Singer-songwriter Cas Haley was a standout on Season 2 of America’s Got Talent, making it all the way to second place (behind ventriloquist Terry Fator) with his covers of “Walking on the Moon” by the Police and Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine.” He’s since released four independent albums, but if you’re wondering why he didn’t go the major label route, it’s because he literally went into hiding from the series’ Simon Cowell-affiliated record company, Syco.
“What I did was, I ignored them for about six months. They wanted an album out by Christmas,” Haley revealed this week during a recent South by Southwest festival panel, “Now What? Life After Reality Singing Competitions,” that also included The Voice Season 1 semifinalist Nakia and American Idol Season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis. “A day after the show was over, I was supposed to be going to meetings; they were introducing me to people that were going to be songwriters on my album. That was a wake-up call, right there. I was like, ‘I am a songwriter. I really care about me being authentic with my art. This is not the place for me.’
“The second day after the show was over, instead of going to the meeting, I flew home and I changed my phone number. True story.”
Haley explained that he’d “grown fearful and untrustworthy” during his time on AGT, which he’d only reluctantly tried out for after a well-meaning friend set up a private audition. (“I really was one of the people that really didn’t like reality TV before I auditioned. My wife loved it, and I was always sort of hating on it.”) He soon had a “rude awakening” when he “realized that it was about good TV and not about maybe doing the right thing,” after he claims producers exploited a young contestant.
“She was probably 8 years old,” Haley recalled. “The producers in the holding room tell all of us, ‘Jasmine made it through.’ Jasmine walks through the doors, everybody claps: ‘Congratulations!’ And Jasmine didn’t make it through. They get the reaction of this 8-year-old girl sort of in that moment of everybody congratulating her, and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know about this.’ … Maybe they made a mistake, but to me it seemed like it was set up.”
Haley also felt uneasy about the show “pushing people through that obviously were a little unstable,” like “Boy Shakira,” an aspiring female impersonator who was presented as a joke. “I think they’re playing with fire, and that sort of weirded me out. That’s when I sort of stopped — like, ‘I don’t trust these people.’”
And so, when Haley was informed that the show’s powers-that-be wanted to rush out an album with him, he panicked. “What that meant was they were going to exercise all their options,” Haley explained. “Their options is the thing. They have you sign into all these different options, which in total makes a 360 deal where they have your performances capped, they have your merchandising, they have every aspect of revenue from your career they’re involved in.”
Haley subsequently bolted. But he couldn’t hide forever. Months later, in Austin, Texas, America’s Got Talent caught up with him.
“Man, I was sort of freaked out, because they found me!” Haley chuckled. “In this city, at a gig, they just showed up — this guy named Paul who was going to be my manager. … They’re introducing me to my ‘manager,’ they’re introducing me to my songwriters, they find me after I just cut off communication, and I had to basically tell them to leave, because I was freaked out. It’s like someone who didn’t realize that they were so into ma and pa business just sold it, and these other people are coming in and taking control.”
Haley laughingly admitted that he “was in breach of everything” legally, but he didn’t know what he was getting into in the first place. “They gave us the contract [when the season started] and they basically said, ‘We need this back tomorrow,’” he said. “I didn’t even have a lawyer review anything. I just signed it all. The way that it was presented to me, it was pretty much in stone and that they probably wouldn’t be changing anything.”
However, Haley later learned from his AGT castmate, Fator, that he’d actually had more negotiating power than he’d realized at the time. “[Fator] really had his s*** together, excuse my language. When he came into the show, he had an attorney and he was just really smart. He negotiated a lot of things throughout the show. Although they might not tell you that things are negotiable, there might actually be some stuff that if you can’t legally sign into all these different options, you might actually be able to get away with not doing it. Terry was one of the ones who really knew what he wanted, knew what he was after, and did it the right way.”
Thankfully, by the time the show hunted Haley down, he had his own lawyer, who extricated him from the contract. “They had me locked into like a five-album option. … I have to say, with all the negative stuff that I did experience, they didn’t shelve me [and prevent me from releasing music] — and they could have. So that was sort of a good deal. And I went on my way.”
Since then, Haley, who lives quietly on a farm in Paris, Texas, with his wife, two kids, and a bunch of pigs when he’s not touring, has enjoyed an indie music career. And over the years, he’s come to appreciate his time on AGT.
“I totally think the show was a blessing for my life. I don’t know if I would actually do it again, but I definitely think that it’s changed my life for the better,” he said. “I’ve learned so much. I think my negative experiences probably could have been averted if I would have actually thought about what I was getting myself into and studied it a little bit and really researched it. Anybody that’s looking to do these kind of shows, I think you really need to put in some serious thought, and you really, really need to know what you want.”
As for whether Haley recommends that young aspiring singers try out for shows like America’s Got Talent, American Idol, or The Voice, he said, “I think it’s different for each kind of different artist. If you’re looking for pop fame, yes. If you’re looking for a bump in some money, yes. If you’re looking for respect as a songwriter, I don’t know. You need to think about it.”
Watch a Facebook Live replay of the SXSW panel “Now What? Life After Reality Singing Competitions” below.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.