After many decades melting into the background, music is stepping into the forefront of hit TV. Shows like Fox's “Empire” and NBC's “The Voice” are drawing massive audiences and attracting some of the biggest names in music, from the Timbaland-produced hits in “Empire” to T. Bone Burnett’s pitch-perfect originals in “Nashville.”
Adam Schlesinger may not have the same level of name recognition as Timbaland or Burnett, but he's had more than his fair share of musical accomplishments. As one of a small handful of musicians and composers to be nominated for an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy (he has won an Emmy and a Grammy), Schlesinger has watched music’s place in television and movies change over the past few decades, when he went from being a guy in a band who writes hits (he plays bass in the rock band Fountains of Wayne) to a guy who writes a movie's hits ("That Thing You Do," to name one famous example). Today, he handles the music for the CW's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," a critically adored musical comedy about an accomplished but deranged lawyer (Rachel Bloom) who drops everything to chase a high school summer camp beau to a dead-end part of Southern California.
Schlesinger has been close to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for years, since Showtime was considering a much dirtier version of the show. "One of the biggest challenges for Rachel was cleaning it up for network TV," Schlesinger said. "It wasn’t just a matter of bleeping things out."
He was brought back into the fold when it was picked up by the CW for a 13-episode run this year. He spoke with International Business Times about the rise of musical comedy on YouTube, changing audience tastes, and the challenges they present to songwriters today. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
International Business Times: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” feels like part of this larger pendulum swing, where music has become a key ingredient in some of the biggest shows on television. Where do you think all that interest and excitement comes from?
Adam Schlesinger: I think there’s a general interest in music, but I think also part of it comes from the fact that short-form comedy music videos are such an enormous thing on the Internet. I think that started with the Lonely Island, but now there’s just so much comedy music on the Internet, and that’s where Rachel got her start. Now that the line between Internet content and television content’s kind of blurred, it just makes sense that musical comedy would find its way from the Internet onto TV.
IBT: So you see it as the collapse of the divide between Internet and television content, and not as the result of more and more music finding its way into our lives?
Schlesinger: I think it’s probably both, to some degree. There are a lot of failed music shows and music movies, too. I don’t think people are necessarily drawn to these shows because of the music. The music makes it unique, but there has to be something that appeals to a general audience, whether or not they’re particular music fans.
IBT: That’s interesting. I’d always seen it as a result of people becoming more musically aware and more musically omnivorous, which is something that’s kind of reflected in the musical range of your show. You’ve got songs in the style of Bollywood, and late ‘90s R&B. That’s something that would have been totally out of bounds when you were starting Fountains of Wayne.
Schlesinger: I think the idea that you would only listen to one type of music is a completely obsolete idea. I don’t know anybody who thinks that way, or certainly nobody would brag about that fact: “I only listen to hip-hop,” or “I only listen to punk rock.” Nobody really talks like that anymore. I think it’s just assumed that people like different kinds of music, and there's different music for different moods.
On this show, we’re parodying a lot of different kinds of stuff, but it’s all stuff we actually really like. We still want the songs to be good and the melodies to be good and the songs to be things we listen to apart from the comedy.
IBT: You've been studying pop since you were a kid, but pop music has grown so vast. Do you feel like you instantly know what to do to imitate something?
Schlesinger: There’s some genres I have to study more than others. There’s some I know exactly what to do when it’s clear a song is going down a certain path. There’s some where I have to do a bit more homework. I’m pretty good at picking up the general characteristics of what something is and imitating it.
IBT: I want to zoom out a bit and talk about the music industry here a bit. You’ve made a lot of music that’s appeared in lots of different places. Are you still getting royalties from people listening to your music on streaming services?
Schlesinger: Yeah. I’d say trickle is the right word.
IBT: The reason I’m asking is that it seems like it might be more financially profitable, in the long run, to get an original composition into a movie or a television show than it would be to write songs on your own and get them out there. A lot of people talk about how streaming-music services can help to sustain interest and revenue on older recordings. Has that been your experience?
Schlesinger: From a financial standpoint, those services are just horrible for songwriters and for performers. You don’t make anything, and there’s obviously some kind of giant scam afoot with the whole thing. The record companies and the streaming services have some kind of deal that makes both sides happy, but the money really doesn’t come back to the people that made the music at all. It’s going to have to change. There’s obviously a lot of people up in arms about it.
I’ll sometimes get a check from YouTube for 25 cents, and it’s like, it’d be better if you didn’t send me anything at all, because when you send me a check for 25 cents it simply alerts me to the fact that I’m getting ripped off. Obviously the problem is it’s not like nobody’s making money. There’s tons of people making tons of money. As content, music is still incredibly valuable. It’s incredibly valuable to these companies, and to labels still, and it’s still a very valuable form of content.
IBT: It seems like if you have songwriting credits on a movie, you’re more likely to get more meaningful streams of money for longer periods of time than you are if you have your songs on a service.
Schlesinger: That part has changed a lot. When Fountains of Wayne was first starting out, there was this kind of lottery-ticket mentality with songs. If a band had one song that sounded like a hit, they’d have record companies throwing millions of dollars at them because they knew they would have the chance to sell 5 million albums. That was a realistic thing to think about. You could have one song, you put it on an album that would sell for $17.99 at 5 million copies, and everybody gets rich and never has to work again. That would happen. You would have Chumbawumba, or whoever it is, get one massive song and then you’re set. That doesn’t really happen anymore, for the most part.
Musicians can still, if they’re performers, they can still make money performing. But I have friends who have never been performers. It’s just getting harder and harder.
IBT: But getting back to TV, it seems like this medium is the ideal fit for the way you work.
Schlesinger: I like having deadlines, because deadlines force you to work well quickly. TV works at an incredibly fast pace, and there’s really no time for your muse to strike, there’s no time to sit around and wait till you’re in a better mood. You have to do it, and you have to do it quickly, and it gets done. A lot of creative work, it takes exactly as long as the amount of time you’re given. So if you’re given two days, it gets done in two days. And if you’re given two years, it gets done in two years.
IBT: Any thoughts on what comes next? A second season?
Schlesinger: The initial order was to do 13 episodes for the first season, and that’s all we’re focused on. Today we’re working on pre-production for No. 11, and post-production for No. 7, so we’ve got plenty of work, always.