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Image: “Grey's Anatomy”
ABC
“Grey's Anatomy” is usually the first show to be mentioned in any discussion of TV song licensing, because it helped make big stars out of The Fray and Snow Patrol.
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updated 7/19/2007 11:20:07 AM ET 2007-07-19T15:20:07

Kevin Edelman gets a real kick out of introducing the public to new music.

He played Vonda Shepard before she got her gig on “Ally McBeal.” He played Maroon 5 before they hit the big time. And he recently gave thousands of music fans their first exposure to British rockers Kasabian.

Is he a radio DJ? Nope. A concert promoter? Not even close.

No, Edelman’s a member of a different and increasingly influential breed of cultural tastemaker. He’s a music supervisor for hit TV shows, including “Dirt on FX network, “John From Cincinnati on HBO, “Boston Legal on ABC and others.

"To get actual ears to hear a record, I don’t think there’s ever been a better way than a TV show with 20 million viewers,'' Edelman says.

Viewers are all ears
Not since the early days of MTV have so many people found themselves discovering up-and-coming artists on the tube. The impact on music sales can be massive. Snow Patrol’s song “Chasing Cars” peaked at No. 5 on the “Billboard pop charts and sold more than 1.8 million digital downloads after it was used in last year’s season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The same series’ use of the title track from The Fray’s 2005 debut album “How To Save A Life” helped push U.S. unit sales of the Denver band’s album to 2.1 million to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Both songs ended up on the show thanks in large part to music supervisor Alex Patsavas, whose long list of credits includes high-profile work for “The O.C.” on News Corp.’s Fox, where she featured a host of fresh music talent and debuted previously unreleased tracks by Coldplay, The Beastie Boys and U2.

“It’s gratifying that fans are finding new music in ways that they haven’t before,” Patsavas says.

The new radio?
So how did TV become the new radio, turning music supervisors like Patsavas and Edelman into tastemakers for a nation?

Radio can blame itself. While radio exposure remains essential for recording artists to notch platinum-plus sales, much of the FM dial remains mired in the nostalgia of classic rock and “Jack” programming formats or conservative playlists of new releases by mostly proven hitmakers. Those seeking musical discovery look elsewhere.

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Meanwhile, the sharp decline in the sale of compact discs has pushed record labels and music publishers to seek new revenue sources and has left them more than happy to cooperate with TV shows looking to license their music. It’s also helped that many recording artists have dropped their previous aversion to licensing their songs to movies, ad agencies and TV shows. They’re no longer “selling out” —they’re “gaming the system.”

Perhaps the most important force behind the boom in the use of pop music on TV shows has been that the shows themselves have changed. The emergence of more adventuresome TV fare, led by critically acclaimed programs like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” has resulted in a proliferation of hour-long dramas willing to take creative risks.

And while much has been made of the decline of the sitcom, many that remain don’t use laugh tracks. That simple change has lent a different rhythm to shows like “Scrubs” and “My Name Is Earl” on NBC, opening up more room within their tight, half-hour runtimes for the incorporation of music for comic or emotional effect.

Exposure for new artists
TV shows aren’t just incorporating more pop songs into their programming. They’re also changing how they’re using those songs. Whereas pop music most often used to highlight scenes featuring young people, now they’re increasingly replacing instrumental music to amplify the resonance of any scene.

One of the best known examples: The emotional montage closing out the final episode of “Six Feet Under” was built on Sia’s “Breathe Me.” Music supervisor Gary Calamar brought the song to the attention of series creator and executive producer Alan Ball after Ball indicated he was looking for a song that was “unknown and under-the-radar because you wouldn’t have come in with any preconceived notions,” Calamar recalls.

Australian native Sia had been an unknown entity in the U.S. at the time, so the show’s use of her song essentially represented her American debut. “We were able to expose this new artist,” Calamar says.

Record labels are eager to capitalize on these opportunities. Avery Lipman, senior vice president and co-founder of Universal Music Group’s Universal Republic Records, says his label employs three people to seek out licensing deals, up from a staff of one a few years ago. Its biggest success so far has been with British R&B singer Amy Winehouse, who has had three songs placed on “Grey’s Anatomy,” CBS’ “CSI: Miami” and ABC’s “Men In Trees,” among other shows.

None of those deals led to a blockbuster “Chasing Cars’ moment,” Lipman acknowledges. But he says that the licensing pacts have been an integral part of Universal Republic’s overall marketing strategy for Winehouse’s album “Back In Black,” which has generated robust U.S. unit sales of 816,000 since its release in March, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

“The public can watch a show, hear some great music and go to the Web site and there’ll be a whole page of (featured songs),” Lipman says. “I think that the dots have been connected better than ever before.”

Boost for indie musicians
But while TV exposure has spawned commercial success stories like the Fray and Snow Patrol, those tend to be rare exceptions to the rule. Where the TV licensing boom has perhaps had its broadest impact on the music business has been on the more modest sales arena inhabited by independent musicians, who’ve historically been shut out of radio.

What has emerged is a mutually beneficial relationship for both TV and indie music. TV producers might shell out upwards of $50,000 for the use of a song by an established artist on a major label, but can sometimes pay as little as several hundred dollars for the use of a song by an unknown talent. Another benefit: the hip cachet that comes from featuring new music.

For recording artists who don’t have a national profile, TV licensing helps them reach a wider audience and provides a new, albeit sometimes modest, source of income. A typical example is the experience of Jenny Owen Youngs, a singer-songwriter from Montclair, N.J., who had a song appear last year during an episode of the Showtime drama “Weeds.”

The song placement didn’t make Youngs an overnight star, but it did provide a welcome boost to her fledgling music career, which she’s been pursuing in earnest for about two years. After the “Weeds” episode ran, Youngs’ self-released debut album “Batten the Hatches” (recently re-released by indie label Nettwerk Records) went from selling five to 10 records a week to 20 or 30 a day. It’s also helped her get more concert gigs.

“It was fantastic,” Youngs says, adding that, “it’s definitely something to put on your (bio) sheet.”

© 2012 Forbes.com

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