Teen TV Dramas Help Emerging Music Stars

By | January 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

New York – When Casey Stratton was a struggling singer-songwriter a few years ago, he had idealistic notions about artistic integrity. High on his list of what would jeopardize it: licensing his music to television.

“When I was younger, I used to be really weird about stuff like that, like, ‘I will not cheapen my work by putting it on TELEVISION!'” he recalls with a chuckle.

That was before the producers of the teen-oriented drama “Tarzan” called and asked to use the bittersweet ballad “Hollow,” from his debut album, on the WB show. Stratton gave the go-ahead, and while the exposure from the show (which was canceled last year) didn’t catapult him to stardom, it drew enough attention to help generate some buzz for his self-titled album (released January 2003).

And it helped Stratton change his views on using his melodic, emotionally charged tunes on TV.

“It doesn’t really matter now. It doesn’t hurt anyone and it was good for the scene,” Stratton says. “And it was a good steppingstone.”

Other artists are finding out the same, as more TV shows – especially those heavy on melodramatic teen plotlines – rely on musicians to intensify the emotion of a heart-wrenching breakup, intense makeout scene or tear-jerking tragedy.

“Our challenge is always to make the show contemporary and to make it resonate somehow with kids,” says Mark Schwahn, creator, executive producer and writer of the WB drama “One Tree Hill,” centered around two half-brothers who grew up on opposite ends of the wealth scale, the girl that comes between them and the soap-opera surrounding their lives.

“I think all kids have a soundtrack to their own lives, and music is such a huge part of their lives that using songs that mean something to them, or songs that will mean something to them in the future, is the way to go, as opposed to just using standard score.”

Time was when the tears flowed on a drama, the only music that accompanied it was some middling variation of the show’s instrumental theme music.

While songs by artists have been featured on shows in the past and have even become hits (remember the Billy Vera ballad “At This Moment,” which became a hit during Alex Keaton’s courtship of Ellen on “Family Ties”?) it was hardly a regular thing.

“People have been licensing their songs to movies forever, but for some reason, the TV licensing thing was sort of a cheesy thing to do,” says musician Howie Day, whose songs have been featured in a few TV dramas.

The WB drama “Dawson’s Creek,” which debuted in 1998 and ended in 2003, may have been among the early shows to change that, from the use of Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” as its theme song to the reliance on emotive tunes from Fiona Apple, Sarah McLachlan and others to accentuate the drama of a scene.

Now, it’s become standard practice for teen-oriented dramas such as “Everwood,” “The Gilmore Girls” and others – so much so that many have their own soundtracks. “One Tree Hill’s” is coming out Jan. 25, while Fox’s “The O.C.” has already released three – including a holiday album.

John Schwartz, creator, executive producer and one of the writers for “The O.C.” – which follows the wild, reckless and beautiful kids of the pampered set in Orange County – says the trend speaks to the way a new generation of TV producers has been influenced by film.

“I know for me, I’m a huge Cameron Crowe fan, and I love the way he uses music in his movies,” says Schwartz. “You always remember John Hughes movies and how well the music was used there, so that’s built into my sensibility when I sit down to write.”

The shift is proving to be a boon to new, alternative artists, who tend to be the kind of musicians tapped for such shows – partly because of producers’ eclectic tastes, and partly because of their shows’ tight music budgets.

“The reason why we use a lot of undiscovered music or brand new music is because those albums are just breaking, and the artist and the labels want that advertising, they want that promotion,” says Schwahn. “These are wonderful acts, but they haven’t had the exposure that Britney Spears has had or any of the other huge acts.”

Artists not only get a small payment, but also the exposure – which can be worth much more.

Gavin DeGraw has seen the payoff. When his debut album, “Chariot,” was released in the summer of 2003, it was accompanied by high expectations, but his yearning ballads didn’t get much attention from radio or music fans.

However, DeGraw did receive weekly attention from TV – notably from “One Tree Hill,” whose producers made “I Don’t Wanna Be” the show’s theme song when it debuted on the WB in fall 2003. And as the show steadily grew in the ratings, “I Don’t Wanna Be” grew in popularity as well, and by the end of 2004, the song had become a hit and the album had been certified gold.

“It’s so effective, no doubt about it,” says DeGraw, whose TV exposure includes appearances on the NBC show “American Dreams.”

Day also experienced a boost when his song “Collide,” off his second album, “Stop All The World Now,” was featured on “One Tree Hill” last fall.

“It’s odd, I guess, because the single is a year old,” says Day. “(But) it’s good, especially because it will be the last single from this record and it’s going out on a really good note.”

Schwartz noticed that even having characters on “The O.C.” mention Death Cab for Cutie caused a sales spike for the group. Appearing on the show produced greater dividends for the band Rooney.

“Rooney performed in like our 14th episode last year, and the following week, their sales tripled,” Schwartz notes. “And we were like, ‘Wow, we had something to do with that.'”

Even multiplatinum acts have gotten in on the act; “The O.C.” has played songs from U2 and Gwen Stefani, while “One Tree Hill” credits a Sheryl Crow sales jump to one of her songs being featured.

But producers say the incorporation of music is not a cross-promotional marketing gimmick. Music is so central to how Schwartz and Schwahn depict a story that they sometimes write scenes around a particular song that’s moved them.

“I scripted the song ’23’ by Jimmy Eat World because I saw the song so clearly and it represented exactly what I wanted,” Schwahn says of a recent episode. “It worked really well – it worked almost eerily well.”

Schwartz takes pride in his show’s ability to shine light on music, especially non-mainstream acts like Rooney.

“It becomes so incredibly difficult to get independent or off-the-beaten track music onto radio or MTV that television and commercials and that kind of stuff has become a really interesting avenue for launching new music,” he says.

And Day is ready for the opportunity – no matter what the show.

“Even now, if a soap opera wants to use my song, I’m kind of like, OK,” says Day. “I just see it as a great promotion, and it’s an easy way for me to make money… just send me a check.”

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