Currently in its 13th season, NBC’s “The Voice” seems to have officially cracked the secret reality-TV code and struck gold.
Fresh off a third consecutive Emmy win for outstanding reality-competition program, the show has proved that, six years into its run, it’s still capable of reeling in viewers. Recent ratings rival its debut season; this week, nearly 10 million people in the demographic of viewers ages 18-49 tuned in to watch the Top 8 perform, on par with numbers from season one.
“Whatever the DNA is that’s making it successful, it just hasn’t changed,” the show’s host and executive producer, Carson Daly, told HuffPost. “It still feels like important, special, fresh, eventized, feel-good TV. All those early themes we wanted to roll out into the marketplace have stood as the pillar of what makes the show successful.”
Those early themes Daly’s talking about center on one primary ideal: giving someone who’s been attempting to break into the music industry the opportunity of a lifetime. Singers of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds, races and gender identities are provided the chance to perform in a blind audition on “The Voice,” during which four superstar coaches (not judges) sit with their backs to the stage, hoping to hear the next Whitney Houston, Justin Timberlake or Taylor Swift. From there, the contestants sing to an audience of at-home viewers eager to vote them into potential stardom. A $100,000 cash prize and a record deal with Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, or, in some cases, with pop and country label Big Machine is on the line.
“Where else can you come on a show and sing and not be judged on anything but your talent, your voice?” the show’s executive producer Audrey Morrissey told HuffPost. “You’re in one-on-one tutoring with these people who are doing nothing but trying to shine a light on you and give you the fruits of all their experience in a very concentrated time to help you: to help you win the show, to help you win your career, to help you become a better artist. It’s literally priceless. Money can’t buy that.”
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Of course, the coaches on “The Voice,” the ones who sit in those massive red chairs that dramatically swivel around at the push of a button, have other motives beyond a desire to “shine a light” on fresh talent.
“They’re making a lot of money, too, so don’t forget about that,” Daly joked.
According to The Wrap, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine each make about $13 million a season. And the show not only gives unknown artists a platform but allows its star coaches one, as well. On primetime TV, they can expand their careers by flaunting family-friendly personalities and premiering new music. Before “The Voice,” for example, longtime coach Shelton had hit after hit on the country music charts with No. 1 songs like “Austin,” “Some Beach” and “All About Tonight.” But since his first stint on the show in 2011, his albums have gained mainstream appeal, with “Red River Blue” and “Bringing Back the Sunshine” both landing at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, at points surpassing the likes of Adele’s “21.”
With all of its addictive goodness, you’d think the artists emerging from “The Voice” would also gain some momentum in the music business. However, the popularity of the show and its celebrity mentors doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the artists the network highlights for months on end. In truth, the show’s 12 winners have produced only five original Top 40 songs and earned one Grammy nomination from 2011 to now. And most of the winners’ singles that ranked on the Hot 100 were either “Voice” performances or original victory songs. Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery are the only artists whose post-“Voice” singles have charted on the list.
Unlike the coaches whose fame continues to flourish, it seems many “Voice” winners fare worse in the great expanses of the fair-weather music industry. The days of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood ― who, after being crowned the champions of “American Idol” in 2002 and 2005, respectively, went on to earn a combined 10 Grammy Awards ― are gone. Today, “The Voice” might do everything in its power to make sure the viewers who vote are captivated by the show’s talent in-season. But once those artists are thrust into the music world, why do we rarely hear about them post-show?
We do hear about some winners, like Jordan Smith, whose success was personally fostered by executive “Voice” producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey. After flawlessly singing Sia’s “Chandelier” to an incredulous row of coaches on the show, he went on to nab three Top 40 hits and three No. 1s on the Hot Christian Songs chart. His first album, “Something Beautiful,” was a critical and commercial success story as it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart in March 2016, right behind “Voice” coach Gwen Stefani’s “This Is What the Truth Feels Like.” Smith sold 54,000 units in the album’s first week, making him the highest-ranking winner of any singing competition series in the last six years. Nine months later, his holiday album, “’Tis the Season,” peaked at No. 11. He has been touring nationwide ever since.
And then there’s Cassadee Pope, who signed to Big Machine after her win. (A source close to the company confirmed to HuffPost that Pope and the label decided to “mutually” part ways this year.) Now in the country domain, the former pop-punk singer has drawn comparisons to alternative vocalists like Avril Lavigne with her radio-primed voice. The season three champ has produced four Top 40 hits, two of those ― “Over You” and “Stupid Boy” ― being “Voice” performances. Her 2013 hit “Wasting All These Tears” landed at No. 37 and has been played more than 19 million times on Spotify. Her debut solo country record, “Frame by Frame,” also scored a No. 9 placement on the Billboard 200 and sold 43,000 copies in its first week. Just this year, Pope was nominated for a Grammy for best country duo/group performance for her song with Chris Young, “Think of You.”
When asked who he thinks truly embodies a “Voice” success story, Daly cited the 28-year-old Florida native. “Cassadee was like a rocker chick in an all-boy band [Hey Monday], almost like Gwen in No Doubt, and she went on Team Blake and now I’ve seen her on red carpets and in Nashville,” he said.
Another notable mention is season four winner Danielle Bradbery, who, although not a mainstream darling, has achieved success in the country music realm. The Houston native was 16 when she won the show and went on to release her self-titled debut album just five months later. Like Pope, Bradbery signed to Big Machine. “We knew she had a chance, and we definitely wanted her if she was going to win,” a Big Machine representative told HuffPost. “That was at the height, when media was just like, ‘The Voice, The Voice, The Voice!’”
“They knew exactly what we needed to do as soon as I was off ‘The Voice,’ and so they flew me to Nashville and got an album cooking,” Bradbery told HuffPost of her experience with her management team. “Everything was really fast, but I knew they knew what they were doing... they had a plan. They got me on the ‘Today’ show right away, and are just big fans of getting the names and faces out there as much as possible and as fast as possible.”
Bradbery’s 2013 single “The Heart of Dixie” peaked at No. 58 on the Hot 100 and performed decently on the Country chart. She toured with Brad Paisley and went on to produce an anthem for the promotional campaign of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi with “My Day.” Bradbery pushed forward with the release of her sophomore album, “I Don’t Believe We’ve Met,” on Dec. 1, and it’s currently No. 41 on the Billboard 200. Her lead single “Sway,” which features more pop-inspired undertones, was released in June and peaked at No. 19 on the Country Digital Songs Sales chart.
“If I’m being honest, I didn’t know much about the whole other side of the music industry that you have to create for yourself and your teams... management, label, booking agents, everything along those lines,” she said. “It was definitely a learning experience every step of the way.”
As it still is for season 12 winner Chris Blue. Instead of rushing forward with his debut album, the R&B singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, is working diligently with his former coach and now manager, Alicia Keys. “I watch Alicia and how she works, and she goes nonstop,” Blue told HuffPost. “After the show and putting in long hours every day, I realized, ‘Hey, this has to continue. This is now my lifestyle. You have to work hard in this business.’”
Daly and Morrissey agree. They say “The Voice” is more of a boot camp than a superstar generator, so if people want to make it in the cutthroat entertainment industry, they’re expected to put their blood, sweat and tears into their own development. Winning, they insist, is hard work.
In fact, the producers never wanted to mimic “Idol,” even if it “blazed a path” for them in the TV landscape, Daly said. “We didn’t really create the show to create a celebrity musician or make people rich and famous. That was never really the goal of the show. We are proud to say that so many of the artists who have been on ‘The Voice’ in any capacity have quit their sandwich-making jobs and are doing well in music. And at the end of the day that’s winning, to us.”
But not every artist who’s deemed “The Voice” triumphs. For every Christian singer like Smith or country fave like Pope and Bradbery, you have a handful of “winners” who enjoy less of the sensation of a post-“Voice” career.
Take, for example, season one runner-up Dia Frampton, who found some success in the early aughts alongside her sister in the indie-rock band Meg & Dia. During her time on “The Voice,” she said, the show, like many other reality programs, attempted to shape and mold its contestants’ stories to attract viewers, not necessarily lifelong fans.
“I was introduced as the children’s book author, which was something I very lightly touched upon when we were doing interviews — that I liked writing children’s books, I liked blogging and writing stories. But that was definitely not the highlight in my own mind,” Frampton explained. “I felt like I said, ‘I love yoga,’ and then it became the highlight, even though that’s just a fun thing I do on Saturday mornings. That was interesting, to kind of have that narrative chosen for me.”
Other handpicked narratives include We McDonald’s experience with bullying, Janice Freeman’s life as a single mom and cancer survivor and Dylan Gerard’s decision to enter the medical field after his sister’s tragic car accident, all aiming to tug the heartstrings of viewers week by week.
Frampton didn’t see herself as a children’s book author. Nor did she think she’d make it that far on the show. Her “sole intention” behind appearing on “The Voice” was to slip in Meg & Dia stories in hopes of getting the duo back on their feet after they spent all their savings on their 2011 album, “Cocoon.”
“In the moment, we had been dropped from our label, we didn’t have a publicist, we didn’t have money, and I thought, ‘This is our publicity, possibly,’” she said. “But the band was never mentioned. I mean, I mentioned it, but it was never put on the show.” After Frampton finished second, she was picked up by Universal Republic to kick off a solo career. All the while, her sister Meg was left wondering what could’ve been.
“Honestly, there was aftermath to that decision for years,” Dia said. “I think that last year was the first year I felt normal again with my sister, and that’s been a lot of work on our part... I still feel like I abandoned her in a way, and I struggle to deal with that in trying to be successful. I feel like sometimes I wish to not be successful so that I don’t do well and don’t abandon her again.”
Following her season’s wrap, Dia and her new team whipped together an album in a few months, which she said was pushed on her by the label. ”I felt like the record was rushed to be put out,” she said of 2011’s “Red.” “I was so excited to work with so many different producers that I think I should’ve focused on working with one person who I really loved because the album kind of ended up being a crazy plethora of songs in all different genres.”
Despite that, she insists her time on “The Voice” was a learning experience that led her to open for her coach Shelton and go on tour with James Blunt in China. According to Dia, she thought she’d found her stride when “Red” went double-platinum in parts of Southeast Asia, but shortly after a year of celebrity, she was back to the life of a struggling artist. Now she can’t even go out on tour because she fails to sell enough tickets or make enough money to promote her new album, “Bruises.” She’s currently working at a health food store, making minimum wage, while writing songs for other artists.
“I look back at my time, not so much on ‘The Voice’ but post-‘Voice,’ because I felt like that was such a spike in my career and life... It felt like I was doing everything right and I was going to be OK and I was bearing on what I think was success, and then everything just kind of falls down,” she said, getting emotional. “That’s one thing you have to be prepared for as an artist. You have your ups and you have your downs, and your ups feel so amazing and your downs feel so difficult. And I feel like I am in a bit of a down right now. I feel like I’ve been throwing spaghetti at the wall for so long trying to make something hit, just kind of helping other artists get their voice out when I feel like mine is kind of going deeper and deeper into a hole.”
There’s no sure way to determine why some artists soar after “The Voice” while others fall flat, but it appears a lot has to do with who’s in a contestant’s corner after they graduate from the show. For example, if talent isn’t thoroughly supported by Universal Music Group after a season ends, albums can go unproduced, unpromoted and unsold. Morrissey explained that, at its discretion, the pop-focused Republic Records chooses how many people it wants to pick up once the finale airs. Sometimes it partners with other labels, like Big Machine, if it thinks it’s not the best fit for a specific artist.
“Pretty much all the winners are picked up,” Morrissey said. “There is choice amongst the label what they do with them, but we, as a television show, once they won, we’re not necessarily personally involved in their careers. We do everything in our power to prop them up, as we can, but that’s when it flips over to, really, the music business.”
“When the baton is passed post-‘Voice,’ there’s some problems,” Levine told Howard Stern in 2015, suggesting that the label “fucks it up” because “no one knows what they’re doing.” He continued, “People take over after we do this great job of building these people up on the show. There’s some real issues there.”
Season eight winner Sawyer Fredericks had an inconvenient experience shortly after being crowned “The Voice” in 2015. The now 18-year-old said he dropped Republic after his first album, “The Good Storm,” was released, over disagreements about his songwriting process. “It was kind of a mutual decision,” Fredericks told HuffPost, explaining that the label had him co-writing the record even though he wanted to pen his own lyrics. “I think it definitely changed my intent for a lot of songs.”
For his sophomore album, “Hide Your Ghost,” the now independent singer-songwriter ― who lives on a farm with his family in upstate New York ― wants to take back control of his sound.
“I wanted the freedom as full producer. Basically, whatever I say happens with the album, and I have the final word for everything... really conveying what I mean in my original work,” he explained.
Fredericks is not the only “Voice” winner to go independent. After the label didn’t fully support his album “Come Through for You,” season one’s Javier Colon voluntarily moved on from Republic. Despite having catchy, potential hits like “Stand Up” (featuring Levine and co-written by Pharrell WIlliams), Colon’s music never got its due.
“I went in with high hopes, as I believe everyone did,” Colon told Buddy TV in 2012. “But when you pour your heart and soul into a new album that you think is really great, and your label who is supposed to support, market and promote your music does neither, it’s really hard not to be upset.”
Season 11’s Alisan Porter decided to part ways with Republic, too. The former child star (“Curly Sue,” “Parenthood”), now 36, initially took to Twitter to share the news that she was going independent.
“It just wasn’t the right fit for me,” she told People earlier this year. “I have a really clear vision of who I am, and it might not be the most cookie-cutter commercial radio [vision]... I would much rather be true to myself than to do something that didn’t feel right for me.”
Same goes for season five winner Tessanne Chin. Her debut album with Republic, “Count on My Love,” sold only 7,000 copies in its first week due to what she deems a lack of promotion. Now the 32-year-old Jamaican reggae-R&B singer is signed to the Justice League Music Group. She’s been performing frequently enough, but hasn’t seen the kind of success Pope and Bradbery have.
See also: winners Jermaine Paul, Josh Kaufman, Craig Wayne Boyd and Sundance Head, who have yet to release albums with Republic Records, and perhaps never will.
So, what gives? As more and more singing competition “winners” become “losers,” who’s at fault? And is there anything that can revive the once-sensational reality show dream?
“You can’t blame a record company or management because, I think, in today’s day and age, you can ‘succeed’ and really take off without it because of the tools that are available to you independently,” Daly said. “A hit song is a hit song is a hit song, and I don’t care who sings it. You can ask Charlie Puth or Meghan Trainor; Fall Out Boy did this back in the day without any help from radio. If you have a hit song, it’s going to happen for you. It’s just a matter of time.”
According to a Big Machine rep, it’s sometimes difficult to market “Voice” talent after the show, in part due to their network association. Because “The Voice” is on NBC, other companies, like CBS or ABC, won’t feature the show’s artists. “The networks are so competitive with one another that you need not only a label behind you, [but] you need to make sure the network is behind you and going to support you beyond you just being on their show,” the rep said. “If you’re stuck to only being able to do the ‘Today’ show or ‘Access Hollywood’ or another NBC platform, it’s limiting.”
Morrissey says, record deal or not, “The Voice” tries to highlight former contestants whenever it can. Just this week, Alisan Porter was able to promote her Las Vegas show, “The Voice: Neon Dreams,” which is set to give artists, including Chris Mann (season two), Mary Sarah (season 10), Matthew Schuler (season five) and Matt McAndrew (season seven), a new platform, boosting their profiles once more. “The Voice” also recently highlighted past contestants’ journeys on the web-exclusive series “After The Voice.”
“We do try to keep tabs on them. We do invite them back and have them perform on the show when they’re ready and they have music. To the best of our ability we push all of their work on all our socials. We try to do what we can,” Morrissey said. “It is what it is. We try our best.”
Fredericks, for one, confirmed that “The Voice” producers have kept tabs on him and his career. “I don’t think it’s completely like I’m on my own. They’ve helped out quite a bit, and they’ve offered me to do stuff with the show,” he said. “It’s really fun to go back; it’s like a whole family. And it’s still going! This show, like everything, is just go, go, go.”
The coaches are also a big part of the equation. Bradbery’s former mentor, Shelton, who she called “very genuine,” pays attention to the music she’s releasing. He congratulated her on a recent single, which Bradbery said he does as often as he can. “He definitely keeps everybody that’s been on his team under his wing, which I think is really amazing about him. What you see on TV of Blake is exactly what you’ll get. He’s not fake.”
The same could be said about most of the coaches who attempt to stay in contact with their contestants after “The Voice,” Morrissey said. Levine has signed former artists to his record label, 222, while Keys continues to work and write with Blue.
“Coaches go to a lot of lengths to help people keep growing far more than the public sees. We just don’t really have enough time or way on our show to illustrate that,” Morrissey said. “I’m just thinking about Christina [Aguilera] and Alisan Porter ― they’re still very close and work together. Miley [Cyrus], famously, my God, she keeps in touch with everybody, is texting constantly.”
“It’s more than just a season to them or show or just a moment in time, but they really take on the artists as their own and really care about these individuals,” Blue told HuffPost.
However, it’s not just the winning artists who take their shot in the ruthless world of music post-“Voice.” Throughout every season of the show, hundreds of contestants rotate in and out of the spotlight. Another famous reality show contestant is proof you don’t have to win to win: Jennifer Hudson. She is currently a coach on “The Voice,” but she placed seventh in the 2004 season of “American Idol.” She’s since won a Grammy for her album “Jennifer Hudson,” and Oscar, Golden Globe, British Academy Film and Screen Actors Guild awards for her role as Effie White in 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” Perhaps, with her experience, she can help guide her three eliminated live-show contestants, Davon Fleming, Shi’Ann Jones and Noah Mac, to mainstream success without a crown.
“When she’s looking at them and saying, ‘I’ve been you. I’ve been right where you are. I know how to do this. I know how you’re feeling. I can help you navigate the waters once we’re successful.’ I mean, how do you not take somebody up on that offer? That’s valuable,” Daly said. “And having Kelly [Clarkson] on next season, too, will be the same thing.”
In Clarkson’s mind, making your way to the top of the music charts after appearing on a singing competition show has a lot to do with perseverance. But, of course, luck plays a role, too.
“The question is always, ‘Why does this one make it and why didn’t this one?’ And it’s hard to tell you that because I think if we knew the answer we’d bottle it up and sell it so everybody could make it,” Clarkson told HuffPost. “Jennifer Hudson and I had this talk when I worked with her recently. We were both like, ‘You know, it’s really not even winning.’ Like she’s the best example of that. It’s taking that opportunity, making something of it and being OK with the fact that it might not be exactly what you thought it was going to be.”
We’ve seen that sort of attitude with “Voice” contestants like RaeLynn, who, at 23, is now one of the most sought-after songwriters in Nashville after being eliminated in the quarterfinals of season two. Her debut album, “Wildhorse,” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart and landed within the Top 10 on the All-Genre Album Sales Chart in 2017. This success, though, came after she left Big Machine and joined forces with Warner Music Nashville, which helped her sink into who she wanted to be as an artist. Under its guidance, she wrote “Love Triangle,” which garnered her a whole lot of attention for its raw and honest lyrics about being a child of divorce.
“Within a week, I had so many other writers who wanted to write with me because of that song,” RaeLynn told Billboard. “It goes to show a great song is what can change a lot for you, and that’s what that song did for me.”
RaeLynn credited Nashville as a pivotal environment. This might explain why a select few winners have flourished when they focused on Music City.
“Everybody knows everybody, and when they find out there’s a new artist that’s great, everybody is going to support them,” she said. “They don’t just support artists who’ve already made it. They want to support new artists, and I think that’s so special.”
And it seems country music listeners want to support emerging artists, as well. A source close to “The Voice” told HuffPost that voting during the show typically takes off in local markets when there’s a particularly moving performance. For example, when Sundance Head advanced in the competition, “The Voice” saw a huge spike in voters from Texas.
“A lot of people who haven’t won the show [and are successful] are just people from Team Blake... He’s from that world and they take care of their own, no doubt about it,” Daly said, mentioning acts like RaeLynn, the Swon Brothers and Gwen Sebastian, who toured with Shelton and wrote three songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest critically acclaimed album, “The Weight of These Wings.”
Ultimately, Clarkson believes no singing competition winner should ever feel like they’re automatically going to be a superstar with a dozen No. 1s. “That’s a level of entitlement that’s going to end up not really working out well,” she advised.
“TV is so powerful, right? Use that platform and use that stage to really showcase what you have, and then use that opportunity to meet as many people as you can meet. That’s all we can really do because there’s no rhyme or reason to why some of us make it and some of us don’t. We all work hard. But some of it is the aligning of the stars.”
Even with the ups and downs, most if not all of the contestants HuffPost spoke to had nothing but fond memories from their time on “The Voice,” and credited the show for giving them a place to shine.
“I loved it as a learning experience, and I’m happy I did it,” Fredericks said. Bradbery and Blue expressed similar sentiments. “If it wasn’t for ‘The Voice,’ I’d be home doing regular stuff, so it was probably the biggest high moment of my whole entire life,” Bradbery said. “It’s been amazing.”
“‘The Voice’ is a really great concept,” Frampton said. “At first, I honestly thought, ‘OK, this has to be rigged. Somebody has to tell the coaches to turn around for certain people.’ But going through the show and seeing the process, I truly believe that it is very genuine.”
Despite the inconsistent track record, the hope for post-show success persists. “The Voice” is expected to continue running two cycles a year until ratings dip (which likely won’t happen anytime soon). Daly said that because there’s so much content out there, in order to stay relevant you have to be on top of your game. “There’s very little appointment viewing,” he said. “If you go away too long, you run the risk of just like falling into oblivion. There’s a successful Mark Burnett competition reality program [‘Survivor’] that’s been on twice a year on CBS for 35 seasons, and it works!”
Daly and Morrissey also know their show is entertaining a robust audience and fills that feel-good void on TV. Because when it comes down to it, the winners of “The Voice” are the network, the coaches and, undoubtedly, the devoted fans who get to see a produced version of the American Dream play out before them. They might not be tuning in to vote for album sales or chart appearances, but they’re glued to their seats in anticipation of each season’s climax.
Win or lose, prevailing after “The Voice,” like any other talent show, is the luck of the draw. But who knows? With a younger, more pop-rock-inspired crop of season 13 finalists (including Brooke Simpson, 26, Chloe Kohanski, 23, and Addison Agen, 16), the future winner could fare better. There’s still a country singer in the mix, though, ahead of next week’s finale, 40-year-old Red Marlow. Will a Tennessee crooner reign supreme once again? If we had to guess, we’d say yes.
Additional reporting by Lauren Moraski.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the title of Stefani’s album. It is “This Is What the Truth Feels Like” not “What the Truth Feels Like.”