Fox's 'Glee' breathes new life into some old favorites
EmptyImagine you're a successful songwriter with a number of wildly popular tunes on your resume. Now imagine being approached by a music producer about the possibility of one of your biggest hits being interpreted by cast of young, unknown actors on a scripted television series about a misfit-filled high school glee club. Given the epic, well-documented failure of past musical series like "Cop Rock" and "Viva, Laughlin," you'd probably be less than thrilled, right?
Fox's weekly song and dance megahit "Glee" has redefined what is possible in a genre with a notoriously checkered past. In fact, being associated with the show has delivered proven returns that few could have predicted.
"We're on our way to 2 million downloads on SoundScan," says Geoff Bywater, head of music for Fox Television. During the first week of October, recordings from the musical comedy accounted for 10 spots on iTunes' top 200 downloaded songs and four on Billboard's Hot 100.
Winners include cast versions of Queen's "Somebody To Love," Heart's "Alone," Journey's "Don't Stop Believin', " Celine Dion's "Taking Chances" and REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling." But it's not just the new interpretations that are tearing up the charts. The originals are again enjoying their moment in the sun, much to the delight of "Glee" music producer Adam Anders.
"Not only are the versions I'm producing selling like crazy, but there's a huge jump in sales of the originals," Anders says. "It's turning a whole new generation onto songs or bands they've never heard of. It's a cool way for older classic artists to get a whole new life."
This opportunity is open to a cross section of acts, as each week viewers are exposed to a variety of musical genres, from show tunes ("Maybe This Time" from "Cabaret") to hip-hop (Kanye West's "Gold Digger") and '80s pop (Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine"). "Covering several generations and styles helps us appeal to a larger audience," Anders adds.
From the outset, the show's producers viewed "Glee" as a multifaceted package: A strong concept with an underdog theme featuring sharply drawn characters delivering fresh takes on hugely popular songs. Of course it helped that they had a shrewd marketing strategy as well.
"Right from the start, it was essential that the performances be available for purchase each week as the episodes aired," says Glen Brunman, soundtrack consultant for Columbia Records. "We also made sure that, wherever appropriate, two versions of each featured song were recorded -- the version needed for the scene in which it was to be performed oncamera and a longer version we believed the music buyer would most want to own."
While the show's producers had faith that the songs from "Glee" would be well received, chart-topping success was not expected.
Says Anders: "I remember when the pilot came out I said, 'If (our version of Journey's) 'Don't Stop Believin' goes top 10 on iTunes, I'm going to be thrilled.' And then we saw it climb to No. 1 and I was like, 'Wow, this is going to be huge.' And now you look at the sales each week and it's just staggering. These things are selling hundreds of thousands each week. I don't think anyone expected it."
So where do the songs come from? The process of choosing songs is organic -- up to a point. Series co-creator/executive producer Ryan Murphy's plot lines sometimes beget song choices, while other times his choices generate story lines. "I wouldn't say there's a strict formula, but without a doubt, neither the songs nor the stories are afterthoughts," "Glee" music supervisor PJ Bloom says.
Licensing is another story altogether. To facilitate the time needed for recordings and to rehearse performances, rights must be cleared in advance of filming. ("TV is tough because you're trying to do 'Grease' in a week," Anders says.) This can be challenging because there is no concrete product to show songwriters in a bid to use their music.
"It creates a bit of a tap dance to convince such enormous acts to participate, acts who are often incredibly concerned about the exploitation of their music," Bloom says. "That process combines articulating the basic show need while also conveying the excitement of all the ancillary promotional opportunities and our monstrous soundtrack success, which results in very real participation advantages beyond the airing of the show."
Anders says there were a couple of instances in which he thought they had no chance of getting a particular song cleared -- but then he was pleasantly surprised. "It's a testament to the show's strength when Yoko Ono lets us use John Lennon's 'Imagine,' " he says.
Neil Diamond also rarely grants permission to use his material but embraced "Glee" and offered "Sweet Caroline."
Once creative approval is attained, it all comes down to money. The more successful titles aren't harder to get clearances on, but they do come at a financial premium. Solid business relationships and negotiation savvy are essential bargaining tools -- along with the money to back the requests.
"It would be impossible to execute a show this musically intensive without a healthy music budget," Bloom says. "That said, in Hollywood, it doesn't matter how much money you have -- it's never enough."
Even so, the first season of "Glee" came in under budget, according to Bywater, thanks in large part to the publishing industry's willingness to work with the show. "They're going to have to do so with us even further because we're creating new lives for copyrights throughout the world," he says.
And for now-defunct acts whose music has re-entered the charts, the show's success comes as an especially unexpected surprise. Case in point: Former Journey frontman Steve Perry. "He saw the pilot and e-mailed to say how much he liked it," Bywater adds.
Looking ahead, Bywater says "Glee" will continue to represent all aspects of the musical landscape. "We're doing something with Madonna in the back-nine episodes," he says. "Ryan's pretty creative. I don't know if he's going to leave any stone unturned."
With a renewed interest in musical television, imitators can't be too far off. But Bloom says any attempts will be a direct result of "Glee's" success. "I welcome that and will enjoy looking behind me to see how they're doing," he says, with more than a hint of glee in his voice.