An audio only singing contest makes perfect sense — music is meant to be heard, after all — but it’s never been done before. That’s why Audible is introducing the world to Breakthrough, a competition series developed and launched exclusively as a podcast.
“When they said it’s never been done before, I said, ‘I’m intrigued.’ That’s literally what happened for me,” Kelly Rowland, who serves as a judge on the show alongside Sara Bareilles, tells Billboard of how quickly she got onboard with the innovative concept.
Bareilles agrees. “It was just a really interesting alchemy of an opportunity to nurture new talent, to work with people I really respect and admire and then to get to do it in pajamas,” she says with a laugh. “It was really all a blessing. You get to stay in your PJs and just listen to music and give feedback.”
On the show, hosted by Daveed Diggs, the superstar duo will guide five anonymous contestants’ performances, as well as mentor their artistic development through 10 episodes of musical challenges. Of course, due to the “audio only” format, the physical appearance of the performers is concealed to listeners and judges.
While there are challenges to not being able to see the contestants, Bareilles says that there were more benefits to the unique format. “It helped us hone in on what we were really here to do, which was to listen and critique and give constructive feedback to songwriters and vocal interpreters,” she explains. “So, it was nice to be relieved of all of the other information you get when you’re looking at someone. It also felt very nostalgic to me the way I used to listen to records just in my headphones and block out the whole world. I was loving the analog aspect of that.”
“That’s the rich portion of it to me,” Rowland adds. “All you have to do is listen and feel, and that’s literally it. Those are the only senses you have, you’re hearing and feeling. Because you don’t have sight, everything else becomes stronger.”
Both Rowland and Bareilles are known for their emotionally charged songs, and they made sure to encourage the contestants to express themselves as truthfully as possible in their music, something that can translate easily through audio. “[I told the contestants] to make sure that when you’re singing, you mean what you say and that you’re telling the truth,” Bareilles notes. “If you’re tired, if you’re vocally fatigued, tell the truth with a tired voice. What does that sound like? That sounds a little different than someone who’s hydrated and well slept, you know? That is our industry. You have to really roll with the punches and go with the flow in that sense and learn another way to learn your own instrument.”
Breakthrough first three episodes are available now on Audible here. Episodes four through six will be available to stream on June 8, seven and eight will become available on June 15 before the final two episodes wrap up the season on June 22.