Inside the Voice: A Casting Assistant Gives a Peek Behind the Curtain

Trae Patton/NBC
Adam Levine, Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson during "Knockout Rounds" on The Voice. 

When raspy rock vocalist Chloe Kohanski walked off as the winner of NBC's The Voice in December 2017, Blake Shelton was obviously stoked: She was the sixth champion from Team Blake in the competition's first 13 seasons.

Almost as excited was Nashville Underground Artist Management founder Shawn Carnes, a former gospel singer who has become one of numerous talent pipelines for The Voice. An independently contracted, Nashville-based casting assistant since season 11, Carnes connected Kohanski with the show's producers when they were filling out the final contestant slots at the launch of season 13. She's one of many entrants associated with Music City — including former winners Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery, Craig Wayne Boyd and Sundance Head — who have created a strong bond between The Voice and the country music capital.

"It just gives our city so much exposure," says Carnes. "Even if they aren't from here, if they moved to Nashville from wherever, it definitely helps our city and lets everybody know that there's so much talent coming out of the city that's not just country."

Like its predecessor and competitor, American Idol, The Voice has given hope to many artists looking to start or boost their careers. Pope, Bradbery and RaeLynn all earned hits after a run on The Voice. Boyd rode massive single sales of "Baby's Got a Smile on Her Face" to a No. 1 debut on the Hot Country Songs chart (which measures sales, airplay and streaming) after his December 2014 victory. Gwen Sebastian joined Shelton on the 2014 hit "My Eyes" and now is a background singer in Miranda Lambert's band. Morgan Wallen —who was based in Knoxville, Tenn., when he competed — had a short run on the show that gave him enough confidence to move to Nashville, where he cut the current Florida Georgia Line collaboration "Up Down." And shortly after she bowed out of the competition, Nicolle Galyon found success as a country songwriter with such titles as Lambert's "Automatic," Keith Urban's "Female" and Dan + Shay's "Tequila."

Part of the show's appeal is the drama. Much like the Stanley Cup playoffs or the NCAA basketball tournament, The Voice has only one eventual winner, so the contestants battle against tremendous odds, with most of them destined to fall short of victory.

But the process of even making it on to the show is complicated. The producers hold formal public auditions for each season that includes a back-end process that lets them fill in holes or create more of a balance in the contestant pool. It's in that manner that Carnes assists, able to help the producers identify quality Nashville talent. They go through multiple auditions – the same as the contestants who enter through public cattle calls — but they might get fast-tracked to Los Angeles if they represent an age group or genre that might be lacking in a particular season. Thus, those entrants need to be prepared to abandon everything else to spend a month or so in Los Angeles during the early part of production.

"If the producers like you, you can expect to be on a plane in less than two weeks," says Carnes.

NBC makes a big financial commitment. All the contestants are flown to Los Angeles and compensated during a month or so of production, and some of them may never even compete. The judges, says Carnes, filled up their teams so quickly for season 14 that roughly 25 people never got to step on the stage for the blind audition.

"They get a good little salary," says Carnes. "All their expenses are paid, plus on top of that they shoot all their back stories. [NBC spends] a ton of money, and they don't even use most of it. There's a limited few that make it on the show."

Talent is important, but it's not the only factor involved in qualifying.  

"They do an intense psychological [preparation with] them," says Carnes, noting that the pressure of the show practically mandates it. "It is kind of mind-blowing if you do make it on to the show to [sing] in front of millions of people."

And then there's the matter of the contract. NBC has people available to understand the ins and outs of the deal, but Carnes saw one instance in which a fast-tracked contestant had a short window to go through it at the end of the first round of auditions in Los Angeles.

"They flew home on that Thursday, got home Thursday night, had to have that contract back to them by Saturday afternoon," he says. "They're not going to be able to negotiate anything, [and] it's a thick contract."

One of the criticisms of talent shows is how few genuine stars they produce. There are plenty of factors for that — the marketplace is already overpopulated with artists, the competitions sometimes produce people with ample musical talent but little charisma, and many of them are simply unprepared for the rigorous demands of an artistic career.

To mitigate that latter point, Carnes has started managing and/or consulting some of the acts he funnels to The Voice , emphasizing the importance of having an infrastructure and product on hand even before their season starts. The goal, he says, is to have some bookings and recordings ready to go — whether they win or not — and keep momentum going once their weekly TV exposure disappears.

"When they put all the artists through the process, they do a great job developing them and coaching them and getting them primed and ready to be on that stage," says Carnes. "What they don't do is teach them anything about starting their own business. They're not ever taught how to utilize that platform once they get off the show."

The lesson, in Carnes' view, is to be as prepared on the front end as possible. TV producers invariably move on to another season or another show. An artist only has one career, so when a huge marketing opportunity comes along, it's imperative to be ready to handle it on their own as the spotlight moves on.

"Each artist needs to be ready," he says, "and I think it's up to them."