LOS ANGELES — Steve Perry was skeptical when the producers of a television pilot about a high school glee club sought permission to use his band’s signature song in their show; the former frontman for the classic rock group Journey is protective of his legacy. “I want to be able to put these songs somewhere with good conscience that they’re not going to be abused,” Perry said in a recent interview. “I don’t want to see that happen.”
He needn’t have worried. Perry overcame his doubts, agreed to license the song to the producers of Fox’s “Glee,” and a year later “Don’t Stop Believin’” has reached a new generation of music fans.
As many younger viewers seem to be losing interest in the once invulnerable “American Idol,” “Glee” looks poised to be pop’s new tastemaker. Much like “Idol,” “Glee” is helping alter the dynamic between music and television, showing ways that both media can help prop up each other in a world beset by multichannel and Internet competition.
Returning from a four-month hiatus earlier this month, the first-season comedy about nerdy glee club members hit a new ratings peak following “American Idol,” with 13.6 million total viewers; it actually beat “Idol” among the key demographic of adults aged 18 to 34, according to the Nielsen Co.
It’s music that drives the show, and the show in turn drives music sales. On Monday, the three cast albums were numbers 1, 7 and 10 on Apple’s iTunes album chart and together have sold more than 1 million units, according to SoundScan. Sales of the cast’s singles, which typically are released shortly after an episode airs, have logged online sales of 4.1 million. The show’s covers also are sending the original recordings back up the charts. Perhaps most crucially, “Glee,” like “Idol,” is bridging the gap between classic rock favored by boomers and hip-hop popular with their kids.
Perry said he loves the “Glee” version of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “They really worked hard to make it their own,” he said. What’s more, “it’s actually brought people’s attention to go check out the original. ... It’s something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.”
“The travails of the music business are well documented, but the truth is, a good idea can cut through that,” said Rob Stringer, the chairman of Sony Music Label Group, which releases the “Glee” cast music. “I think ‘Glee’s’ an example.”
Creator Ryan Murphy claims to be guided by instinct — not to mention his own musical nostalgia — in picking songs that run the gamut — ‘70s balladeer Eric Carmen, R&B diva Jill Scott and show tunes from “Cabaret” and “Wicked.”
“At the beginning, everyone kept asking if this was like ‘High School Musical’ — no one says that anymore,” Murphy said in an interview. “You would never think the Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand would go together in an episode, but I love them both and there they are.”
Songwriters’ affection for the series is understandable, given the bump in sales that inevitably results for the tunes that Murphy and his team choose. But “Glee,” which airs on Tuesday nights, also can deliver big boosts to songs that got away. After a September episode featured a cover of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows,” a Latin-flavored vamp that peaked at No. 31 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2008, sales of the original record shot up to 2,945 units the following week, up 231 percent from 891 the week before.
Classics have benefited as well. Murphy said that Neil Diamond was initially “very resistant to license” the rights to his 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline,” now a pop standard. But after the song was featured in an October episode, sales more than tripled from 3,038 the week before to 10,160 the week after. Diamond wrote on Twitter that he “loved” the cover version.
It’s an unlikely trajectory for a series that initially looked at best like a long shot. Murphy was best known for creating “Nip/Tuck,” a dark comedy about plastic surgeons that wrapped its six-season run in March on cable outlet FX. For his next gig, Murphy, along with writing partners Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, wanted to try pitching a more family-friendly comedy. But the music for “Glee” posed some big problems: Rights to popular tunes tend to be expensive.
And scripted shows in which the characters break into song have a “pretty spotty track record” on television, said Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that makes “Glee” as well as “The Simpsons” and ABC’s new comedy “Modern Family.” Previous musical bombs include “Viva Laughlin” and “Cop Rock.”
Murphy assured nervous executives that the 14 songs heard in the pilot were merely a lure to get viewers hooked; the music would be trimmed back once the series got rolling.
“But what we discovered very quickly is that people responded like crazy to the music,” Newman said. “The music really has taken on a life of its own.” Songwriters have proved so eager to get their tunes on the show that they’ve agreed to cut their usual license fees, Newman said. The Madonna episode used nine of the pop star’s songs, including “Vogue,” “4 Minutes” and “Like a Prayer.”
Not everyone is so smitten. While critics have generally been kind to the series, the music has drawn some naysayers. That includes rock bible Rolling Stone, which offered a tepid review of the first cast album, sniping that the choir-type reworkings had turned hit songs into “karaoke fodder.” And even some songwriters won’t play along; requests to use Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” and Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” were turned down.
Adam Anders, the show’s music producer, says he works to keep the songs from crossing over into what he calls “Velveeta land.”
One of the first songs recorded was Amy Winehouse’s retro-soul hit “Rehab.” “Mostly it sounded just like monks,” Anders said of the first attempts.
Even the show’s most experienced singers needed some adjustments. Lea Michele, who plays budding starlet and high-school naif Rachel Berry, for instance, has worked in professional theater since she was 8. “She was a Broadway singer, not like a Kelly Clarkson or a Rihanna,” Anders explained. “To get her to wrap her brain around singing in a completely new way she never had before, it took some adjustment.”
Amber Riley, who plays diva-in-training Mercedes, has sung Dionne Warwick and the Rolling Stones on the show but felt overwhelmed only when the producers asked her to sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the torch song from “Dreamgirls.”
“That’s a song that every singer aspires to be able to sing, and when they told me I was going to be singing it I had no confidence at all,” Riley said during a recent break in taping.
Murphy says there is no science to the music selections: “I don’t really understand how I choose the songs. It’s a very mysterious process and my only rule is I have to have loved the song or have been moved by it myself.
“It’s a very strange thing,” he continued. “There are a lot of songs I have a connection to from my childhood. The show’s weird blend and melange of R&B and ‘70s and funk and show tunes and ... Madonna. It sounds weird, but it’s sort of the soundtrack of my life.”