TV and music execs talk 'Glee'

Panel discusses why Fox musical is a hit

Why has Fox's "Glee" succeeded when so many musical television series have failed? Between the script, the song choices and the cast -- as well as production, marketing and Columbia Records working in lock step -- there isn't a weak link, the team behind the hit show said Friday.

Executives from Fox and Columbia joined the show's music supervisor P.J. Bloom, cast member Lea Michele and "Glee" music producer Adam Anders at the Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film & TV Music Conference to discuss what's driven millions of "Glee" song downloads and two forthcoming soundtrack volumes.

From the beginning, the strategy for setting up partnerships for the show was very different. Rather than keeping the pilot a secret, Fox presented it to as many music publishers and record labels as it could to get them on board for clearances from the get-go, said 20th Century Fox Television head of music Geoff Bywater. Even Journey's Steve Perry came to watch his band's iconic "Don't Stop Believin'" get incorporated into the first episode.

"We haven't been turned down by one songwriter," Bywater said. "Maybe one ... there's a reason to be concerned about a new show when you're committing your copyrights to it." But now that "Glee" is a hit, Bloom said the show is fielding pitches from artists that don't normally allow their music to be used on television.

Lea Michele, a Broadway veteran who plays Rachel Berry, said adapting to pop and R&B fare for television was "really scary."

"I'm a musical theater performer. I perform live on stage every night," said Michele, recalling that while recording Rihanna's "Take a Bow" she "cursed that day more than I have in my whole life. (But) once you get past that fear, it's like (working) a muscle ... I rocked out Salt N' Pepa, people!"

Anders, whose credits include "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana," called the lightning-quick pace of "Glee" every week a "logistical nightmare" between on-the-fly clearances and recordings. The cast's professionalism makes it easier to get it right in a shorter amount of time, says Anders. "You have to nail it." But for every ingenious mashup -- think Beyonce's "Halo" and Katrina & the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" --"there are five or ten versions that nobody has ever heard that are hideous."

Fox senior VP of marketing Laurel Bernard says tracks are carefully chosen for use in show promos. "Sometimes the right song isn't always available for an out-of-context clearance," says Bernard. But the reaction to the cast recording of "Don't Stop Believin'" proved that "when we can get a song in promotion it does pay off in the back end."

Bywater said a key evangelist for the show has been Columbia/Epic label group chairman Rob Stringer. "He looked at the trailer – not the pilot, but the trailer – and said, 'let's get the attorneys on the phone,'" recalled Bywater. "How many shows going into their eighth episode have sold 2.5 million downloads? He had the commitment, the energy, the expertise. It was pure genuine enthusiasm."

Key to the success of co-creator/director Ryan Murphy's vision are song choices -- "Don't Stop Believin'," "True Colors," "Lean on Me" -- that drive forward the story of a ragtag group of glee-club geeks coming into their own, said Columbia Records soundtrack consultant Glen Brunman. Those songs had to be available immediately to the consumer for purchase, a move that the label sees as an experiment in whether doing so will cannibalize full soundtrack sales of "Glee."

"I think there is an appetite for everyone who loves the show to own a lot more music. You also have a world of physical retail. Not everyone in the world downloads. We're about to find out if after selling a couple million downloads, and by Dec. 8 it could be 4 million downloads, whether people will go for the whole presentation and want to hold it in their hands and have the booklet."