factor will be different. You're going to see some significant changes on the show this year. It has to be seen as a credible vehicle for artists to come to at the beginning to get some help in terms of what we do as mentors. You have to prepare them for the real world. That's what the show around the world has done really, really successfully. I think One Direction as an ambassador of the show, you couldn't wish for anyone better.