Music a major factor on new shows

“NCIS,” the No. 2 drama this season, has integrated music in storylines in a manner not seen on network television. While the assertion that TV has become the new radio is up for some debate, “NCIS” has fast established itself as a new creative model, wrapping plotlines around songs, creating a soundscape for a character and a workplace and using enough unreleased material that CBS Records has a product it can take to market.

At the beginning of the season, “NCIS” producers were presented with dozens of unreleased tracks by name artists and up-and-comers, among them songs by Perry Farrell, Blue October and Dashboard Confessional, all of them with clearances rights in place. Scripts were written with songs in mind — the first being a December episode in which Saving Abel’s “After All” played under a teen party scene — and the writers will continue to do so until the end of the season.

On Feb. 10, CBS Records will release the “NCIS” soundtrack as a two-disc set, one devoted to pop-oriented music central to the storylines and a second disc that captures the Gothic ambience of the crime lab run by the character Abby Sciuto played by Pauley Perrette. Sixteen of the 22 tracks have never been released; since December — and continuing through May — each featured track has been plugged along with the soundtrack on the end credits. Unlike other soundtracks, the album is expected to be marketed on a song by song basis, and since it is so heavy on unreleased tracks, consumers will be pointed to only one album.

“Twenty years ago you wanted money” for a placement, explained Larry Jenkins, the president of CBS Records whose music career has included work in artist management and marketing and publicity at several major labels. “Labels are getting smarter. If it’s a catalog piece you want to get paid. For an act with a brand new album, they usually choose the ad card. That commercial time has tremendous value.”

Placements “are advertisements for tours,” said Keaton Simons, a singer-songwriter who has created a unique blues-pop fusion and records for CBS Records and started a two-month tour with Tyrone Wells last week. “There’s a lot of opportunity here.”

TV HAS ENTERED a new phase in music deployment. Scripted shows are proving a wall-to-wall song soundtrack is not necessary to have musical impact. Standouts include NBC’s “Life,” which uses three or four tunes per episode and has made music an effective character by playing at inordinate length. Last month, CBS’ “Criminal Minds” integrated Tom Petty’s “American Girl” into an episode by not only playing the song twice, but by using the lyrics as part of a code employed by two killers. “Cold Case” has impressively integrated music from different eras in flashback segs and made interesting use of the songs of Bob Dylan and Nirvana.

“For us everything is detailed,” said Josh Rexon, the “NCIS” co-producer responsible for the music. “We’re not going to use five or 10 songs. We’ll use one or two and make sure it evokes the proper mood. When we do use music, we use it in a place that doesn’t take people out of a scene.”

As the “Twilight” soundtrack, still in the top 10 after 12 weeks, has proved, when a compilation from a film is programmed well it can still be a commercially viable product. Successful soundtracks are always able to point to the emotional connection between image and sound that sticks with the viewer and the sequencing that makes the listener want to return to the album rather than cherry-pick favorites.

More than any other TV show, “NCIS” is taking the film approach. As much as the network and record company cross-promote, they ultimately see the album as a chronicle mostly of the show’s sixth season. Amazon has been enlisted as a partner for pre-orders, giving the soundtrack website placement as prominent as the new Bruce Springsteen album and the Grammy Awards contenders.

Jenkins’ initial meetings with the “NCIS” producers were strictly philosophical and contained no music. He knew they needed a concept that had not yet been tried.

“Sitting down, they didn’t blink. It was ‘NCIS’ saying they could make it work creatively. When you think of great music integration, people usually say ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ It meant taking (the ideas) to the network level a little more in advance. From the record side, I’m able to put out an album with unreleased acts revealed in subsequent episodes. Everything aligns here.”

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