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Will 'Empire' Mean More To The Music Industry Than 'Glee'?
Fox’s new hit series bet big on original music — and is starting to take over the Hot 100. How will that help its musical legacy in the long run?
Empire's timing, like Cookie Lyon's wardrobe, couldn't be more impeccable.
Following its January debut, the hip-hop soap opera starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson continues to hit ratings highs for Fox over the same stretch of winter in which Glee, the network's long-running musical dramedy, is having its final episodes burned off. Now airing in the Friday night dead zone, Glee is hitting ratings lows ahead of its Mar. 20 series finale, but Fox is happy to focus on the fact that Empire continues adding to its already impressive audience for a broadcast drama. Empire has long been compared to Glee -- in a few weeks, the new hit will be scribbling "Drip Drop" on the old hit's grave.
Empire, now nine episodes in to a highly impressive run, will probably never be bigger than Glee. Nearly six years since the New Directions made their debut, it's easy to forget how huge of a phenomenon Glee was, and for an extended period of time. The Glee cast set the record for the most appearances on the Hot 100 in the chart's 55-year-plus history, and notched Top 10 placements with covers of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," thanks to a strategy of releasing multiple tracks digitally with each new episode. The Glee compilation albums were also tremendous sellers, with two full-lengths (Glee, Season One: The Music Volume 1 and Glee, the Music: The Christmas Album) moving over 1 million copies to date. The television ratings were massive, Emmys were won, the Glee Live! In Concert! tour sold out arenas, and a 3D concert movie invaded multiplexes. Glee was a pop culture tidal wave that was suspended in mid-air from roughly 2009 to 2011, before predictably crashing down in recent years.
For all the "Wait, Cookie said WHAT?!" tweets that have been fired off in recent weeks (and will be fired off in the years to come), Empire probably can't capture the zeitgeist the way that Glee did five years ago; its audience is aimed more at adults than excitable teens, and its focus on hip-hop and R&B naturally casts a more narrow net than Glee's all-genres-included approach. Still, there's a chance that Empire could be more musically important than Glee, simply because of one key difference between the shows: the decision to rely on original music instead of cover material.
After all, the bulk of Glee's albums and track sales were based on familiar songs, performed by a high school Glee club millions of viewers grew to love and made available on iTunes as each episode's credits rolled (the original track "Loser Like Me" did peak at No. 6 on the Hot 100 in 2011, but proved to be a flash-in-the-pan chart hit). The commercial success of new renditions of songs from the spectrum of mainstream music, from Cee Lo to Lady Gaga to Fun., called back to another era of pop in which cover songs were a permissible method of chart dominance. And hey, who doesn't enjoy classic songs, from "Proud Mary" to "I'll Stand By You" to "Imagine," being brought back into popular culture thanks to updated versions the tweens can get behind?
A lot of those covers were memorable. But how many actually lasted long after their television debuts? The nature of the weekly series kept fans wanting the newest songs on their iPod, so music sales for older episodes quickly dried up. The longest run by a Glee cast song on the Hot 100, on which over 200 Glee songs appeared, came from their take on "Don't Stop Believin'," which lasted for only seven weeks on the chart. The large majority of these cover songs acted like shooting stars -- cracking the Hot 100 made for a spectacular achievement, but you'd miss it on the chart if you blinked.
In retrospect, Glee's music was important not for any long-lasting hits, but because of the digital music model it constructed. Before Glee, reality show stars from American Idol and Disney Channel favorites like Hannah Montana indirectly pushed consumers to iTunes, but the Glee model of weekly digital releases coinciding with fresh episodes had never been done so efficiently before. Glee laid the groundwork for like-minded music shows like Smash and Nashville to make quick hits on the digital songs chart, and sold millions of albums by gathering the many songs performed in the show into compilations. Empire is doing that now, too -- a season 1 compilation was released on Tuesday, and it's aiming for the top of next week's Billboard 200 albums chart.
Empire's music is off to a slower start chart-wise than Glee's early tunes, and hasn't had any songs infiltrating the top of the charts. But it's getting closer to making real chart moves -- and with original tracks courtesy of executive music producer Timbaland. Instead of saddling its characters with a string of hip-hop covers, the concept of the show calls for absorbing music that helps define its heroes. And after weeks of buildup and plot development, those songs are finally connecting. Timbaland's importance in Empire's overall success cannot be overstated -- as ridiculous as some of the plot points have been (the mid-day pistol showdown with Judd Nelson!), the music has always felt authentic, and the newest songs sound like they could feasibly work at radio.
After a string of songs cracked the low end of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, "Keep Your Money" became the Empire Cast's first song to appear on the Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 99 in February. Last week, "You're So Beautiful" debuted at No. 71 last week with 55,000 downloads sold, according to Nielsen Music, and on this week's chart, "Conqueror" starts at No. 42. The debuts are going higher and higher as the show's audience grows, but Empire's musical output is also improving: after a handful of good-but-not-great rap and R&B tracks were featured on the show ("Good Enough," "No Apologies" and the aforementioned "Drip Drop" included), the catchy, soulful "You're So Beautiful" sounded like a proper breakthrough track, and "Conqueror," featuring guest star Estelle, made for the show's best ballad to date.
Perhaps most impressively, the older songs are starting to stick around: "You're So Beautiful" actually climbs on this week's Hot 100, moving up 24 spots to No. 47, and earns this week's top Digital Gainer honor. The song appeared in back-to-back episodes of Empire after a brief reprisal in the Mar. 4 show, and the repeat appearance compelled 72,000 more downloads to be sold, according to Nielsen Music.
Airplay isn't playing a huge factor in the Empire music's growth at this point, but crucially, the show is slowly establishing the radio-ready stars behind their original tunes. Jussie Smollett, who plays the R&B outsider Jamal on the show, is clearly the breakout, a likable personality with a booming voice that anchors "You're So Beautiful" and gamely duets with Estelle on "Conqueror." Although he's still largely known for his character on Empire, the 31-year-old is beginning to earn some actual name recognition. On Monday, Smollett performed on Ellen and made headlines for coming out as gay; on Thursday, he'll perform alongside Bryshere "Yazz" Gray (who plays his blissfully blinged-out rapper brother, Hakeem) on American Idol. We'll be getting more of Smollett and Gray as Empire continues its ratings-fueled run, and with dynamic performers being handed Timbaland tunes, it's not impossible to imagine one of their tracks taking off outside of the show. Is Jamal or Smollett the artist behind the song? If it's good enough, people won't care.
That's the real argument for why Empire might become more important than Glee, which hasn't produced any crossover stars out of the singer-actors delivering those mega-selling covers. There's a variety of reasons why the Glee kids have yet to take off on their own -- Lea Michele's solo album lacked a hit single, Darren Criss' music is still in the works, Naya Rivera hasn't developed a distinctive sound yet -- but the biggest one is that Glee didn't give its artists as much of an opportunity to individually shine because of its covers-first format. Love Lea Michele's voice? You had to hear it sing other artists' words for years before she could find the time to commit to finishing a solo album. That's what happens when a singer like Michele is tied to shooting and promoting a smash television series for multiple seasons -- original music understandably hops on the back burner. Smollett has made the same commitment to Empire, but promoting the show and promoting his own musical brand are the same thing: he might become a star with hand-selected tracks that fit into a narrative arc, but those songs likely come closer to capturing his artistry than any classic cover could.
Empire may very well not exist without Glee, and Fox's new smash may never be as innovative to the industry as its soon-to-be-gone predecessor. Yet it will be interesting to see how high Empire can grow off of Glee's foundation, while pushing digital product that is previously unfamiliar but immediately compelling. Glee has handed Empire a blueprint of sorts for cross-platform domination -- it's time to see how far Empire can run with it.