It’s a complicated issue for both programs as they promote original music in these real-life competitive genres, a different ballgame than something like “Glee” that specialized in cover songs. “Nashville” and “Empire” each boast an impressive roster of producers, songwriters and artists to create their music, all backed by powerful record labels. This is essential, as networks bank on these shows to make money through music sales. Yet as it turns out, it’s still not always easy to break out of the TV bubble.
“Our focus is definitely to have songs that fit the show, but we’d love if they could airlift outside the show to radio,” said Shawn Holiday, Columbia Records senior vice president of A&R who works with “Empire.” Though the Season 1 soundtrack hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart last year, executives are still looking for ways to expand the reach. “The challenge with that is these aren’t radio artists — they’re TV stars. They come with the stigma of ‘How many TV stars really make it [as singers]?’ ”
To combat this, “Empire” — which shattered ratings records in its first season — is making a concerted effort to pair up its actors with established radio hit-makers. Last year, the duet strategy paid off when Jussie Smollett (who plays R&B singer Jamal Lyon) sang with Estelle on “Conquerer,” one of the show’s best-selling songs on iTunes. That’s why this season, viewers saw Jamal team up with the inescapable Pitbull for the club anthem “No Doubt About It.” The song got a slickly produced music video and was released to radio in early September, a month before Jamal sang it in an actual episode.
“No Doubt About It” currently sits at No. 36 on the Billboard rhythmic national airplay chart. The goal, Holiday said, is for the music industry to take Smollett more seriously as an artist; he recently signed a separate record deal with Columbia. Producers hope to do the same with stars Bryshere “Yazz” Gray (Hakeem Lyon) and Serayah (Hakeem’s ex-girlfriend Tiana Brown). To wit, Timbaland (“Empire’s” music producer) collaborated with Yazz on the third episode’s track “Bout 2 Blow,” added to urban radio charts last month with a boost from iHeartMedia’s “On the Verge” program.
On “Nashville,” executives have an even bigger challenge thanks to the tight clique of country radio and the enormously difficult process of wrestling a song up the charts. As a result, the show’s marketing effort is geared toward single and album sales on digital platforms, as the series — currently in its fourth season — releases multiple soundtracks.
“Radio is difficult,” said Dawn Soler, senior vice president of music at ABC Television. “The landscape of the way music is ingested has changed so much, and each week you can just go to iTunes and access these songs … people can pick what they want.”
In Season 1, Hayden Panettiere (country-pop diva Juliette Barnes) made a slight radio impact with her character’s single “Telescope,” as did duo Lennon & Maisy (real-life sisters who play Maddie and Daphne Conrad) with their cover of the Lumineers hit “Hey Ho.” Though the songs didn’t last long on country stations, the show saw success in other avenues: Duets from Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen (star-crossed lovers Gunnar Scott and Scarlett O’Connor) showed up on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, including “Fade Into You” and “If I Didn’t Know Better.” Last year, Bowen’s solo “Black Roses” peaked at No. 12 on the digital country songs list.
“Nashville” music supervisor Frankie Pine says the songs are actually elevated by the audience seeing them on television, so radio isn’t ultimately the ideal delivery system. “What makes [one of] our songs a hit is because of the visual impact that it has with the audience,” Pine said. She’s in charge of sifting through the hundreds of submissions she gets from Nashville songwriters — many of whom follow the story lines quite closely — and looking for tunes that would fit perfectly in certain scenes.
“I’m always looking for new [songwriter] names,” she said. “If I can discover someone new each season, it makes me happy.”
“Empire” has a different process of incorporating original material, as Holiday sits in the writers’ room and delivers notes to a team lead by Timbaland, along with Ne-Yo and J.R. Rotem, who write songs for specific moments. They’ve learned what works: For example, they found Timbaland’s songwriting style clicks best for Yazz’s character, Ne-Yo’s voice fits with Smollett, and Rotem works well with Serayah. In terms of getting special musical guests though, Holiday laughed as he recalled how different things are now that the show is a phenomenon.
“It’s like night and day. In Season 1, we couldn’t get anybody … now, we can’t tell people ‘no’ enough,” he said. “But it’s just 18 episodes, and there are a lot of people we want to bring back,” such as guest star Jennifer Hudson.
As the shows attempt to increase their viewing and listening audiences, it’s also up to the individual performers to create their own outside buzz and extend their careers beyond the series. “Empire’s” Serayah announced plans for a mixtape and performed on stage with Taylor Swift, while “Nashville” stars like Charles Esten (who plays the devastating Deacon Claybourne) launched summer tours.
ABC plans to capitalize on this, airing a special documenting its actors on the road. “They did a little bit of ‘Nashville’ music of course,” Pine said. “But a lot of it was their own.”