The Reality Of Winning The Voice
Outside all the fanfare, the hype and the superlatives from Seal, what does winning The Voice actually entail? DARREN LEVIN reports.
Meet Karise Eden, a 19-year-old from the NSW Central Coast, who not only won the Nine Network reality show The Voice last night, but has been dubbed “the voice of her generation” by none other than UK pop singer Seal. It’s a big burden to carry for a young work-in-progress, who was too busy flitting between women’s shelters in her youth to ever contemplate the realities of a professional singing career – but the superlatives didn’t end there.
"You've just witnessed a historical moment in Australian TV,” gushed Seal after a performance by Eden on the program’s penultimate show on Monday night. “You are looking at the new Australian queen of soul.”
While Eden may well unseat Renee Geyer – the artist that’s carried that mantle for 40 years of hard graft and little financial reward – she faces a long, hard road in a fickle industry whose core business (selling albums) is dwindling with each passing year. According to last year’s ARIA wholesale figures, the current overall industry value has dropped more than 27 percent since 2005. While labels and industry professionals have undoubtedly taken a hit, artists are the real losers in this equation; a fact confirmed by a recent Ernst & Young report finding musicians were making roughly $12,000 a year.
And yet the singers that appear on The Voice are still being sold an outdated rock’n’roll fantasy where all of their dreams can come true. Are they told that attaining platinum sales in Australia is a rarity for a local artist (there were eight last year), or that those figures relate to roughly 70,000 records sold?
As winner of The Voice, Eden has already won 10 times the average national wage for a musician in cash, as well as a car and a record deal with Universal Music Australia. But what exactly does that deal entail? While contestants have been barred from talking about their contracts with the media, a report in The Guardian published earlier this year hinted at oppressive 360 deals involving 50 percent of revenue from album sales, 50 percent of publishing rights and a 20 percent cut of the gross of all other revenue associated with the artist, including merchandise, biographies and performance income.
But that’s not the case in Australia, says Darren Sanicki, the lawyer representing the 48 finalists of The Voice. While he was unable to discuss exact figures, he says the contracts offered were “generally in the same ballpark” as your garden-variety major label deal.
“I act for the contestants and if there was massive unfairness about it, it wouldn’t be happening,” Sanicki told M+N today. “In the other shows, Idol or whatever, you’re talking about kids. With The Voice you’re dealing with a lot of seasoned professionals: Mahalia Barnes, Glenn Cunningham, Prinnie Stevens and Darren Percival. These people have all been around for years in the industry – they had a lot of strong ideas of where their contracts should end up.”
But that doesn’t mean the negotiations were all smooth sailing. Each contract was beholden to not only the interests of the label, but the two production companies behind the show as well. “You’re not only dealing with a record company,” says Sanicki, “you’re dealing with a company that’s answerable to the format owners of the show. In Australia it’s Shine, but in the Netherlands – where the show comes from – it’s a group called Talpa [Media]. The hard thing was when Universal’s hands were tied by Talpa and they couldn’t budge on a point. That’s when it gets a little frustrating.”
While Eden is the only contestant to have put pen to paper to a Universal deal so far, theoretically all 47 other finalists can be snapped up over the coming weeks. Sanicki says all finalists were offered the same deal, barring a handful of artists with pre-existing management and publishing deals.
“The top 48 contestants all sign the same contracts, which is recording, management and publishing – separate agreements,” he explains. “The contract automatically applies to the winner, and anyone else management or the label decides to option. It’s a bit more detailed than that, but effectively the record label can pick who they want. And the people they don’t option, that’s it. It’s over.”
Sanicki says the option period generally lasts only a few weeks, but given the success of the show he expects Universal to exercise it on at least one more artist. “I just get the feeling with The Voice because of how big it is, and because there’s already been so much recording activity, and testing of the market – they’ve sold 100,000 singles – they’ll probably take more than the winner. I don’t know how many, but we’ll find out.”
But not all artists are thrilled at the prospect of a Voice-endorsed record deal. Speaking to M+N on condition of anonymity, a former contestant said they felt as if they were signing away their life. “It’s pretty all-encompassing. It’s your standard contract that stitches you up. They spend a fortune on these shows so they want to tie you down, and they do tie you down. If you get optioned, you pretty much have to go their way … When it’s being broadcast to millions of people, they want to own you.”
“The singers that appear on 'The Voice' are still being sold an outdated rock’n’roll fantasy where all of their dreams can come true.”
Asked if they had an understanding of what kind of agreements they were entering into, they said it was hard not to get caught up in the “whirlwind” nature of reality TV. “There were certain things I was reluctant to sign on, definitely. Stuff pertaining to publishing and those kind of platform deals, where your life is owned … We had a few good wins, but nothing substantial. Universal, I suppose, would’ve put the bar very high knowing that for most of us this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They would’ve been happy to bring it back to what the standard [major label contract] would be anyway.”
Aside from an in-house counselor, which was provided by the production company free of charge, the contestant said they were sold the rock star dream until the very end. “There were a lot of roundabout discussions and they were really careful about what they said and how they said it.”
So what now for Karise Eden, an artist taking her tentative first steps beyond the protective environment of The Voice? With her cover of ‘Hallelujah’ already sitting at #2 on the ARIA Singles Chart, Sanicki, her lawyer, says it’s a case of striking while the iron – and the TV ratings – are hot. “I believe they’re going into the studio really quickly to finish a record so she can get one out. Then it’s about how well you do next. She probably wants to get something out, relax, and then have a think about making an album from scratch; to try and become a relevant artist.”
And yet for all the Jessica Mauboys and Lisa Mitchells, the Brooke Addamos and Guy Sebastians, the Matt Corbys and Shannon Nolls, that quest for relevancy is something attained by very few, especially when you’re perceived as not having paid your dues.
“It’s really difficult to get a break,” Sanicki concedes. “Some might be ready and some might not. You look at [X Factor winner] Altiyan Childs. He clearly wasn’t ready for it. But there are a lot of others that have. Jessica Mauboy is on the verge of being a world star … There’s plenty of people having successful careers that started on one of these shows, and equally there’s people that don’t handle it so well.”