'Glee' Rewrites The Script On TV Music

Glee
Matthias Clamer/FOX

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.

FINDING A HAPPY PLACE

Like most people, Ryan Murphy loves to sing in the shower, and the co-creator/director of "Glee" is open-minded when it comes to his music playlists. On "Glee," "Cabaret" show tunes, Celine Dion tearjerkers and Color Me Badd jams all make the cut.

After the success of his cutting-edge FX show "Nip/Tuck," Murphy decided he wanted to channel that love of music into his next project. "Everybody thinks I'm the dark prince of television," Murphy says by phone from Bali, where he is filming the movie adaptation of "Eat, Pray, Love." "But I was at a point where I wanted to do something light. I've always been very into music, and I wanted to show that."

In early 2008, Murphy came across an independent screenplay by Ian Brennan titled "Glee." The movie was dark and not necessarily up his alley, but Murphy found himself hooked on the title, a word that he defines as "malicious optimism." Murphy convinced Brennan to redo "Glee" as an acerbic TV comedy, and along with co-writer Brad Falchuk, they pitched the show to Fox executives in spring 2008.

The network quickly jumped onboard, and soon Fox began screening a four-minute trailer of "Glee" for major-label executives in the hopes of securing a partner to market and distribute the show's music. "We wanted to get somebody in the record business onboard early," Bywater says. "As it turned out, there was quite a bit of competition for a show that hadn't even broadcast yet." The contenders were narrowed down to four labels but Fox ultimately chose Columbia, and Murphy says it was because of Stringer's conviction that "Glee" would succeed.

"Everyone else said, 'Oh, this could do really well,' but Rob said, 'I don't think you know what you have,' " Murphy says. "He always had a plan and a passion."

Columbia has assembled a team for "Glee" to complement the one at Fox, with counterparts in publicity, A&R, marketing and sales. The label now releases the songs it feels most strongly about on iTunes up to two weeks before they air on "Glee." While the bulk of downloads are purchased in the 18-hour period following a new episode, consumers are increasingly buying advance tracks as well.

"What really sells it is that we use these songs in all of our ads," says Fox senior VP of marketing Laurel Bernard. "It's all coming back to us as additional marketing. The show pushes the music, and the music equally pushes the show."SHOW TIME

A "Glee" preview aired on Fox May 19 and benefited from a massive lead-in of "American Idol" viewers during finale week. As the show was advertised relentlessly during the summer and the cast went on a tour of Hot Topic stores, the hype grew leading up to the Sept. 9 season premiere.

Since then, "Glee" has averaged 7.2 million viewers across 5.1 million homes, according to Nielsen, with 1.7 million of them female viewers ages 18-34. According to Fox, "Glee" has lowered the network's median age of viewers-an all-important statistic for advertisers-down three years, from 44 to 41.

Meanwhile, loyal fans (who call themselves "Gleeks") have been treated to new versions of Jazmine Sullivan's "Bust Your Windows," Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and even "Defying Gravity" from the Broadway musical "Wicked."

"Ryan Murphy's brain is iTunes," says 23-year-old Lea Michele, a seasoned Broadway soprano who plays the aspiring superstar Berry. "I've never met anyone with a music vocabulary as incredible as his . . . in the 13th episode, I go from singing a Barbra Streisand song into a Rolling Stones song into a Kelly Clarkson song," she says, clearly elated.

"If 'Glee' were just 'High School Musical' on steroids, I don't think it would have been as successful," Bywater says. "What makes the show work so well is the storylines, the comedy and the music choices, which are perfect for the 'Rock Band' generation. There's something for almost everybody in any given week."

Once Murphy chooses a song, music supervisor P.J. Bloom has to clear the rights with its publishers and music producer Adam Anders then rearranges it for the "Glee" cast. Numbers are rehearsed and choreographed if necessary, and then recorded in the studio. The intensive process begins six to eight weeks before an episode tapes and can end the day before.

"In '24' you would have the special effects budget-in 'Glee' you have a music budget," Bywater says. "Music is our special effects."

Seeking a promotional boost of their own, artists are increasingly angling to have their songs featured on the show. "Billy Joel has called and said, 'I love the show. Please use my music,' " Bywater says. In early 2010, an entire episode will be devoted to the music of Madonna.

Though "Glee" has only featured covers until this point, Murphy plans to use some original music in the spring. "I've had a lot of calls from songwriters, to the point where it's kind of embarrassing and ridiculous," he says. "So we're writing an episode called 'Original Song' where the teacher asks the kids to write their own piece of music. Diane Warren is going to do two big ballads, and if it works, we'll see what happens . . . but we won't do it all the time."

HOLIDAY CHEER

Now that the show's download surges have established a weekly rhythm, Stringer and Bywater can focus their attention on the release of "Glee: The Music Volume 1," the first in a series of soundtracks featuring music from the show. The 17-song set will feature some of the most popular numbers from the season's first half. Columbia and Fox hope to attract casual buyers as well as the show's rabid fans.

"We think there will be a huge population of passive buyers walking through stores during the holidays and saying, 'Oh, I've seen "Glee," ' and picking up the record," Bywater says. "I think we'll see considerable sales in the Wal-Marts, Targets and Best Buys of the world."

In addition to the soundtracks, a cover of Wham's "Last Christmas" will be recorded by the cast, and although it won't air on the show, the song will be released as a single by mid-November.

As for long-term plans, a much-rumored cast tour is now in the initial stages of planning. It will likely occur in summer 2010, and Murphy will direct the show. A deal with a concert promoter is pending, he says, noting, "We're going to sit with them all in a couple of weeks and feel out the best vibe."

Another less-talked-about component of Columbia's deal with Fox is that the label has the option to sign members of the "Glee" cast to solo deals. But Stringer says the label isn't rushing to do this anytime soon, as it's committed to the show for more than one season.

" 'Glee' isn't even anywhere near where it will be in a month or year's time," he says. "The show will be five times bigger than it is now, just from word-of-mouth, so we're not in any panic or rush to overplay things, because there's plenty of time."

That said, it appears that one of the show's brightest stars has at least been sitting with label executives to discuss what her own material might sound like. "Lea has tried different songs and already thought, 'Maybe I like doing rock,' " Murphy says. "Her album is not going to be Broadway stuff. She'll sit with producers and come up with her own concept."

As for whether any other cast members have had talks with Columbia, Michele will only say, "I have no idea, but all I know is that as soon as Amber Riley [who plays Mercedes] makes her album, I'm going to be the first one buying it."

However popular "Glee" becomes in the near year, or two, or three-that's as many as Murphy has mapped out so far-it's clear the show has legs in more than one sector of the entertainment business. And through its partnership with Fox, Columbia knows that it's landed on a winning formula.

"I'd like to have 10 'Glees'-my life would be a lot easier," Stringer says. "So, do I want to continue to be in this business? Absolutely."