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Coming to a stage near you: Glee the musical

November 14, 2009

Perusing this NYT story on Glee and music labels, I encountered a quote that made me pause and wear my “deep thought face,” for a minute or two.

“TV has basically become the new radio. It is about exposure and making an impression.” Leonard Richardson, vice president of music at the CW network.

Record labels are dumb, but you can’t accuse them of not adapting. Having been burned by new ideas such as, oh, the internet, file-sharing, online purchasing and personal media players, the suits at the majors have in recent years been much more amenable to shifting the profit paradigms of their business.

Tapping into video games was a breakthrough for labels. On that front, DJ Hero has just come out, hoping to do for hip-hop and dance music what Guitar Hero did for rock and pop.

So what’s next? After a shaky start, FOX’s Glee has exploded into a unique cultural phenomenon. Columbia records, which signed an exclusive deal with the show and its performers, is now reaping the benefits of some low-risk-high-reward foresight. From the same Times article:

Neither Fox nor Columbia would disclose financial details. But Glen Brunman, soundtrack consultant at Columbia, said: “We are hopefully going to make history together… We felt (in January) that it wasn’t just a TV show but that it had the potential to be a pop culture icon,” Brunman told Reuters. “It is unique and it is an approach with a TV show that hasn’t existed in the past.”

First off, cutting through the hyperbole of the quote, isn’t Glee using the exact model Disney has used in its movies for ages and now has applied to musical teen series and Nickelodeon TV shows? But I digress.

Brunman makes a valid point. In terms of “television being the new radio”, Glee is indeed unique; it has taken the meta-commentary out of that sales concept and used it as a purposeful selling point, not relegating music to the background through subtle product placement.

The results are plain to see. The Glee soundtrack debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200 this week. Almost all artists covered by the show have seen sales spikes. I’m sure Wicked will see a similar effect in interest after Glee covered Defying Gravity last episode, and that’s great news for musical theatre in general. I will even admit that the idea of a touring Glee concert intrigues me. Slightly.

I’m as skeptical to the corporatization of art (on the theoretical level at least), as much as the next hipster-sympathizing internet talking head. But sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due. Buying a $200 plastic drum in order for your kids to fall in love with the Beatles almost seems like a monetary investment in culture. Watching Glee? Well, I like the show and enjoy the music. It’s almost a win-win.

My questions is then: have record labels found a system where the ends can justify the means? In other words, from an artist perspective, does the phrase “Selling Out” really carry any weight these days — outside of licensing your face for a lunchbox?

I guess we’ll all just have to stay tuned to find out.

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