EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Hot Business of 'Glee'

 Joe Pugliese

Glee is already on a 24/7 cycle and has been for months. In addition to the crew’s 16-hour days, songs are being produced relay-race-style on two continents so that the music never stops. Before producer Adam Anders goes to sleep in Los Angeles, he hands off the work to Peer Astrom, his partner in Sweden, who passes it back at the end of his day. Once a track is finished, it’s approved by Murphy, after which it can be recorded, choreographed, rehearsed and finally shot. Each step of the production process — and, in fact, everything Glee-related, down to the image of Lynch’s Sue Sylvester on a keychain that reads, "Face it, you want to be me" — requires Murphy’s signoff. Operating all these moving parts costs anywhere from $3.2 million to $3.8 million per episode, a 20 percent budget increase from Season 1, which in Walden and Newman’s eyes is worth every penny.

"Glee is a big commitment at Fox, and Ryan is our most important creator," Newman says. "He combines incredible intelligence with a commercial instinct and truly impeccable taste. Frequently those things don’t go together that well, but he really is an unusual combination of talents." Glee co-star Matthew Morrison sums up Murphy this way: "Brilliantly demented. He’s got a sick brain: sick in a good way, sick in a bad way, just sick."

Indeed, Murphy’s first series for Fox, Nip/Tuck — which aired on FX for six seasons and has been described as "twisted" — was what got Walden’s attention. "It was appointment viewing in my house," she says. "Luckily, through Ryan’s relationship with FX, we were introduced in 2006 just as he was about to make a deal away from Warner Bros." At the time, Murphy says, he was itching for a change: "I thought, ‘I don’t want to do another dark show about death and destruction and pain; I want something that makes me feel good, that gives me hope.' " Then Murphy got hold of a film script by Ian Brennan about a fledgling glee club and saw potential for a series offering an idyllic view of high school told through song. Or, as he likes to call it, "musical vitamins for kids."

Newman wasn’t sold. "Ryan is an unbelievable storyteller — he pitches without notes but with incredible detail and paints really full characters," Newman says. "I thought: ‘Oh God, he’s talking about a high school musical show. This is a disaster; it will never work.' But while part of my brain is screaming that, the rest was totally engaged. It was so compelling, a fully fleshed-out world, and by the end of his pitch, it was impossible not to get on board."

Sony Music also saw the light, not to mention dollar signs, at the potential yield of the musical component. After viewing a five-minute clip of the pilot episode, Columbia-Epic Records Label Group chairman Rob Stringer says he became "evangelical" about acquiring music rights to the Glee franchise. According to a source, three other labels had also met with the Glee team, including Universal’s Interscope Records, which passed on the project when it was deemed too costly. "I thought it was the best thing I had seen since I’d been in America," the British Stringer says. "Nothing in my mind thought it was a gamble."

His instincts were spot-on. Glee’s take on modern hits and show-tune standards, classic songs by the likes of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and mash-ups of old and new (Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with “Singin’ in the Rain”) have made the show one of the hottest music properties in the world, with 9 million albums and 21 million downloads sold. Glee even bested the Beatles for the most songs on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously, and its version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” just passed the million mark in digital sales. “The cast of Glee has truly reinvented our song for their generation," says Journey's Jonathan Cain, who co-wrote  “Don’t Stop Believin’. "It is rare when a song that is over two decades old can be a new sensation again. We are honored.”

Considering the music business is one of diminishing returns, the 50-50 partnership has turned into a financial windfall for Columbia to the tune of about $100 million. Stringer won’t confirm a number but says: “It’s a very healthy addition to our bottom line. I don’t know any artist that can do 9 million albums in 15 months. That’s basically Lady Gaga territory.” 

With four volumes of Glee soundtracks in the marketplace — plus the Christmas collection and an EP of Madonna songs — the label is planning for two more this year, one in March and another in May. Add a limitless supply of cover songs, and future release possibilities are virtually endless. “It’s not like people are saying this is crap,” Stringer says. “We’re getting really good reviews for these records."

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