Hard to hitch ride to hitsville

‘Em­pire’ and ‘Nashville’ have in­cred­i­ble songs on TV. Why is it hard to make them into real-life hits?

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODVIEW - EMILY YAHR

AS EV­ERY­ONE knows af­ter 15 years of re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, it’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult for peo­ple on singing com­pe­ti­tions to make the jump to ac­tual star­dom. So in the age of mu­si­cal dra­mas like ABC’s coun­try soap Nashville and Fox’s hip-hop epic Em­pire, it raises the ques­tion: Is it any eas­ier for singers on a scripted se­ries?

It’s a com­pli­cated is­sue for both pro­grammes as they pro­mote orig­i­nal mu­sic in these real-life com­pet­i­tive gen­res, a dif­fer­ent ball­game than some­thing like Glee that spe­cialised in cover songs. Nashville and Em­pire each boast an im­pres­sive ros­ter of pro­duc­ers, song­writ­ers and artists to cre­ate their mu­sic, all backed by pow­er­ful record la­bels. This is es­sen­tial, as net­works bank on these shows to make money through mu­sic sales. Yet as it turns out, it’s still not al­ways easy to break out of the TV bub­ble.

“Our fo­cus is def­i­nitely to have songs that fit the show, but we’d love if they could air­lift out­side the show to ra­dio,” said Shawn Hol­i­day, Columbia Records se­nior vice pres­i­dent of A& R who works with Em­pire. Though the sea­son one sound­track hit No 1 on the Bill­board 200 chart last year, ex­ec­u­tives are still look­ing for ways to ex­pand the reach. “The chal­lenge with that is these aren’t ra­dio artists – they’re TV stars.”

To com­bat this, Em­pire – which shat­tered rat­ings records in its first sea­son – is mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to pair its ac­tors with es­tab­lished ra­dio hit­mak­ers. Last year, the duet strat­egy paid off when Jussie Smol­lett (who plays R&B singer Ja­mal Lyon) sang with Estelle on Con­querer, one of the show’s best-sell­ing songs on iTunes. That’s why this sea­son, view­ers saw Ja­mal team up with Pit­bull for the club an­them No Doubt About It. The song got a slickly pro­duced mu­sic video and was re­leased to ra­dio in Septem­ber, a month be­fore Ja­mal sang it in an episode.

As of last week, No Doubt About It was at No 36 on the Bill­board rhyth­mic na­tional air­play chart in the US. The goal, Hol­i­day said, is for the mu­sic in­dus­try to take Smol­lett more se­ri­ously as an artist; he re­cently signed a sep­a­rate record deal with Columbia.

Pro­duc­ers hope to do the same with stars Bryshere “Yazz” Gray ( Ha­keem Lyon) and Ser­ayah ( Ha­keem’s ex- girl­friend Tiana Brown). To wit, Tim­ba­land (Em­pire’s mu­sic pro­ducer) col­labo- rated with Yazz on the third episode’s track Bout 2 Blow, added to ur­ban ra­dio charts last month with a boost from iHeartMe­dia’s On the Verge pro­gramme.

On Nashville, ex­ec­u­tives have an even big­ger chal­lenge thanks to the tight clique of coun­try ra­dio and the dif­fi­cult process of wrestling a song up the charts. As a re­sult, the show’s mar­ket­ing ef­fort is geared to­ward sin­gle and al­bum sales on dig­i­tal plat­forms, as the se­ries – cur­rently in its fourth sea­son – re­leases mul­ti­ple sound­tracks.

“Ra­dio is dif­fi­cult,” said Dawn Soler, se­nior vice- pres­i­dent of mu­sic at ABC Tele­vi­sion. “The land­scape of the way mu­sic is in­gested has changed so much, and each week you can just go to iTunes and ac­cess these songs... ”

In sea­son one, Hay­den Panet- tiere ( coun­try- pop diva Juliette Barnes) made a slight ra­dio im­pact with her char­ac­ter’s sin­gle Tele­scope, as did duo Len­non&Maisy (real-life sis­ters who play Mad­die and Daphne Con­rad) with their cover of the Lu­m­i­neers hit Hey Ho.

Though the songs didn’t last long on coun­try sta­tions, the show saw suc­cess in other av­enues: Duets from Sam Pal­la­dio and Clare Bowen (star-crossed lovers Gun­nar Scott and Scar­lett O’Con­nor) showed up on the Bill­board Hot Coun­try Songs chart, in­clud­ing Fade Into You and If I Didn’t Know Bet­ter. Last year, Bowen’s solo Black Roses peaked at No 12 on the dig­i­tal coun­try songs list.

Nashville mu­sic su­per­vi­sor Frankie Pine says the songs are el­e­vated by the au­di­ence see­ing them on tele­vi­sion, so ra­dio isn’t ul­ti­mately the ideal de­liv­ery sys­tem. “What makes (one of) our songs a hit is be­cause of the vis­ual im­pact that it has with the au­di­ence,” Pine said. She’s in charge of sift­ing through the hun­dreds of sub­mis­sions she gets from Nashville song­writ­ers – many of whom fol­low the sto­ry­lines quite closely – and look­ing for tunes that would fit in cer­tain scenes.

“I’m al­ways look­ing for new (song­writer) names,” she said. “If I can dis­cover some­one new each sea­son, it makes me happy.”

Em­pire has a dif­fer­ent process of in­cor­po­rat­ing orig­i­nal ma­te­rial, as Hol­i­day sits in the writ­ers’ room and de­liv­ers notes to a team lead by Tim­ba­land, along with Ne-Yo and JR Rotem, who write songs for spe­cific mo­ments. They’ve learnt what works: For ex­am­ple, they found Tim­ba­land’s song­writ­ing style clicks best for Yazz’s char­ac­ter, NeYo’s voice fits with Smol­lett and Rotem works well with Ser­ayah.

In terms of get­ting spe­cial mu­si­cal guests though, Hol­i­day laughed as he re­called how dif­fer­ent things are now that the show is a phe­nom­e­non.

“In sea­son one, we couldn’t get any­body... now, we can’t tell peo­ple ‘no’ enough,” he said. “But it’s just 18 episodes, and there are a lot of peo­ple we want to bring back,” such as guest star Jen­nifer Hud­son.

As the shows at­tempt to in­crease their view­ing and lis­ten­ing au­di­ences, it’s also up to the in­di­vid­ual per­form­ers to cre­ate their own out­side buzz and ex­tend their ca­reers be­yond the se­ries. Em­pire’s Ser­ayah per­formed on stage with Tay­lor Swift, while Nashville stars like Charles Esten (who plays the dev­as­tat­ing Dea­con Clay­bourne) launched sum­mer tours.

ABC plans to cap­i­talise on this, air­ing a spe­cial doc­u­ment­ing its ac­tors on the road. – Wash­ing­ton Post

Em­pire.

CROSS­OVER: Jussie Smol­lett as Ja­mal in

He has teamed up with Pit­bull for a club an­them.

Nashville. Black Roses.

KEEP IT COUN­TRY: Clare Bowen in

She hit No 12 on the dig­i­tal coun­try chart with her song

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