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?
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
CROSSOVER: Jussie Smollett as Jamal in
He has teamed up with Pitbull for a club anthem.
KEEP IT COUNTRY: Clare Bowen in
She hit No 12 on the digital country chart with her song