When Tony Soprano finally-all right, possibly-got whacked to the sounds of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " in June 2007, America had mixed reactions. But the show's viewers all agreed that TV's greatest mafia boss and music's shiniest power ballad were linked for life, seared into pop culture consciousness.
If someone had predicted that two years later, a prime-time comedy about a high school choir would revive Journey's biggest hit yet again, they would have been laughed off the lot.
But here we are in 2009, and "Glee"-a new prime-time comedy on Fox about singing and dancing social outcasts-daft jocks, pregnant cheerleaders and divas in training-has done just that. The show's pilot episode, which premiered May 19, not only introduced viewers to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) and the rest of the show's choir gang, but also to their recording of "Don't Stop Believin'," which replaces Steve Perry's epic yelps for Monteith's boyish croon.
Then it got viewers to buy that recording on iTunes: Through the week ending Oct. 18, the "Glee" version of the song has sold 522,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In the week following its TV debut, it sold 177,000 downloads and entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 4-higher than Journey's version ever charted.
Several TV shows move music fans to buy songs they hear, but "Glee" gets them to buy new versions by the program's cast. Columbia sells the recordings on iTunes, and the label has had a striking amount of success.
"In all the years that I've been in the business, I've never worked on anything quite like this," says Geoff Bywater, head of the music department at 20th Century Fox Television. "It's a real cultural phenomenon that you can just feel. We've got people who are going to have great acting careers and recording histories for themselves in the future."
Collectively, 20 titles by the "Glee" cast have sold 1.8 million digital tracks, with 1.3 million of those downloads occurring since the week ending Sept. 13, according to SoundScan.
At press time, "Glee" has aired just eight episodes and released 23 songs for purchase, with iTunes getting the music a week in advance of other digital outlets and mobile carriers.
Eleven titles have subsequently entered the Billboard Hot 100-from the cast version of Journey's song to their interpretations of Rihanna's "Take a Bow," Queen's "Somebody to Love" and Avril Lavigne's "Keep Holding On." (The original songs get a sales boost, too. Downloads of the Journey track increased by 48% in the week following the show's premiere, and "Somebody to Love" rose from 2,000 to 6,000 downloads in the week that ended Oct. 4.)
Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Records, the network's label partner for marketing and distributing the music of "Glee," now project a minimum of 4 million digital downloads by Christmas.
"We knew that once the show started rolling it would be great," says Columbia/Epic Label Group chairman Rob Stringer, who signed Columbia's deal with Fox this spring. "But to be honest, I didn't think it would be this big this quickly. I thought it would take people a moment to catch up, but the reaction has been instant."
In the next three months, the label will send plenty of products to retail to take advantage of that momentum. The "Glee: The Music Volume 1" soundtrack is set for a Nov. 3 release, with a second volume slated for Dec. 8; an exclusive Christmas single is in the works, and a cast tour is planned for summer 2010. There's also the possibility of releasing solo albums by individual cast members in the future.
"I don't know whether our estimate of 4 million downloads by Christmas increases the possibility of the soundtrack doing well or decreases it," Stringer says. "That's why I'm so keen to get it out. Not only will we learn from how the physical marketplace responds, but also from what happens when the album goes up on iTunes."
It's clear that digital track sales are just the start of what promises to be a lucrative strategy for Fox and Columbia-and a new model for how the music industry can generate cash from TV shows.
"I'm not sure other labels saw it as dramatically as we did. People saw the show and loved it, but because the songs were cover versions, I think they honestly didn't think that the potential for the music was as great as we thought it was," Stringer says.