`Vice' rolled to bands' beat

July 27, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

With the synth pop chords of Phil Collins as a backdrop, the Miami Vice pilot in 1984 announced it was not a typical television show. That first episode featured Collins' hit song "In the Air Tonight," setting a haunting mood as a dark sedan rolled through the streets of Miami.

Over the next five years, songs by dozens of popular and emerging artists provided the show with an extra layer of depth and meaning, and made a TV show feel more like a movie. Featured artists included Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper and Peter Gabriel.

As the film version of Miami Vice hits theaters this weekend, audiences will be reminded of the fashion and aesthetic that made the show an icon of the 1980s. But just as significant was the show's use of recorded songs as a storytelling device.

For years, TV dramas would use only variations on their theme music to highlight important moments. Miami Vice was the first to integrate recorded songs into the fabric of the show.

What was rare 20 years ago is now commonplace. Today any TV show that aspires to a young, hip audience features songs by indie bands (those not signed to a major label) and up-and-coming artists to set a tone and communicate themes and emotions to viewers. And for bands, the stigma of being on television - once seen as the most commercial and classless medium - has vanished, replaced by a desire to get their music in front of as many people as possible.

Seeking exposure

"There are so many bands out there trying to get their music heard, when you get a song on a TV show, it's something else," said Lyle Hysen, whose company, Bank Robber Music, works with labels to get their artists on TV and film.

It's hard to measure the precise impact that kind of exposure can have on a band's career. It depends on factors such as how prominently a song is featured in a show and how long it's played.

The Fox teen drama The O.C. became known for highlighting unknown artists when it debuted three years ago. In its second season, the show went even further, building a music club where bands regularly appeared and played.

One such featured band, Death Cab for Cutie, saw a modest spike in sales after appearing on the show. Death Cab, and others, have also been included on The O.C. Mix albums, which have sold well and exposed fans of the TV show to bands they may not have known.

Alex Patsavas, who is head of the Chop Shop Music Supervision and selects music for The O.C., Grey's Anatomy and other shows, says that she likes featuring more obscure bands to give them a shot. After coming across the relatively unknown Brooklyn band Au Revoir Simone on MySpace.com earlier this year, Patsavas used one of its songs in the season finale of Grey's Anatomy.

"I've always been interested in indie music and smaller labels," Patsavas said. "They're providing a great piece of art for us, and most of them are eager for a little licensing money and an opportunity to reach an audience."

The payoff

Indeed, a major benefit to being on TV is the licensing fees the bands receive, which can range from several thousand dollars to more than $100,000 for a car commercial.

"The money has helped bands go back to the studio, buy a new van, get diapers for the baby," Hysen said.

Even though Miami Vice showed how the use of songs could enhance a TV show, bands were still reluctant to allow their music on TV. The medium was seen as unpure, even in opposition to the principles of the musicians, say those in the music industry.

"I think that television is better now, so it's a little less galling," said Tony Kiewel, head of A&R for Subpop Records in Seattle.

During its run, Miami Vice shifted from featuring Top 40 artists to promoting lesser-known ones, such as the Cure, Iggy Pop and Sinead O'Connor. Jan Hammer, who wrote the show theme music and much of the original music used in the show, said that gave the show a more cinematic feel.

"It sort of raised expectations where people expected a sort of one-hour movie every week," he said by phone from his studio in Brewster, N.Y. "It was not really a series as such, at least not from the music's point of view."

The Miami Vice soundtrack, featuring Hammer's theme music as well as songs from artists like former Eagle Glenn Frey, was at the top of the U.S. album chart for 11 weeks in 1985.

More recently, Songs from Dawson's Creek - the sensitive WB drama - spent 17 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and sold more than 500,000 copies.

But some music executives believe that with so many shows now featuring indie artists, the novelty is wearing thin.

"Everybody was very excited about The O.C., and it's still a helpful, cool thing," said Kiewel of Subpop. "But I think it's definitely less impactful than it probably was by sheer virtue of everybody calling so much attention to it. Eventually, the kids won't care about it."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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