overthinking the idiot box

July 25, 2005

Feature
Indie Music on Network TV

by Vicki Karigiannis

But, before the credits roll, a voice on your TV tells you that "this episode featured music by Rooney" and implores you to buy the band's self-titled album. You, along with thousands of others, do as told, and Rooney's staggering album sales triple less than a week later. Well done, you!
Let's travel back in time, shall we? It's Thursday night, almost 9 o'clock, and your favorite show is nearly over: you're either loving or hating the Seth-Anna relationship, and you fall somewhere between hatred and pity for Oliver. But, before the credits roll, a voice on your TV tells you that "this episode featured music by Rooney" and implores you to buy the band's self-titled album. You, along with thousands of others, do as told, and Rooney's staggering album sales triple less than a week later. Well done, you!

Music has always been an integral part of television, and we always associate certain songs with specific scenes of our favorite television programs: Randy Newman's "The Natural" played on during the final scene of The Wonder Years; Kate Bush crooned "This Woman's Work" as alcoholic Bailey begged bed-ridden Sarah for help on Party of Five; Gilmore Girls' Lane and Dave shared their first kiss to Nirvana's "The Man Who Sold The World". Even theme songs today are no longer the generic voice of some no-name singer, but rather classics by our favorite bands or unfamiliar tunes by up-and-coming artists. We automatically think of The O.C. when we first hear the tinkle of the piano keys of Phantom Planet's "California". We will forever remember our Friends every time the Rembrandts belt out "I'll be There For You". We rock out to The Who every time "Baba O'Reilly" plays during CSI: New York's opening credits.

It has been old-hat for years now for music supervisors on television shows to pick out album tracks that best fit certain scenes, as well as the overall feel of the show. Getting all of these songs on television programs is a relatively easy task. After all, what musician wouldn't offer up consent for a chance to gain recognition, increase album sales, and collect royalties every time an episode featuring one of their songs airs?

While getting artists' approval seems simple enough, music licensing isn't the most economical of business transactions. Television programs have meager music budgets as it is, so when it comes time to cough up the money to pay their musical artists, it is anything but pain-free. This can leave television producers and their music supervisors no choice but to find alternative means to get the right music on their shows, all the while not exceeding their music budget. Said alternatives, however, can end up being either a blessing or a curse for television and music lovers.

One attempt at lessening the financial blow began in 1997, when The WB network started promoting artists off of WB music labels on its programs, running promotional clips for their albums at the tail-end of episodes. The WB was able to gain access to songs via a kind of family discount: decreased to even free„licensing rates in exchange for promotion. This gimmick certainly launched Paula Cole's career, as well as the careers of many others, back during Dawson's Creek's heyday. (Where her career's at now, well, we can't blame The WB for that, now can we?)

This cross-promotional stunt was quite the success and still lives on today: WB programs pimp the albums of featured artists after episodes and the shows' websites do the same, inducing television viewers to purchase the albums and various show soundtracks. It seems to be working in everyone's favor.


Seth Cohen loves these dudes; why don't you?
Another obstacle faced is when popular and already-established bands and singers get a little too pricey. When in need of music ASAP and little money in their pockets, TV producers look towards independent labels and their bands. Gone are the days when indie bands were against commercialism, popularity and recognition. Today's indie band embraces attempts at furthering their careers, and television producers embrace them back with great ardor. These bands, due to their obscurity, cost way less to license their music, and they get to spread awareness of their existence. Heck, they'd probably even do it for free! [Note: Bands won't work for free.] The Shins, already riding high from their exposure after Garden State, performed on Gilmore Girls last year. And Death Cab For Cutie -„ personal favorite band of one Seth Cohen -„ was even courted by, and eventually signed with, Atlantic Records long before their performance in Orange County; the mere mention of their name was enough.

Therein lies the problem: yes, these bands cost less, but what will most certainly follow their instant fame is an increase in licensing costs. It's a vicious circle, and will leave music folk to scour the music scene for yet another independent band. Unless, y'know, they all get to fame and success first. Still, it's a commendable act, bringing good music into the fore and getting a larger population to listen in to what a small minority fell in love with long ago, but it always leaves some fans angered that their favorite bands have sold out. (That is a debatable point, but that's another story for another time.)

Moving beyond the primetime hours, the costly music licensing Episode also stretches into DVD boxed sets, affecting the quality of the product and playing a vital role in whether or not some of your favorite TV shows will ever make it onto DVD format. Musicians are originally paid royalties when they or their song made a television appearance, but when their episode makes it to the DVD, they will most certainly want a share of the profits. Even if their song played for but a mere few seconds.

To save money, a few modifications are made: a song is cut here, a song is replaced by a less-expensive track there. To but a few, these changes can go unnoticed. To a slew of others, this is an outrage: compromising the quality of a long-awaited box set by tinkering with the music? Music does play a substantial role on television programs, and to tamper with that even the tiniest bit can irritate television viewers, and rightfully so. So a studio has to decide whether it is worth the money to keep episodes as is, if they should just scratch the box set, or if it's time to raise the cost.

A price hike is usually seen as a bad idea in the buyers' eyes, but die-hard fans will perhaps think it a wise investment and an appropriate price considering what the DVD could have been. American Dreams' first season was released on DVD last year, with an extended music edition, for a whopping $90. Makes sense: A good 80% of the originally-aired music was retained, and it could be a possibility that all the current artists who performed as '60s icons demanded a piece of the pie, as well. Perhaps there is a reason why there is no word of season 2 and 3 sets as of late.

Granted, it is a smart marketing ploy and has worked well for them these past few years, but nearly every emo and indie band now has a following, so there will eventually be no product placement on primetime television left.
Ultimately, one cannot blame TV execs for scrounging to save a few pennies where the music is concerned. After all, introducing the world to The Shins shouldn't be construed as a negative. However, the goal is to get young viewers to spend money on CDs; then again, when has television ever not been about advertising new products and trying to sell them? But for the television industry to weasel out of paying musicians their due by cutting their songs out altogether? And attempting to offer viewers watered-downs versions of their favorite songs and diminishing the quality of the product? That is not a wise move on their part to retain loyalty and to ensure television and music lovers keep on buying everything the ominous voice on TV tells them to. Granted, it is a smart marketing ploy and has worked well for them these past few years, but nearly every emo and indie band now has a following, so there will eventually be no product placement on primetime television left. It is now up to the folks behind the music to come up with new, wallet-friendly strategies to lure more viewers and listeners in. Let us hope for nothing too drastic; after all, we don't want MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice rocking the Bait Shop, now do we?

So, keep on shopping for television's sake, and happy listening!


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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 9.