‘Glee’ Breaks New Artists and Turns Kitsch Into Classics
Five seasons, 100 episodes and 62 million song sales later, it’s easy to underestimate just how odd “Glee’s” business model must have looked to songwriters, label execs and music retailers upon its inception: A primetime jukebox musical, featuring a woozy blend of Broadway showtunes, ’80s schlock rock anthems, modern pop hits and oddball deep cuts, all sung by a mostly unknown cast of young singers, with hastily recorded singles released to iTunes en masse upon the conclusion of each week’s show.
Yet it was a formula that a few committed men were willing to bet big on. With co-creator Ryan Murphy picking the songs, music supervisor P.J. Bloom clearing them, producer Adam Anders working round the clock to arrange and record them, and Columbia Records prexy Rob Stringer to sell them, a rather small creative team created a pop music juggernaut.
“I don’t want to say that I knew it would work from the beginning, but … I kinda did,” says Stringer, who persuaded Murphy to pact “Glee” with Columbia by stressing his experience in translating TV buzz to immediate iTunes sales with the U.K. version of “The X Factor.”
“At the time, other labels thought it was weird to use covers, but I thought that was the clever thing,” he says. “I thought it was a distillation of some of the ‘X Factor’ platform, but a color version. This sort of populist look at contemporary music, but with the production values of a movie.”
Charting its first hit before the first proper season even started, “Glee” proved a remarkably efficient music delivery system right off the blocks. The show landed 25 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 in its first season, and 80 the next, breaking records set by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And even as it kept mainstream pop hits from Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Adele on the charts, it managed to revive a raft of formerly musty music. In its first two seasons, the show turned Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’’” from a guilty pleasure into a genuine modern standard, and scored top 40 hits with covers of Lionel Richie, Neil Diamond, Bonnie Tyler and Heart, acts with which the show’s largely young fanbase was likely previously unfamiliar. Sales spikes for the original versions of “Glee”-ified tunes were inevitable, and in turn helped the show secure more and more access to label catalogs.
Stringer credits producer Anders for crafting a signature house style that could accommodate such a wide array of genres and voices, and for approaching production like a proper pop hitmaker, rather than a glorified karaoke host.
“The sheen on those records gave it a much bigger production value than a reality pop show,” Stringer says. “I n a weird way, it kind of didn’t matter if the lip-syncing on the show wasn’t exactly perfect, i t mattered that the records sounded like real records, and not like some canned piece of music with someone singing over the top. And they did. That made a huge difference for our sales potential.”
Of course, maintaining such a high level of studio polish took a toll on Anders and his producing partner Peer Astrom, who essentially worked in a continuous 24-hour cycle in the early days, with the Stockholm-based Astrom taking over production tasks when the L.A.-based Anders went to bed. (They’ve since enlarged their staff significantly.) Anders notes that the show’s Broadway numbers were particularly taxing.