- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

Did you hear that on TV last night? If the question hasn’t quite attained water cooler ubiquity yet, it will soon: Over the last few years, television has become a conduit for new music that has equaled, and possibly surpassed, the importance of radio, a beleaguered medium struggling to maintain relevance.

TV remains a cultural unifier.

“Almost everybody in America still watches TV every day,” says Larry Jenkins, head of CBS Records, a fledgling record label founded by the CBS network as a formal recognition of the increasing integration of music and programming.

“They might be watching the original broadcast,” he continues. “They might be time shifting and watching on their Tivos. They might be downloading an episode on ITunes. They might be in a bar watching the game. But they’re still watching in massive numbers.”

Those matching pairs of eyeballs and ears have translated into a tantalizing market opportunity for songwriters at a time when radio, bricks and mortar music retailers and major record labels are on the ropes.

Bands such as the Fray, Snow Patrol and Death Cab for Cutie have received massive pushes from TV shows like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and the erstwhile Fox hit “The O.C.”

It’s not just episodic television, either; commercials, once considered the refuge of sellouts, have become kosher for both hard-bitten indie rockers and heritage acts alike. The Austin band Spoon shilled for Jaguar. Led Zeppelin did so for Cadillac.

The Canadian chanteuse Feist just saw her song “1, 2, 3, 4” reach the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart thanks to relentless flogging on an Apple ad for the IPod Nano.

Even sports mecca ESPN has gotten into the act: Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Kid Rock and Foo Fighters have lent new songs for broadcast during “Monday Night Football.”

“There’s zero stigma attached to it now,” Mr. Jenkins says. “It’s the complete opposite: ‘How do I get my songs on “Ghost Whisperer”? ‘How do I get my songs on “CSI” or “Jericho”? These are the calls I get every day. I can’t even remember the last time I had a conversation where I had to convince an artist to say yes to licensing their song to a film or TV show.”

If artists aren’t licensing their music to TV, they’re simply pitching it like so many salesmen: Just ask QVC stars Carly Simon and Barry Manilow.

In some case, the artists are TV stars themselves: The soundtracks to the Disney Channel movie “High School Musical” and its recent sequel have sold 3 million and 2 million copies, respectively. And Miley Cyrus, star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” show, has emerged as a multiplatinum recording star.

Jerry’s kids

Jason Alexander, a British-born recording engineer, worked with ‘80s rock stars Tears for Fears for several years. After the band played NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” he met a woman with an intriguing job title — music supervisor.

“I didn’t even know that was a job,” laughs Mr. Alexander, a music supervisor who now runs his own company, Hit the Ground Running. He has placed music in shows such as CBS’ “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace” and HBO’s “Entourage.”

In addition to extensive searching for new artists, the job involves close coordination with TV producers, executive producers and sound editors.

Time is a luxury: From the delivery of the episode until its airdate, Mr. Alexander says he has about 10 days to make final decisions on which songs work best emotionally and tonally for each scene. “Then I have to go out and license Kanye West,” he says.

As he remembers it, the move by Hollywood film producer Jerry Bruckheimer into the world of television — beginning, most successfully, in 1999 with “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” — prompted the networks to ramp up production values.

The networks, faced with increasingly sophisticated cable competitors, “wanted to be more like the movies,” Mr. Alexander says.

Music became a critical component of the transformation — not just a clever jingle to kick off a show, but an integral part of its way of telling a story.

The crime drama “Cold Case” goes so far as to use archival music to time-stamp the chronology of its story arcs. Whole episodes have been devoted to single artists, such as Bruce Springsteen and, more recently, Nirvana.

Aside from live performances on late-night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live,” pop music on TV had been relatively rare, says PJ Bloom, a music supervisor who has worked on “CSI: Miami” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck.”

“Most television was score-based for a long, long time,” he says. “It wasn’t a song-driven medium. They just hired composers.”

Pop music placement on television had begun cropping up in the ‘80s on shows such as “Miami Vice” and “Magnum P.I,” whose series finale prominently featured the Genesis song “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.”

In the ‘90s, pop-rockers the Rembrandts scored a huge hit with “I’ll Be There for You,” its theme song for NBC’s “Friends.” The BoDeans, to a lesser extent, enjoyed a boost from the Fox teen drama “Party of Five,” which used the band’s “Closer to Free” as its theme song.

Non-Bruckheimer productions such as Fox’s “Ally McBeal” and the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek,” which premiered in 1997 and 1998, respectively, also had strong musical elements; the former even incorporated singer Vonda Shepard as a regular performer.

Mr. Bloom points out that the long-running Fox hit “Beverly Hills, 90210” was the first to introduce the all-important innovation of the “ad card”: an explicit plug for the artists heard during a given episode — the equivalent of DJs “back-announcing” the name of an artist after a song plays on radio.

What changed, post-Bruckheimer, was the sheer volume of songs used by television shows, says Mr. Alexander, noting that it’s now common to hear up to four different songs per hour.

Episodic television, in short, has come to look more and more like MTV — and vice versa.

In a case of creative convergence, MTV has all but given up on the traditional music video; reality shows with slick music soundtracks, such as “The Hills” and “Life of Ryan,” have taken their place.

Big labels left behind?

The volume of music on TV isn’t the only thing that’s seen an increase in recent years; what might be called the coolness quotient has changed, too.

Aside from a few holdouts, such as Neil Young, the White Stripes and Tool, music supervisors say artists are willing, enthusiastic partners in the business of TV licensing.

“When I first got into music supervision, it was much more challenging to license some bands,” says Alexandra Patsavas, who, as music supervisor for shows such as “Roswell” and “The O.C.,” is credited with pioneering the use of independent and alternative rock on TV soundtracks. “But in the last few years,” she continues, “artists have become much more open to television as a creative and marketing opportunity.”

Mr. Jenkins says P.J. Olsson, a Michigan singer-songwriter who signed to CBS Records, was offered a slot for his song “She Says to Fly” on “Ghost Whisperer.” Producers asked for a slight tweak: The opening line “Snow in St. Petersburg falling gently on trees” was a potential geographical distraction.

“He did a custom version for them,” Mr. Jenkins explains. “He didn’t change it on his album or change how the song was available to the public. But he was happy to go into his home studio, re-record a line that worked for them and — boom — that song was 3½ minutes on ‘Ghost Whisperer’.”

Crucially, Mr. Bloom says that mainstream music has no advantage over quirky indie fare in the race to be heard on TV. “The big companies have no leverage whatsoever,” he says. “For us, it’s irrelevant which company is providing music to us. We do what’s best creatively for our show and find out who owns it later.”

If anything, major labels, with their bureaucratic hierarchies, put them at a competitive disadvantage. “The infrastructure for all these major labels makes it impossible to do business with them. It’s either too expensive or it takes too much time,” Mr. Bloom says.

That reality isn’t lost on Mr. Jenkins, who worked in marketing for major labels for 20-plus years. He says CBS Records is structured like a “lean and mean indie label” — one that just happens to have the reach of a major television network at its disposal.

“We have this unprecedented marketing clout,” he observes.

More clout than even major labels can muster?

Says Mr. Jenkins: “We believe we have something that no one else can offer.”

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