Music Retail’s Second Biggest Force

The most powerful force in commercial music today? No debate. It's iTunes. According to recent data, Apple's online behemoth crammed 69 percent of our collective digital-music spending into its swollen, Jabba-like gullet last year. That works out to 25 percent of all music sales — a fairly astounding figure that will tick upward as the Walmart demographic gets hip to the fact that a home computer is like a television and a food-stamp queue in the same frickin' place.

But the second most powerful force in music? You could make an excellent argument for Glee.

Does that seem flattering for a year-old Fox show filled with lazy high school archetypes and pitchy singing — even when it has 13 million devotees (known collectively as "Gleeks") and is embarking on its own live, nationwide tour this week? Maybe so, but the evidence abounds. Our case for number two:

The decline of American Idol: Some may argue that Glee isn't even the most influential music-based program on its own network. And, sure, Idol is still TV's highest-rated show — but the end is drawing near. His judgeship Simon Cowell is leaving at the end of the season, the current cast lacks rooting appeal, and the program has lost about 6 million viewers since 2006. Meanwhile, Glee has doubled its viewership since last year's debut and has much more "buzz."

Music sales: Last year, the Glee cast charted a brain-frying 25 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, the most by any artist since The Beatles charted 31 in 1964. It matters little that all the songs in question were retreads — covers of showtune standards like "I Dream a Dream" and mainstream hits like "Don't Stop Believing." A buck is a buck. In essence, Glee the show has become advertising for Glee the music, much like The Monkees before it. Self-created synergy.

Licensing leverage: In fact, the recycled, second-hand nature of the music in Glee makes the show even more influential. According to Billboard, sales of Rihanna's "Take a Bow" shot up 189 percent after the song was covered in last year's "Showmance" episode. Consequently, stars like Madonna will eagerly license their songs to the producers at a reduced rate with the expectation of a coattail effect. For today's acts, having a song covered on Glee is like getting a gig on Sullivan. For yesterday's acts, like Journey and REO Speedwagon, it means reviving your catalog for a third generation of music fans whose parents were fumbling with bra straps in the backseats of lime-green Ford Mavericks when the original songs first dropped.

Universal appeal: Some of us would rather participate in the ass-to-mouth surgical motif in The Human Centipede than watch Glee week in and week out, but if the producers did a "yacht rock"-themed show featuring songs by Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, and Kenny Loggins? Oh-shit-yes we'd watch that. Or at least I would. Which underscores the insidious appeal of Glee: On any given week, the producers can tap any segment of the music-loving population they choose, whether it be aging New Wave chicks or hip-hop fans or those denim-and-pomade dudes at blues-punk shows.

iTunes: Let's square up: Glee is exultant but highly unoriginal entertainment that's perfectly adapted for our era of Internet memes and pop culture sugar addiction. It's also perfectly suited for iTunes, a medium that thrives on cheap, impulse, piecemeal purchases. The "Gleeks" turned the Glee kids into TV stars; iTunes turned them into The Beatles.
Sat., May 15, 8 p.m.; Sun., May 16, 11:30 a.m., 2010

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Craig Outhier