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Music Rules Prime-Time TV

Why TV's biggest shows are packed with music's hottest stars

June 20, 2011 9:00 AM ET
Lady Gaga performs on the 'American Idol' season finale.
Lady Gaga performs on the 'American Idol' season finale.
Kevin Winter/American Idol/

When Aerosmith's Steven Tyler joined the judges' table on American Idol this year, he kicked open the doors of prime-time network TV for music megastars everywhere. Suddenly, the biggest names in music are showing up onscreen — sometimes all at once, as when Bono, the Edge, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé guest-starred on the May 25th Idol finale. Even punk legend Iggy Pop made it to Idol this season for a smirking, bare-chested, J.Lo-flirting performance of "Real Wild Child." "You see Steven Tyler and respectable, credible artists that are participating," says Marsha Vlasic, Pop's agent. "The times have changed a bit, and artists aren't thinking it's cheesy."

This article appears in the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the digital archive.

That might be because they're thinking instead about the massive audiences they can reach on prime-time TV. Idol's all-star finale drew more than 29 million viewers; NBC's The Voice (starring judges Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton) gets 10 million; and Glee is still a force, with more than 9 million per show. "Music is everywhere!" says Iain Pirie, president of Idol production company, 19 Entertainment. "It's easy to get down hearted with record sales in decline, but when you see the success of music programming on television, it's because music resonates with people so much."

Even shows that have nothing to do with music are getting in on the act by using buzzy pre-release tunes in their soundtracks: Before their latest albums, My Morning Jacket placed a song on an episode of House and the Vaccines landed one on Gossip Girl. "It seems pretty unprecedented," says Tom Mackay, executive vice president of Universal Republic Records, which is working with The Voice's contestants. "We're in a period of time where network prime-time television is a huge catalyst for awareness of artists and songs, and it is a huge, huge platform for us."

Video: 'Idol' Finalists Answer Reader Questions

While TV has always been a powerful medium for breaking artists and boosting sales, it's become far more important in recent years as radio's traditional ability to play those roles has faded. And so far, the music industry's bet on prime time is paying off. The Glee cast has sold 11.5 million digital singles, and artists from Madonna to Journey, whose music appears on the show, have seen turbo­charged catalog sales and publishing royalties. Tyler's Idol exposure helped his memoir hit Number Two on The New York Times' bestseller lists in May, and after Levine joined The Voice in April, his band Maroon 5's digital­single sales doubled from the week before the show to its second week on the air. Some of the biggest profits happen when Idol or Glee themes an entire episode around one artist. "When they're doing Elton John night or Stevie Wonder night on one of those shows, you're buying your third house, if you're the publisher," says Lyle Hysen, owner of Bank Robber Music, which licenses songs to TV shows. "That's like the mother lode."

The current wave of music on TV began when Idol debuted on Fox in June 2002. The show quickly soared to Number One and has dominated ratings since, laying the groundwork for Glee and The Voice. "The cultural mainstream, which is talent­competition shows, coincided with an explosion in people's understanding in music," says Paul Telegdy, NBC's executive vice president for alternative programming. The field continues to expand, with Simon Cowell's long-awaited U.S. version of The X Factor and Jennifer Lopez's Latin-American talent search, Q'Viva, due later this year — providing two more places for A-list guests to promote their latest projects on prime-time TV.

Photos: The 'American Idol' Star-Studded Season Finale

These days, it's rare to find a rock star who won't do TV. When Kings of Leon and Foo Fighters refused to license their songs to Glee last year, it made headlines. And while Paul McCartney reportedly snubbed an invitation from Cowell to appear on Idol in 2008, he's changed his tune — last year, he personally asked Glee creator Ryan Murphy to feature his music on the show. "When Idol launched, people had a certain preconception about it," says Pirie. "But as the years have gone on, they've become more open. Artists have seen the power of television."

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