New acts light Fuse

Music-only channel provides essential lifeline to artist development

Video might have killed the radio star when MTV bowed in 1981, but since then, much has been made about how the godfather of music programming largely abandoned its stock in trade in the ’90s in favor of such reality shows as “The Real World” and “Road Rules.”

Some music-intensive channels have scrambled to fill the void, including MTV’s sister stations VH-1 and the more recent Palladia, but in the age of Vevo and its comrade-in-arms, YouTube, few cablers have been able to fill the void without hitting some stumbling blocks.

One such channel is MSG Media’s Fuse, which was recently dropped by the Dish Network, the third-largest pay-TV provider in the U.S., diminishing its reach by about 8 million subscribers. Still the channel is carried by just about every major distributor other than Dish, including Comcast, Direct TV and Time Warner, and, according to the latest Nielson Universe figures, Fuse reaches almost 57 million homes nationwide.

Regardless of the setback, Fuse’s mission statement — to bridge the gap between musicians and their fans with a combination of live concert footage, original series, documentaries and specials — remains intact.

“Music is one of the most passionate areas of interest for people in the world,” says Mike Blair, president of MSG Media. “It’s changed dramatically in the last few years; I think many networks abandoned it because they found they were able to reach a larger audience through other kinds of programming.”

From the start, when it was conceived as a simulcast of Canada’s MuchMusic in 1994, Fuse’s programming was music-intensive; its slogan, which touted it as being the channel “where music went,” gave both a nod and a slam to the channels that had given up on music.

The network featured a handful of non-music shows, but after Fuse became a part of MSG Media in 2007, Bair (along with Jay Marciano, president of MSG Entertainment) decided it was time to refocus and refine the channel. Their first task: Eliminate all non-music programming.

But unlike most networks before them, Fuse is interested in doing more than filling up airtime with musicvideos. Instead, it is looking for partnerships with the artists who create them.

“We don’t look at Fuse as a linear channel; we think of it as being part of a larger music social system,” Bair says.

By utilizing Madison Square Garden Inc.’s connection to various venues (it owns the Chicago Theater and Radio City Music Hall, to name a few), Fuse has been able to work with a wide range of artists in creating custom concerts that air live simultaneously on the network.

The series, “Fuse Presents,” kicked off in June 2009 with a performance by the Dave Matthews Band. Since then, Fuse has collaborated with Jay-Z, John Mayer and Kanye West, among others. The most recent installment debuted last month with a performance by Maroon 5 live from the Beacon Theater. The ongoing series is a collaboration that has proven beneficial to both parties.

“It’s imperative we have outlets for consumers to find new music and, more specifically, new artists,” says Jordan Feldstein, manager of Maroon 5. “If there are no outlets to expose people to new music, then labels will simply stop developing new acts.”

Bair agrees. “If you’re celebrating music,” he says, “you have to be at the grassroots level where discovery is happening; where real people are having these amazing musical experiences.”

Those experiences happen regularly at many of the music festivals held throughout the country each year. Fuse’s live coverage of such events as Lollapalooza, Warped Tour and Bonnaroo allows fans to enjoy the event from the comfort of their couches.

In addition, the network features such original programming as “On the Record With Fuse,” a one-on-one artist interview series hosted by music journalist Toure.

Three additional shows are slated to debut this fall: “A Different Spin With Mark Hoppus,” which looks at the music biz as from the perspective of pop punk trio Blink-182’s frontman; “Mad Genius,” a documentary series that delves into the talented and sometimes twisted minds of music luminaries; and “Lay It Down,” an interview and performance-based show hosted by Cee-Lo Green of the hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley.

“For artists, it’s imperative that there be a forum like Fuse,” says Cee-Lo about his commitment to the network. “MTV and VH1 have both made transitions into other endeavors, so someone needs to stick to their guns and make sure that music is coexisting with the rest of the world. Fuse does just that.”

Having brought new life to an old concept, should Fuse be concerned with stirring up copycat competition? “That will always happen,” Bair says. “But there’s nothing like being an incumbent.”

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