Reality TV shows such as ‘The Voice’ and ‘American Idol’ haven’t launched a lot of major music careers
If it seems that most winners of “The Voice,” “American Idol” and similar shows fade away after the end of their season on the show, you’re not imagining things.
The shows are designed as reality TV entertainment, not specifically to help contestants become successful music artists, said a trio of music industry veterans now working at Sweetwater Studios in Fort Wayne.
“At their core, they are talent shows,” said Mark Hornsby, Sweetwater Studios’ vice president of operations and senior producer and engineer. The studio is a branch of Fort Wayne-based Sweetwater, a national music equipment and services business.
Hornsby and the Sweetwater Studios staff currently are helping Addison Agen of Fort Wayne beat the odds. They are assisting Agen, who finished runner-up last season on “The Voice,” as she records a new album that Agen hopes will launch the next phase of her music career.
Christiana Hicks of Fort Wayne, who has made it to the upcoming live playoffs while competing as Christiana Danielle this season on “The Voice,” also has worked with a vocal coach at Sweetwater since making it onto the show.
SUPPORT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, who both were early season winners of “American Idol,” used their success on the show to build careers as major music artists. But most other winners of shows such as “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent” haven’t achieved that level of popularity.
Unlike Agen, who had been performing live in Fort Wayne before getting onto “The Voice,” many people who appear on reality TV vocal and music talent shows don’t have a music career before they go onto the show, said Hornsby, who ran recording studios in Nashville and Florida before joining Sweetwater in 2012. He has worked with artists such as Alison Krauss, George Strait, Travis Tritt, Foreigner and Steve Winwood, and other projects included some work for “American Idol.”
After contestants’ time on the show ends, he said, many return to the life they led before the show gave them the opportunity to perform in front of millions of TV viewers.
“There is, to my knowledge, little or no follow-up to these people (by the show) on how to live their lives or to make a (music) career,” Hornsby said.
Agen has strong family and other support, mentors and Sweetwater helping her, which Hornsby describes as a “very good and unusual situation.”
But the popularity a contestant may enjoy with TV show viewers doesn’t last long, he said.
“People are hooked on the show,” Hornsby said, noting many fans of last season’s “The Voice” already have moved on to the current season.
While contestants are talented, part of the appeal of the shows is the drama, which often includes people with an interesting or gripping life story, said Hornsby and Don Carr, a Sweetwater Studios guitarist who spent 23 years playing with the Oak Ridge Boys and who also has performed with James Brown, Tim McGraw and Trisha Yearwood.
“They love a backstory,” Hornsby noted.
“MAKING IT” AS A MUSIC ARTIST
What constitutes “making it” as a music artist depends on the person, said Nick D’Virgilio, Sweetwater Studios’ drummer and a vocalist and engineer.
Success could be anything from surviving by playing music wherever you can to being a superstar who never has to worry about money, said D’Virgilio, who played drums and sang with rock group Tears for Fears from 1995 to 2010 and then performed with the Cirque du Soleil show “Totem” for a few years before joining Sweetwater in 2014.
D’Virgilio also still plays drums and sings with two popular progressive rock bands, Spock’s Beard and Big, Big Train.
But the music business has changed, said D’Virgilio, Hornsby and Carr.
In the old days, music artists and groups would put out an album and then go on a concert tour to attract fans and promote sales of the album, D’Virgilio said. Today, music artists can do a lot of the promotion using social media and the internet.
Music listening also has shifted heavily toward web streaming services, such as Spotify, rather than being released through sales of vinyl albums and compact discs.
“Anybody can put up an album on the internet,” said Carr, who joined Sweetwater Studios in 2016.
Airplay on traditional, land-based radio stations still is important for promoting sales of a few forms of music – country, pop, R&B and some rock, Hornsby said. Live concert performances are not quite as important as in the past, but they make up the biggest share of a music artist’s income, he said.
FINDING YOUR FOCUS
The reality of the music business today is you have to pick a music niche to serve, Hornsby, Carr and D’Virgilio said.
“Pick your niche and focus on it, because that is where you get your core following, and then it can expand,” D’Virgilio said.
They believe Agen has done that, which will help her toward her goal of becoming a concert headliner musician.
“She has found her voice, so to speak,” D’Virgilio said. “She has found her style.”
The fact that she writes her own songs also is a plus, Carr said.
Other keys to building a successful music career, they said, include:
• Play any place you can to keep your name out there, D’Virgilio said. Keep building your fan base, and stay in touch with them. Both are especially important after a top finish on one of the music talent shows because it may take months to put out a new album, he said.
• Network with as many people as possible, which can lead to getting recommendations to perform with bigger-name artists or groups, D’Virgilio and Carr said. You also can use the internet to get information or music out to the public, which makes it easier for other bands and performers to find you.
• Create a brand and use it in everything you do, Hornsby said. Before you record an album, for example, think about whether the songs you want to include will connect with your audience.
• Get a good manager to represent you – someone who believes in you, Carr said.
• Raise the money needed to put out albums and to go on tour because record labels rarely provide artists with that money anymore, Carr said.
“It’s a business,” Hornsby noted. “You have to fundraise. It’s almost like running for (political) office.”
Success really depends on the musician, they said.
“Talent is your stepping stone,” Carr said. “Hard work is the rest of it.”
“It’s a hard business,” Hornsby noted. “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”