Netflix wasn’t intentionally looking at getting into the music reality show space. But when creators Michael Flutie and Kevin Bartel approached the streaming giant about a series chronicling a group of burgeoning artists, Netflix quickly agreed, and Westside -- which premieres Friday in 190 countries -- was born.
“We didn’t have a mission to get into music TV, but we knew that American Idol and The Voice had been such an important part of the reality lexicon,” says Jenn Levy, Netflix’s director of unscripted originals and acquisitions. “Kevin and Michael wanted to tell an authentic story about young people pursuing their dreams and broaden the storytelling with original music. They pitched a great idea that spoke to us. That’s what made us say yes.”
Unlike Idol and Voice, Westside is not a competition, though Pia Toscano, the best known of the nine participants going in, placed ninth on the 10th season of Idol. Instead, the eight-episode unscripted series follows the artists as they come together with the goal of creating an ensemble performance for a Los Angeles nightclub. It shows their struggles to balance their creative drive with the realities of jobs, relationships, substance abuse and rejection.
Interspersed with the reality segments are highly produced videos of the ensemble members performing songs by a cavalcade of A-list songwriters and producers and directed by top names, including Sophie Muller. Among the songwriters and producers taking part are Ryan Tedder, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, Johan Carlsson, Ross Golan, Mutt Lange, busbee, Train’s Pat Monahan, Shane McAnally, Diane Warren, Sam Hollander, Danja, Priscilla Renea, Lauren Christy, Aimee Mayo, Chris Lindsey and Troy Verges.
Filming on the docuseries was completed before the songwriters were brought in. “We shot for several weeks, collected footage, understood what the story was and wrote the music to support that story,” Levy says.
Flutie brought in label vet/manager James Diener, who serves as the show’s executive music producer, who suggested going to top songwriters and producers for the music video segments (the cast members do write some of their own songs that are featured in the unscripted portion).
“Michael was trying to reach record producers, one of whom he could attach to the project,” Diener says. “I told him I didn’t think the idea was as innovative and as logistically satisfying a plan for this. I pitched the idea of an A-list team of writers and producers instead of one person trying to do all the work.”
Diener says he “called on 20 years” of relationships to bring in the songwriters and producers representing several genres. He also had to make sure that they could meet the deadlines -- each episode had three significant music cues -- with the songs and music videos coming together within a six-month period. He estimates that each song was worked on for around six months, with some requiring reworking as each cast member’s story crystallized. “I would take a rough edit and show the [songwriter or producer] the material and the discussion would proceed on what worked for the narrative,” Diener says, “but the writers were always looking for even bigger universal themes. The writers and producers saw it as an opportunity to write a song for the scene but that lyrically worked as a hit song on its own.”
Going to such high-level talent meant striking deals outside of the norm for television work. “It was well understood by everyone that we’d have to make deals with writers and producers that were atypical of other productions and shows,” Diener says. Without going into specifics, he says, “In the past, let’s just say that work-for-hire is the typical standard way when songs are being written. We had to look at each individual situation. Netflix and everyone were flexible. We didn’t want to lose the creative people coming to bat over a business decision.”
The same process played out on the music video side with veteran music video producer Melinda Kelly lining up A-list video directors.
Levy will not state how much it cost to create the show, saying only, "It’s more expensive than Queer Eye, but much less expensive than American Idol. It’s not outrageous. We believed in the vision and like to take big swings.”
Diener, whose management company, Freesolo/Vector, now manages six of the nine cast members, connected Netflix with Warner Bros. Records co-chairman/COO Tom Corson. The label will release the series' 20-track double album at midnight on Friday, as well as 17 videos that will live on Netflix’s YouTube channel. Two videos -- “We are the Ones” and “Vibe” -- were already released as part of the show’s promotion and are on Warner Bros.’ YouTube channel.
“We saw the first episode and got very excited,” Corson says. “It was a new approach -- reality unscripted with a music component, but there’s no winner. I liked the idea of it being a cast album as well as featuring breakout artists.”
Since Netflix’s model calls for all episodes to be released simultaneously, Corson expects to start to get an idea of which tracks are gaining traction through iTunes, Spotify and Shazam almost immediately. “The real fan engagement kicks in Nov. 9,” he says.
Because the cast, other than Toscano, are largely unknown, Corson says sending a track to radio before the series premiered “felt unwise to us. We’re going to stream along with Netflix, and as the show populates out there -- this could take several weeks -- we’re going to riff off of Netflix’s feedback, and that should guide us to several songs and artists to get behind.” With that plan solidly in place, the label also chose “Champagne High” -- performed by Toscano, Alexandra Kay and Tae Zavala, written by Mayo, Lindsey, Verges and Caitlyn Smith and produced by busbee -- as the focus track it will immediately push for playlisting while waiting to see which other tracks raise their hands.
Warner Bros. has the right to sign each cast member individually directly to the label. Corson jokes that he hopes to sign “from one to nine” of the artists. “I’m not being cheeky; they’re all talented,” he says. “My hope is the cast album does well and there’s a platform for these kids whether we do something or not. This isn’t a talent show; they’re producing a musical. It has a different path, which is why I was so excited. You've got to break the mold sometimes. You can’t keep doing the same thing. The talent shows have struggled to break sustainable artists. We need to try something different.”