How NBC's The Voice Sold 20 Million Songs Without a Single Star

Courtesy NBC

Over the past three and a half years, people have downloaded songs from NBC’s The Voice more than 20 million times. That’s a lot of downloads. So many downloads, in fact, that when Lady Gaga hit the 20 million mark back in 2011 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that she was the highest-certified digital artist ever.

It’s surprising that millions of people are downloading Voice songs, and not just because it means they’re paying amateur singers to cover existing songs that have already been recorded much more deftly by other artists. The Voice’s Matthew Schuler has a nice voice and all, but both Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley have all the “Hallelujahs” you’ll ever need. And what’s most surprising about the 20 million milestone is how successful The Voice has been at marketing its music without producing a star.

If you’re not a regular Voice viewer, have you heard of Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul, or Tessanne Chin? No, you haven’t. That’s because The Voice isn’t actually designed to discover a new pop star. The show, which pulls in close to 14 million viewers each week and is currently the most watched reality-TV program, works best as a vehicle for the judges’ careers. Blake Shelton was barely known outside of country music circles when the show made its debut in 2011; this year he brought in $10.3 million from album sales and touring, according to Billboard, putting him on par with the likes of Kanye West and John Mayer. Fellow judge Adam Levine’s band Maroon 5 made more than twice that.

“We have never made the promise of stardom,” Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late night programming at NBC, recently told Billboard. Commercials for the show advertise the judges, not the contest. And while American Idol’s promotions still peddle the promise that the show can make aspiring singers’ dreams come true, The Voice prefers to cast Betty White as its golden-voiced discovery.

American Idol doesn’t release its track sales the way The Voice does, so it’s hard to compare the two shows’ sales. And The Voice’s numbers don’t include sales of songs released by contestants after they have won the show, so these numbers aren’t pitting its still relatively unknown stars against, say, Kelly Clarkson. Still, Idol has been in an undeniable slump in recent seasons; in August, Caleb Johnson had the lowest album sales of any Idol winner, at just 11,000 copies of Testify sold in the first week. Yet that’s not as low as The Voice’s season five winner, Tessanne Chin, who sold 7,000 copies of her debut, Count on My Love, in July.

Even so, The Voice’s popularity keeps growing. And it’s surging during a time when record labels find it increasingly difficult to expose audiences to new music. According to the Atlantic, Top 40 stations play popular songs about twice as often as they did a decade ago, leaving very little room for new artists looking to break out. What’s more, when people listen to music they almost always seek out songs they’ve heard before.

Maybe that’s why shows like Idol and The Voice do so well: People feel like they’re discovering new artists even though they’re listening to the same old tunes.

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