Saturday, April 5, 2008

Musicians Look to TV for Boost

According to Nickelback, “We all just want to be big rock stars.” But in today’s music industry, it’s not just sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that launch an artist to stardom.

For a musician to become a star, they must be able to navigate the ever-changing terrain of music consumption. This includes using traditional techniques such as touring, self-promotion or an appearance on a hit movie soundtrack (think “Juno”), as well as utilizing television commercials, reality shows and hit sitcoms.

Some of the most successful artists in the past few years, like the pop stars from the Disney Empire, have established fanbases from television.

It’s almost impossible to avoid the sugary pop that Disney markets so successfully. Disney Channel shows have become megahits among tweens, and this success has carried over onto the music charts. The “High School Musical” soundtrack shot to No. 1, making it the first television soundtrack to claim that spot since the “Miami Vice” soundtrack in 1985. Similarly, tickets for “Hannah Montana” star Miley Cyrus’ Best of Both Worlds Tour sold out in minutes, and the tour added 14 dates due to popular demand.

These two Disney Channel creations have become phenomena many critics find mystifying, and meanwhile the tween demographic seems to be defining pop entertainment.

Likewise, alumni from the reality show “American Idol” have stormed the charts. Carrie Underwood’s debut album, Some Hearts, scored the idol five Grammys, while Chris Daughtry’s first single “It’s Not Over” was one of the top 10 most played songs on the radio in 2007.

Despite the huge success of some, “American Idol” simultaneously seemed to be in trouble. Former competitors like Taylor Hicks, Katherine McPhee and Ruben Studdard were all dismissed from their respective record labels, and, for the first time in its six years on the air, the show’s ratings declined. Simon Cowell, the vituperative critic, said in several interviews that if the talent did not improve, the show would have to come to an end.

But this season, ratings have improved and contestants like David Archuleta and David Cook are receiving rave reviews from critics and music industry insiders alike. The show may be able to create stars on the level of Kelly Clarkson yet again this year.

But not all artists need a starring role on a TV program to achieve mainstream success. A recent trend in music promotion is the placement of songs in commercials. Previews for the third season of “Grey’s Anatomy” propelled The Fray’s “How to Save a Life” to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Similar chart-climbing success occurred for Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” and Feist’s “1234” following advertisements for Rhapsody and Apple, respectively. Ingrid Michaelson saw her album, Girls and Boys, jump to the second most downloaded album in the country after her song, “The Way I Am,” appeared in an Old Navy commercial.

The unavoidable truth is that artists both new and old must cultivate a significant audience from a variety of media. Many established bands have embraced the sorts of innovative promotions that have catapulted young artists to the top of the charts.

Take Radiohead, which released its most recent album, In Rainbows, essentially for free on its website months before selling it in stores. R.E.M. now releases rough, unfinished studio recordings on its homepage. Even Madonna first released her new single, “4 Minutes,” as a ringtone download in Europe.

So if you have dreams of becoming a big rock star, you have a couple options. Either you can increase your popularity through word of mouth via YouTube and MySpace, or you can establish a television audience with a Disney Channel sitcom, a spot on “American Idol” or a Gap commercial.

That sounds pretty easy.

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