How TV Became the New Radio for Emerging Artists

Why musicians are going where the audience are now.

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Music 
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Last summer, a study made by New York University Steinhart Music Business Program reported that terrestrial radio has failed to connect with Generation Z — people born after 1995 — who have grown up in an on-demand digital environment. Consumers who are 13 and up no longer look to radio as a music discovery tool and instead take to digital services like YouTube and Spotify to find new artists. Digital streaming platforms have allowed new artists access to a wide range of consumers, but the downside is that it can be hard to distinguish their music from the thousands of songs released every day. This is where television comes in.

The beauty about shows like Atlanta and Insecure, outside of the compelling writing and storytelling, is the music featured on the show. The music isn’t just a placeholder but rather a conduit; a way to magnify a feeling or emotion tied to a situation the viewer is watching. Usually, the artists featured are burgeoning upstarts who aren’t well known. Because of this, a lot of the audience is listening to these artists for the first time. Taking over where radio left off, television has become an important outlet for new artists to gain attention to their music on a mass scale. The emphasis of new artists’ music is also encouraged because clearing songs for use from bigger or illustrious artists are extremely difficult.

“I went from averaging like 5,000 views a day on YouTube to 15,000 a day or more.” — Rico Nasty

Look at Rico Nasty, a 22-year-old rapper whose life changed after her single, “Poppin,” was featured on Insecure, season 2, episode 3 “Hella Open.” This episode concluded with “Poppin” playing while the credits came on with the viewers’ full focus on the record. It was an exclamation mark following the last scene of the episode where Issa Rae’s character triumphantly took control of her sex life. The exposure made Nasty’s song a viral hit.

“I went from averaging like 5,000 views a day on YouTube to 15,000 a day or more,” Rico Nasty explains. “The video [for “Poppin”] went crazy. Television is kind of like their version of a music video and that’s why I think it’s more effective. Because when someone watches a show and it’s a song playing in the background, when it really hits you, that’s when you look shit up. Like, ‘Wow, I can really relate to this moment, to this song, to this scene’ and It really helps the person get a full idea of a song.”

Rico nasty scott vener kei henderson raphael saadiq insecure atlanta berhana childish major sza goldlink

Lauren Engel / HBO

The coverage also added to her fan base while building on the song’s message. Rico continued, “Insecure gave me a whole another aspect of my song. It actually put the perspective on males. Instead of you being a poppin’ ass bitch against women, [Issa Rae] placed it as ‘I’m a poppin’ ass bitch and I don’t need niggas.’ That really helps reach that other side of thinking and I really fuck with it. I hope I get way more shit on TV because TV is lit. So many fans come to my show like, ‘Oh my God I know you from Insecure.’”

Music in television has always been a component but it wasn’t a focal point of a show. One of the first series to emphasize music’s importance was NY Undercover in the mid to late 1990’s with James Mtume serving as music supervisor. In the series — which follows two cops trying to balance their personal life with their work — the biggest stars in urban music perform at Natalie’s, a fictional bar and restaurant owned by its namesake Natalie, who was played by Gladys Knight. The artists at the time, such as 112, SWV, Aaliyah, performed their latest singles, or exclusive covers.

“The reason why Insecure and Atlanta have strong point of views in music is because the people who are writing the show are writing the show with the intentions of using music as a character.” — Scott Vener

‘While NY Undercover was ahead of its time in regards to music integration, the foundation of today’s music curation in television was set by Entourage (2004 – 2011) and How to Make It In America (2010 -2011). What was played on the show developed the storyline, an aspect that Insecure and Atlanta thrives with now. Scott Vener, former Music Supervisor of Entourage and How to Make It In America, and current Music Supervisor of HBO’s Ballers points out that people behind the music of Insecure and Atlanta are genuine music lovers. Music for Insecure is handpicked by a team led by Issa Rae, music supervisor Kier Lehman, director Melina Matsoukas, and show composer Raphael Saadiq, among others with Solange also providing consulting. Atlanta’s music is picked by Donald Glover, Jen Malone and Fam Udeorji, who serve as music supervisor and consultant, and a few key figures.

“The reason why Insecure and Atlanta have strong point of views in music is because the people who are writing the show are writing the show with the intentions of using music as a character,” Vener explains. “It’s like when a montage happens, and the visuals are telling a story without dialogue, and allowing the music to take you into a mood and help support the story. They let the music breath on both the shows.”

Rico nasty scott vener kei henderson raphael saadiq insecure atlanta berhana childish major sza goldlink

RCA / RCA / Merie W. Wallace, HBO

When selecting music for shows, Vener explains why he focuses on new artists, outside of the Billboard charts. He elaborates that it wouldn’t make sense to play a song on the show for the sole reason that it’s popular. “For me personally, to go and recycle whatever is on the charts and to put it on my shows, doesn’t do anything for me personally as a brand,” he continues. “If I’m going to have this opportunity, I want to put new artists on and I like the idea of a being first responders to an artist’s music career then someone who just responding to what is already in pop culture or being talked about. I play those songs when it makes sense or if its funny or a cool idea.”

“TV shows have a tendency to hit a new audience that you may not be reaching already, so it’s really important to think about out-of-the-box ways to get a new fan a day with whatever music you’re releasing.” — Kei Henderson

For new musicians, catching the attention of Music Supervisors like Vener can lead to major success. You’re a new artist who hasn’t been making music, ala Rico Nasty, for more than a few years. You’re generating local buzz and have sporadic posting of your projects and songs on major music websites. However, a glass ceiling still perches itself right above your trajectory. How do you break through? Television is a great alternative to the radio because it also hits a national audience from different demographics.

“TV shows have a tendency to hit a new audience that you may not be reaching already, so it’s really important to think about out-of-the-box ways to get a new fan a day with whatever music you’re releasing,” explains Kei Henderson, CEO of Sincethe80s, an Atlanta-based Label, management and publishing company.

Rico nasty scott vener kei henderson raphael saadiq insecure atlanta berhana childish major sza goldlink

Will Azcona / Albert Pham / Matthias Clamer, FX

There isn’t a singular process to getting music on television. Half of the time it’s probably either luck or a coincidence. Music supervisor or showrunners still have to have some knowledge of the artist or hear the song. Managers and labels are bringing their music to shows like Insecure and Atlanta as a part of their rollout plan. Before SZA released her critically-acclaimed Ctrl album, she shared unreleased music to Insecure for the show. “Shows like Insecure are taking a chance on not just procedural music but different music to carry your piece,” Raphael Saadiq shares, who scores Insecure. “It’s about the feeling, the vibe that is sending over the screen into people’s home. It’s more of a nostalgic, feeling thing that’s new for television,” he adds.

“The thing about television and a song being on TV or a movie that radio can’t do for you is, it can create an emotional memory for you.” — Scott Vener

While radio’s influence in the music industry is far from fading, streaming, TV, and film, are opening new lanes for artists to become a household name overnight. TV allows music that wouldn’t work on the radio to become a hit record.

“The thing about television and a song being on TV or a movie that radio can’t do for you is, it can create an emotional memory for you,” explains Vener. “Insecure is a great example of this. They used a lot of indie R&B songs that if you just put on the radio, if you don’t have your mind in the right place when you’re listening to that song, it may not connect with you the same way than if you’re watching the relationship that is happening on the show with the song. When you have that connection, it makes the song that much more meaningful and you can understand where the song is coming from because it provides you with a perspective and context to understand the song. That’s what TV and movies can do that radio can’t. But radio is more of a persistent beast that plays the song over and over again and TV can’t do that for artists.”

In an endless sea of music from an infinite, ever-growing bushel of artists, television has become a viable platform for new artists to have their music distinctly enter households on a grand scale. This is just a tip of the iceberg.

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