Art and commerce duet in primetime

In the age of 'Glee' and 'Gossip Girl,' TV is the new radio

Way back in 2005, when indie musicians appeared on a show like “The O.C.,” it was a boost for their career but deadly for their credibility. For the network, landing a cool new band was considered a coup, but the artist risked being branded a “sellout.” Today, the tables have turned.

“Five years ago, we were still at the point where we were begging bands to be a part of television; you had to go through all these approval processes and make it worth their while,” says Dawn Soler, VP of TV music at ABC. “But in the last four years, television has really become the new radio. It is absolutely the way people are discovering new music.”

What’s changed? Leonard Richardson, VP of music at the CW, points to the increasing difficulty of breaking new artists with the advent of online marketing. “There’s so much clutter out there,” he observes. “It’s really hard to break through.”

Compared to such unfiltered platforms as YouTube, which didn’t even launch until 2005, TV shows, with their curated mix of songs within the trusted framework of a familiar narrative, are a reliable outlet for new music. As Richardson sees it, the artists have finally realized that this is a good thing.

“Labels have always been interested in licensing,” he points out. “The perception changed more so with artists than with labels. I think at one point artists felt like, ‘Oh, I don’t want my music used in this or that, and I want people to buy it just for the music as opposed to tied to a product or a TV show.’ … (But) I think the industry squeeze made people reevaluate that.”

Richardson came up with a promotion where information about artists and their albums would be shown on “ad cards” at the end of a show like “Gossip Girl,” in exchange for a reduced licensing fee. This was so successful that they launched a “platinum series” for platinum-selling artists, showing a clip from their latest music video as well as album info. Last season, Kanye West and Green Day were featured.

“Those are some of the types of artists who would not necessarily have participated in things like that (in the past),” Richardson notes.

Of course, when it comes to a music-friendly show like “Gossip Girl,” there are also coveted opportunities for artists to appear inside the show, as Lady Gaga did, performing “Bad Romance” just before the single dropped. Gaga referred to the move as “performance art,” but no doubt her label saw it differently. “Every time we promoted the episode,” says Richardson, “those were spins: This is Lady Gaga’s new single.”

Mia Crow, a founder of Visionworks Music and Management, says she’s surprised by the negative comments she still hears about artists who place songs on TV. “I have read some writers making disparaging remarks like, ‘This sounds like another crappy song off ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ she says. “These writers have no clue how difficult it is to get a song on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or one of these other TV shows.” And, she adds, “They don’t realize that this is why artists are able to continue making music.”

Crow’s client AM has been luckier than most, placing songs on more than 100 films and episodes of TV including “Friday Night Lights” and “Brothers and Sisters.” Maintaining a balance between art and commerce, the “indie lounge pop” artist also opened for the French group Air on their North American tour this spring. When it was over, AM was invited to continue the tour in France, an opportunity that wouldn’t have been possible without a song placement.

“Literally, a song placement wiped out the bill to get his whole band to France,” Crow says.

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time. “Every artist team is having to be very strategic in trying to work with television shows,” notes Crow, who also works with Tracy Bonham and The BellRays. “We make sure they get the music ahead of time, before the album comes out. It’s one of the first things we do.”

Before the release of her debut single “Tik Tok,” Ke$ha caught the ear of Richardson, and he brought her in to record a CW branding piece, an example of perfect synergy. “Our demo is very active in terms of sussing things out,” he says, and based on sheer voice recognition, “they were buzzing before it hit the streets. Now Ke$ha is a No. 1 artist.”

Peter Dicecco, senior VP of business and legal affairs at ABC, says that the level of access has been the biggest gamechanger, enabling the network to create what he calls “360 deals,” where an artist like Shakira will appear on multiple ABC shows and offer free downloads of her new single in the ABC Music Lounge.

On the website, viewers can listen to artists they’ve heard on “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Desperate Housewives,” as well as the artists who might not have made it onto a show yet, like Nashville’s Lady Antebellum, who nonetheless have the support of the music team.

Several times a week, up-and-comers are invited to do live showcases at the studio, which is another win-win situation — regardless of the immediate outcome.

“The artist gets introduced to music decision makers throughout the company,” Soler points out, “and then you always have a great relationship with them. And if they get huge, you can go to them and say, ‘Hey, what’s your next single? Let’s do something big together.’ “

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