Sounds like indie spirit

Want to hear the coolest independent music from the hottest new bands around the world? Turn off the radio and watch more television.

The head bops. The toes tap. One after another, hot new songs by cool new artists are kicking through the speakers. Yes, you're watching television.

Increasingly, new work by up-and-coming recording artists can be heard throughout all kinds of TV programming: as part of the soundtrack to network dramas and cable comedies; as an ear-grabbing element of promos for upcoming shows; and as a sly underscore to all manner of advertising. As mainstream radio has become more strictly formatted and risk-averse, placement on television has become a key and coveted way for a largely undiscovered band or songwriter to break out.

The trend isn't entirely new -- early 1990s programs such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Northern Exposure" featured eclectic sounds and some indie bands, and 10 years ago, Volkswagen cannily revived its brand image with the popular "Da Da Da" commercials. But what was once a novelty has become an aesthetic preference and an increasingly successful business model with significant appeal for all involved.

Savvy music supervisors are happy to put their expertise to work, while producers, directors and ad agency creatives are interested in supporting and strengthening their work by licensing fresh -- and affordable -- sounds. Record labels enjoy having more opportunities to launch artists without huge investments in radio promotions, and artists are thrilled with the massive potential audiences and clean, quickly cut checks that come with TV licensing deals.

The positive impact that an effective placement can have for an artist, show, brand and label has become strikingly clear in the past few years. Influential music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas of Los Angeles-based Chop Shop has made the soundtracks to Fox's recently departed teen drama "The O.C." and ABC's megahit drama "Grey's Anatomy" tastemaking and career-launching powerhouses. Indeed, the second volume of an "Anatomy" soundtrack compilation album became a best-selling, Grammy-nominated record.

Working in the other direction, innovative radio DJs such as KCRW's Gary Calamar and Liza Richardson have been embraced as consultants and supervisors for numerous TV shows and ad campaigns. Apple's music-driven iPod ads played a tremendous role in launching the careers of Jet and the Black Eyed Peas, among others, and even a brand as resolutely mainstream as Target has had great success with ads powered by music ranging from the lush Swedish pop of the Concretes to the dystopian tunes of punk pioneers Devo.

"The problem with radio is a concern with being safe," says Calamar, who, in addition to his work as host of KCRW's "The Open Road," has served as a music supervisor for such shows as "Six Feet Under" and Showtime's current hits "Dexter" and "Weeds." "If Coldplay is hot, then let's play five more bands that sound like Coldplay. It's all about following trends. TV and ad people are much more willing to take risks than radio programrs are. There's actually a preference now for music that hasn't been heard in a lot of other places.

"And on a practical level," Calamar continues, "there's an affordability factor -- it's a lot more economical to license a new artist. That's not the first thing anybody thinks of, but there's always a budget to work within, and it's a win-win when you can find something that's great and affordable. The band's thrilled to get the exposure, and you're thrilled to get a song that works and helps establish a show's personality."

The strong link between a show's uniquely nuanced personality and its soundtrack has opened things up for those looking to place songs on television. Publishing house Bug Music represents more than 140,000 copyrights, which range from the works of Johnny Cash to those of newer artists such as the Cloud Room, Of Montreal and Peaches. Dave Freeman, manager of creative/new-media marketing at Bug, says he's noted a desire on the part of producers and ad creatives for music that's fresh but not necessarily brand new.

"Radio and record labels are tied to what's current, and a record that came out a year ago doesn't get the attention or support as one that came out last week," Freeman says. "But for a publisher and a music supervisor, a great song is a great song, and something that hasn't ever gotten a lot of attention might be perfect for a licensed use. That usage can, in turn, generate record sales. Even with known artists, I find that creative directors and producers are more interested in licensing hidden bonus tracks than singles. Basically, they want something that people haven't heard yet."

In the struggle to reach younger demographics, some feel that a TV or ad placement now might offer more potential upside than radio play. "It's such a difficult struggle to get on the radio, and ads or TV or video games are a much more open opportunity," says Jeff Tammes, vp of Cornerstone, a marketing and promotions company that serves as a licensing liaison for artists ranging from Kanye West to rapper Rakim to techno-funkster LCD Soundsystem. "People are first hearing the music they like on 'Grey's Anatomy' or on (a popular video game like EA Sports') 'Madden Football.' Fifteen years ago, you measured success through radio spins, but that's almost become a nonissue. Even if you're in heavy rotation on the radio now, it doesn't compare to the amount of 'spins' you're getting in a national ad and the size of the audience you're reaching."

Some TV shows aim to please a broad audience with a balance of familiar music and new sounds. KCRW's Richardson is music supervisor for "Friday Night Lights," an NBC show that blends the pop-music environment of its characters with an overall indie-driven musical sensibility.

"We use some well-known songs because what the characters hear on the radio is going to be hip-hop or pop or Top 40 country -- real mainstream," Richardson says. "But all the music we use as score is indie and up-and-coming artists."

The mix of image and edgy new music also turns up frequently in cable and network promos, which by definition seek to make a memorable impact on viewers in a very short time.

"The power of these promo spots can't be underestimated," says Ken Weaver, senior vp at Atlantic Records Group. "You can break an artist just doing network promos -- that opens the door for everything else."

Weaver cites the success of James Blunt, whom the label pushed early on in promos for the 2004 Olympic Games coverage on NBC and "Anatomy" promos on ABC.

In January, Weaver placed artist Paolo Nutini's single "New Shoes" in a promo for ABC's "Men in Trees" and saw an immediate jump in radio play.

Such successes recently led Atlantic to structure a deal with Sci Fi Channel through which Sci Fi promos will receive a highly favorable licensing rate as an incentive to use music from Atlantic's newest artists. That deal is in keeping with Sci Fi's overall approach to music: The channel has had deals with the Interscope and Roadrunner labels to supply edgy sounds for "Battlestar Galactica," has used indie rock band Wolf Parade to power promos for "The Dresden Files" and recently debuted promos for new program "Painkiller Jane" that feature the alternative-metal band Disturbed.

"Sci Fi as a brand and science fiction as an idea is all about being progressive and about what lies ahead," says Adam Stotsky, senior vp marketing and creative at Sci Fi. "Connecting to our audience through new and emerging artists just reinforces the brand idea of Sci Fi being about what's next and what's possible. New music is a very potent weapon in our marketing arsenal."

The opportunities to license new artists to television have become so enticing that some record labels have structured themselves to take advantage of the situation. Atlantic is steering its Big Beat imprint toward becoming a licensing-driven rather than record sales-driven operation. And CBS Records was recently revived as a label that will specialize in digital-only releases through iTunes, while its roster of artists enjoys a direct pipeline to CBS TV programming.

One of the first artists signed to CBS Records, solo artist P.J. Olsson, already has seen the deal bear fruit with the release of a new album, "The Ironwood Sessions," and a substantial placement of his song "She Says to Fly" on the eye network's "The Ghost Whisperer."

"After being on a lot of different labels and going through a lot of different types of promotional things, I'm most excited about this," Olsson says. "In the traditional way of doing things, when you've got people putting up a lot of money to promote you to radio, that really can take its toll. If the label spends a ton of money on your behalf and the act doesn't go, you're screwed.

"Now, because CBS (Records) is working with CBS (the TV network), the promotional costs are nil," Olsson adds. "That means when people download my music, I'll see money quicker -- which I love. But most importantly, I handed in my record at the beginning of February, and it was out by the end of March. When I turned in my last album to a regular label, it took three years for it to come out."

The brave new world of licensing adventurous pop music on television hasn't only benefited up-and-coming artists. David Lowery has a busy music career fronting two popular -- and long-standing -- indie bands, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. But for the past few years, he also has been in the licensing game with his company Shockoe Noise, which not only licenses the work of his bands but also uses a collective of bands, songwriters and musicians to create custom indie-sounding music for TV and advertising clients.

Last year, Lowery provided all the music for a national campaign of Macy's TV spots. "We're doing custom stuff to stay a little bit ahead of everybody else," he says. "It seemed like a good time to turn ourselves into a little indie-music factory. I actually like doing things this way because I don't like sending my own stuff out for so much rejection."

In some cases, TV placements offer artists an opportunity to correct business mistakes of the past. Proto-punk band Devo has been willing to license its songs to brands ranging from Miller Lite to Mitsubishi to Swiffer. But because the band signed some onerous contracts at the beginning of its career and does not control its master recordings, it reconvenes to custom rerecord its songs rather than just licensing original tracks (Lowery had Cracker rerecord much of its work for the same reason).

"We love the fact that our work gets appropriated and twisted for commercial use -- that's part of the Devo aesthetic," Devo co-founder Jerry Casale says. "But if our song needs to be butchered, let us do it. We go back and record everything to sound exactly the same -- it's a Devo sound-alike track recorded by Devo. So, we're making money now that we couldn't make back then. Better late than never."

Devo's situation highlights why any stigma that once might have been associated with licensing tracks for commercial use has generally dissipated.

"When I hear a placement of cool music in an ad these days, I feel like it's kind of a Robin Hood moment," says John Frattalone, manager of the Slip, a new band that recently scored a placement in a "Anatomy" episode. "Money's going from the big company to the little band, and you just think about the new guitars or new home studios that's going to buy. You can't help but feel it's a win for the little guys."

Adds Olsson: "More and more I'm walking away from the TV thinking, 'I've got to find out what that cool song was. I go straight from TV to the computer to track down what I just heard. That doesn't happen so much with the radio anymore. Most of the time, the radio won't even tell you what you just heard. You want to know what the song was, and all you hear is something about a monster truck rally."   
comments powered by Disqus