In a hushed cavern of a room somewhere in Manhattan, music group the Lone Bellow is holding forth, previewing new songs and, in a surprise moment, tackling the popular Broken Bells single “Holding on for Life.” Most members of the small audience are staring at monitors rather than the band.
If this concert took place at one of New York’s music clubs, like the Mercury Lounge or the Bowery Ballroom, such behavior might prompt surprise. In this case, however, the band was taping a set for the Saturday edition of “CBS This Morning,” part of another effort by the show’s personnel to distinguish this A.M. option from the rest of the morning-show pack.
“There’s a lot of great music out there that doesn’t get air time,” said Anthony Mason, co-host of the program. “You shine a light on them and people say, ‘Thanks.’”
“CBS This Morning’s” ‘Saturday Session’ isn’t just about offering something that has a good beat. The show is using the new sounds to help it stand apart from similar fare aired on rival networks. NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” both of which typically draw a larger viewership than the CBS program, also feature music, but their most prominent offerings generally appear in frenetic outdoor concerts and rely on bands and musicians who are extremely well known. While popular musicians like Annie Lennox (above, pictured) and Aaron Neville have appeared on the show, “CBS This Morning” also spotlights artists whose acclaim may sometimes be more critical than popular. Ben Harper, Wussy and She & Him have gotten a nod from the program in recent months. Lucinda Williams is slated to appear this coming Saturday.
Musicians make the rounds of programs ranging from “Saturday Night Live” to “The Late, Late Show,” but CBS’ morning program pushes for a different standard. Having an album to promote isn’t always a good enough reason to have someone on the air, explained Brian Applegate, senior broadcast producer for “CBS This Morning.” The program tends to get more interested in bands that have an interesting backstory. In Ben Harper’s case, the singer had just done an album with his mother. And Wussy was interesting because critics had hailed it as one of the best bands in the nation, yet its members all still had day jobs.
“We are not just stuffing it in to the show to fill four minutes,” said Mason. The show did 16 profiles in 2014 to accompany musical appearances, Applegate said. The musical performances commenced on “CBS This Morning” in 2012.
The program’s pitch to publicists is that an appearance on CBS can lend musicians a boost. After the Lone Bellow’s performance appeared on “CBS This Morning” last week, Applegate noticed sales of the band’s two albums rise significantly in rankings on Amazon.
Yet an appearance on “CBS This Morning” is not without some challenges. Many rival programs cover production costs, thanks to sponsors, but CBS does not. Fees can range from between $3,000 to $10,000, according to people familiar with the situation, depending on the size of the band and the time they need to play. The prices can sometimes present a hardship for artists without the backing of a major label.
“It’s not cheap. There are union workers involved. The more people present, the more it costs,” said Jim Flammia, president of All Eyes Media, a boutique public-relations firm specializing in music. Even so, he added, “I’ve found every one of the artists that have performed, every single time, their stuff spikes, like massively spikes.”
The show also insists on unvarnished performances. Artists are not allowed to tweak their sessions, said Applegate. “We do not allow any overdubs,” he said. “I know a lot of shows do.”
The rule has caused friction. Applegate and Mason acknowledged the program is currently in legal discussions with a musician they declined to name who would not allow his music to be played without alterations. “It was a line-in-the-sand moment, and it was a really big name,” explained Applegate. “We had done an interview with this artist and invested a lot of time to do it, and we just said, ‘If we cross that line, we have to cross that line with everyone.’”
The producer has a theory about why a slot on “CBS This Morning” has the potential to make more of an impression than showing up for a more popular latenight show or morning-time rival. In many cases, he said, musical acts appear in one of the last segments of those shows, he said. Those moments tend to have fewer eyeballs, since people leave the TV set in the morning to start their day or turn off the TV in the wee hours to get to bed. On Saturdays, Applegate suggested, people wake up and turn on the TV, so an appearance later in the morning carries some potential.
The appearances can draw young parents who may not have as much free time to pursue music as they once did, said Hector A. Silva, director of publicity at Shore Fire Media. “This is crucial to our business,” he said.
Mason and Applegate say they became music aficionados at an early age. Mason would listen to Casey Kasem Top 40 broadcasts and keep detailed notes on chart positions, because the cost of buying Billboard was prohibitive, he recalled. Applegate has learned multiple instruments and takes pride in a picture he has on his smartphone showing him alongside Robbie Robertson, the famed songwriter from the Band.
The pair has a dream list in mind that includes everyone from Bob Dylan to the War on Drugs, and wants to keep booking. “If you can expose people to new stuff and explain why it is interesting to you, I think they’ll respond,” said Mason.