Five seasons, 100 episodes and 62 million song sales later, it’s easy to underestimate just how odd “Glee’s” business model must have looked to songwriters, label execs and music retailers upon its inception: A primetime jukebox musical, featuring a woozy blend of Broadway showtunes, ’80s schlock rock anthems, modern pop hits and oddball deep cuts, all sung by a mostly unknown cast of young singers, with hastily recorded singles released to iTunes en masse upon the conclusion of each week’s show.
Yet it was a formula that a few committed men were willing to bet big on. With co-creator Ryan Murphy picking the songs, music supervisor P.J. Bloom clearing them, producer Adam Anders working round the clock to arrange and record them, and Columbia Records prexy Rob Stringer to sell them, a rather small creative team created a pop music juggernaut.
“I don’t want to say that I knew it would work from the beginning, but … I kinda did,” says Stringer, who persuaded Murphy to pact “Glee” with Columbia by stressing his experience in translating TV buzz to immediate iTunes sales with the U.K. version of “The X Factor.”
“At the time, other labels thought it was weird to use covers, but I thought that was the clever thing,” he says. “I thought it was a distillation of some of the ‘X Factor’ platform, but a color version. This sort of populist look at contemporary music, but with the production values of a movie.”
Charting its first hit before the first proper season even started, “Glee” proved a remarkably efficient music delivery system right off the blocks. The show landed 25 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 in its first season, and 80 the next, breaking records set by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And even as it kept mainstream pop hits from Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Adele on the charts, it managed to revive a raft of formerly musty music. In its first two seasons, the show turned Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’’” from a guilty pleasure into a genuine modern standard, and scored top 40 hits with covers of Lionel Richie, Neil Diamond, Bonnie Tyler and Heart, acts with which the show’s largely young fanbase was likely previously unfamiliar. Sales spikes for the original versions of “Glee”-ified tunes were inevitable, and in turn helped the show secure more and more access to label catalogs.
Stringer credits producer Anders for crafting a signature house style that could accommodate such a wide array of genres and voices, and for approaching production like a proper pop hitmaker, rather than a glorified karaoke host.
“The sheen on those records gave it a much bigger production value than a reality pop show,” Stringer says. “I n a weird way, it kind of didn’t matter if the lip-syncing on the show wasn’t exactly perfect, i t mattered that the records sounded like real records, and not like some canned piece of music with someone singing over the top. And they did. That made a huge difference for our sales potential.”
Of course, maintaining such a high level of studio polish took a toll on Anders and his producing partner Peer Astrom, who essentially worked in a continuous 24-hour cycle in the early days, with the Stockholm-based Astrom taking over production tasks when the L.A.-based Anders went to bed. (They’ve since enlarged their staff significantly.) Anders notes that the show’s Broadway numbers were particularly taxing.
“You think about these Sondheim arrangements, they’re so deep and layered and we have so little time to do full orchestral arrangements on them,” he says. “When there are eight songs a week and three of them are massive orchestral arrangements … I don’t know if everyone appreciates just how difficult those are. Modern pop music is the easiest because it’s all programmed. There are a lot of people who can program. But when you come down to these incredibly complex arrangements, there aren’t many people in the world who can do it.”
As the series developed into a massive cash cow during some of the leanest years in record industry history, its reliance on hits and Broadway smashes — in other words, songs that needed the exposure the least — drew criticism.
At some point in the third season, however, “Glee” widened its net to include rising singles from lesser-known acts such as Givers’ “Up Up Up,” Halestorm’s “Here’s to Us,” Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied” and Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers.”
“ ‘Glee’ had become such a huge platform at that point that we were able to actually break some new songs,” Anders says. “Maybe that was Ryan’s plan all along with the series, but we had to get to a point where we had the power and the influence to do it — we couldn’t have just done that from the beginning.”
Perhaps no artist owes its current livelihood to early “Glee” exposure more than journeyman indie poppers Fun. Released in September 2011, Fun’s single “We Are Young” received little attention and middling airplay until a “Glee” cover version appeared the next month. The original track’s sales jumped by 1,650% in the week after the show aired, securing even more licensing for the song, including a Super Bowl commercial. By March 2012, the song logged the first of six consecutive weeks at No. 1 and less than a year later, won a Grammy for song of the year.
But as profitable as the property has proven for the network, the label, and the bands who rode its momentum, the forecast for its stars and its sales model after the show wraps for good is hardly clear-cut. Matthew Morrison was the first “Glee” principal to go solo, with his first album selling very modestly, and last year’s follow-up going largely ignored. Columbia signee Lea Michele, long pegged as the show’s most likely breakout star and who had made a name on Broadway before TV beckoned, has only this month released her solo debut, though Stringer notes that the demands of shooting made it difficult for cast members to commit to launching independent music careers.
“That show is intense, you know, it’s eight months of work a year, and there were a few years where they were touring too,” he says. “And being a pop star is a full time job. We talked (with Michele) about making a record after season one, but she’s a very smart girl, and she didn’t know if she’d have the time to do it properly.”
As the show begins to wind down, Stringer says the label has been in discussions and recorded demos with a number of other cast members as well, though he’s less sanguine about the prospect of filling a “Glee”-sized void on the label’s spreadsheets.
“I don’t think it’ll be repeated,” he says. “Obviously there’s a model there, and if you can find another show that’s as explosive as that on television, then you know that the benefits are there. … I think the idea of putting Broadway musicals on television for a young audience was revolutionary. I think it’s hard to have a direct comparison and say something else is going to work the same way. There’s a reason nothing has overtaken ‘Glee’ yet.”