LOS ANGELES — When it came time to select a theme song for MTV’s upcoming adaptation of the hit British teen drama “Skins,” the network wanted to try something a bit unconventional. So in October, the brass at the network quietly launched an almost off-the-grid campaign in which undiscovered artists could submit original tracks for the series.
“(We) sort of recognized the disconnect between the broader face of music and the changing face of MTV,” said Joe Cuello, the network’s vice president of creative music integration. “There is still a great music story to be told, but it’s simply grown from just the music video. The question we were faced with was how do we take the MTV brand, and all of its shows, and connect it to the music?”
Instead of rolling out a glossy promotion to tout the contest, MTV partnered with OurStage, a site that allows unsigned acts to promote their music and enter monthly contests — past winners have gotten opening slots for artists such as Drake and John Mayer, snagged stage time at Bonnaroo and secured mentoring sessions with industry giants.
Cuello said the network had been toying with the idea of crowd-sourcing music for quite some time but that it had been reluctant to utilize any one specific portal. “We have so many music heads at MTV. We wanted to collect it in an organic way without any protocol,” he said. “(‘Skins’) as a brand already has this incredible music sensibility established. It’s about independent music and sort of left of center. In many ways it reflects the MTVU brand, or ‘120 Minutes.’
“It’s about really cool independent music that can range from bands on independent labels or, in this case, artists that are unsigned.”
The competition garnered more than 6,000 submissions before Daniel Chavez-Wright was crowned the winner.
The 21-year-old from Austin, Texas, who performs under the moniker 3D Friends, will have his track “Lina Magic” as the theme of the show, which premieres Jan. 17. The series documents the uninhibited lives of a group of high school friends traversing the ups and downs of adolescence; it aired in its original form in the States on BBC America.
Chavez-Wright, who classifies his sound as “lo-fi, electronic, chill,” admits landing the top spot was surreal. “I was wanting to get it out there on some different sites, and I came across the OurStage site. It asked me if I wanted to submit to a contest. One was something with Keith Urban, another was for Subway, and then there was ‘Skins,’” he said. “I said, ‘This is probably the most likely fitting for my music.’ I never thought about it after that.”
MTV is also planning to use a handful of other top contenders to score the series. Similar to the U.K. version, the U.S. adaptation will have a teen advisory board that evaluates and recommends music to be included in the show. One of the teens will act as the show’s music supervisor.
The contest comes at a crucial time for MTV, which has ventured further away from being a reliable destination for music fans, as original programming such as “Jersey Shore,” “Teen Mom” and a slew of other unscripted shows dominate the network. Recently, the network unveiled, in beta form, the Music Meter, a site that offers fans an easy-to-navigate interface where they can explore 100 of the most buzzed-about, up-and-coming artists.
Though relegating clips from new and established artists to the tail ends of its shows and relying heavily on playing new tunes with the song’s complete info during episodes seems like a passive way to showcase music, the network has proved to be a key player in driving single sales.
When an October episode of “Teen Mom” featured A Rocket to the Moon’s “Like We Used To,” the band’s single saw a 398 percent increase in sales. And for all of “Jersey Shore’s” fist-pumping, tanning and drunken hookups, the hit show — which is heavy on music, thanks to numerous club scenes — has drummed up impressive sales for its soundtrack artists. The Midi Mafia saw an 874 percent increase in sales for its track “Last Call,” and Steve Aoki’s “I’m in the House” got a 408 percent bump.
Cuello hopes MTV will replicate the crowd-sourcing model for additional series, both scripted and documentary.
“The slate of new shows is weighted towards some great scripted programming, which affords us the chance to connect some pretty great music,” he said. “It works — we’re in the music business that isn’t driven by anything primarily but good storytelling.”