“Foresight” became an operative term this at Georgetown this week, as the Future of Music Coalition (“a national nonprofit organization that works to ensure a diverse musical culture”) held its annual Policy Summit in Gaston Hall and other venues around campus. So, let’s talk about the future. But forget sampling, DRM, all-you-can-listen streaming services, and the RIAA for the time being though—let’s talk about what’s actually working now, as a window to the future.
That’s right, let’s talk about blockbuster television musicals.
By now, the High School Musical phenomenon should be pretty familiar. Stumbling upon yet another successful series, Disney has churned out three movies (with a fourth in the works), three accompanying soundtracks, a concert tour, an actual play, books, video games, and (its favorite expansion technique) a Disney-on-ice ice tour. The total profits are unfathomable—the third movie alone grossed $246 million—and the series will undoubtedly serve as a defining cultural moment for the decade’s adolescents.
Disney is no longer the only media mogul cashing in on the crossover potential of teen musicals; Fox launched its own golden goose Glee this past May, which is basically HSM but with a more John Hughesian notion of high school. Though the show has yet to obtain a stranglehold on ratings, it has already sold close to 850,000 digital downloads as of October 1st, with several of its songs cracking the iTunes top ten. Part of this success lies in repackaging well-known songs (the show’s version of “Don’t Stop Believin’” premiered at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, surpassing the #9 peak of Journey’s 1981 original), but also in serializing their content: the songs are posted to iTunes the day of a new episode, encouraging impulse buying immediately following the show (or even in anticipation of it). Once Columbia Records and 20th Century Fox release Glee: The Music, Volume 1 in November, it will just be just be a victory lap for a set of songs that have already sold extremely well. And that doesn’t even take into account the advertising dollars, digital downloads of the show, an inevitable tour, and other merchandise.
So what’s the angle for musicians and labels? Many songs from an album are already “serialized” through their singles, so that’s no revelation. What the market seems to be craving, rather, is music that helps tell a story. That doesn’t just mean a concept album—it means a project that combines audio, visual, and a narrative. Imagine this scenario: you’re in a “band” that includes musicians, a writer, and a videographer. Your latest “album” is actually a series of music videos that collectively help tell a story. (You may be thinking of R. Kelly’s magnum opus “Trapped in the Closet,” but this would be focused less on soap-opera drama and more on the music.) You don’t release this “album” all at once, but rather one video at a time, and you release the songs to each video as separate downloads. By the time you offer the entire work as a whole, your “band” has already made money off of customers who simply wanted to follow the story, while the stragglers are welcome to experience the full project.
As the music video for “Thriller” proved, songs have more to offer narrative structures than we tend to admit. Artists don’t need a full-blown television show to make money the way Glee does—what they need is multimedia experimentation. And that doesn’t necessarily mean churning out “musicals,” but it does require more than just music. Even at their most experimental, films, novels, television shows, and even most video games all rely on some level of narrative. Maybe it’s time for “the album” to finally fall in line.
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