In Depth

ABC Tunes Up TV Soundtrack

Seeking Savings With House Musician

Forget about Hannah Montana or the Jonas Brothers. The next big star to emerge from the Disney empire might just be a 24-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter named Shawn Hlookoff.

Shawn Hlookoff

TUNING UP Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Hlookoff is the first performer signed to Disney-ABC TV's artist series.

As part of a larger effort to control escalating music budgets for its programming, the Disney-ABC TV Group has launched an initiative to discover and groom its own roster of homegrown—and adult-skewing—artists.

Under its Session Five in-house music and song production banner, Disney-ABC TV Group has created what it’s calling an “artist series”—essentially, overall deals for songwriters. DATG will sign three to five artists each year, paying them a modest retainer in exchange for exclusive rights to their musical output.

The first artist attached to a multiyear contract under the program is Mr. Hlookoff. Working on a freelance basis, the camera-friendly twentysomething has already penned and performed songs for ABC’s “Eli Stone,” ABC Family’s “Kyle XY” and a new promotional campaign for ABC Daytime.

At a time in which some TV shows now spend as much as $200,000 per episode on music, DATG’s chief goal with Session Five—launched about three years ago—is to give its music-hungry showrunners a lower-cost yet creatively acceptable alternative to major label acts.

The artist series expands that mission, so that Session Five will now be in the business of grooming young musicians in the same manner TV studios nurture baby writers.

Unlike the Disney Channel’s star-making machine, however, the immediate aim is not to turn Mr. Hlookoff into the latest poster boy for the Clearasil set. While it’s possible Session Five will look for opportunities to get Mr. Hlookoff to perform his music on-camera, there are no plans to launch a cheesy sitcom around him.

Instead, “The deal is an extension of our normal (writer) development process,” said Peter DiCecco, senior vice president of music business and legal affairs for DATG. “It’s a great way for us to be a service provider (to showrunners) and a profit center at the same time. It lets us derive an economic benefit from a creative success.”

‘The New Radio’

DATG’s moves come as the music business has increasingly turned to the small screen as a means of breaking acts.

“Television really is the new radio,” said one top music agent. “Radio has become less effective. It used to be if a label like Sony or Warners had a new pop band, they’d say, ‘Let’s make a really expensive video and hire some promoters to really drive it to radio’. But now it’s all about getting a significant placement on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ‘Gossip Girl.’ If you have a young band, (labels) will do anything to get on TV.”

That vibrant market for music licensing may be one reason Mr. DiCecco is quick to emphasize that showrunners and music supervisors for DATG shows aren’t under any pressure to use Session Five acts. For example, despite having supplied tunes to virtually all Disney-affiliated shows, Session Five still is waiting to land its first track on the ABC Studios-produced “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“It’s always, first and foremost, about getting the right song for the right scene,” said Mr. DiCecco, whose DATG post also has him overseeing licensing deals with a slew of outside labels.

For producers so inclined, however, the financial incentive for using Studio Five compositions can be enormous.

The average fee for licensing a song from major-label artists is about $40,000, according to music and TV industry experts. For top-tier names, that price tag can soar to as much as $150,000—all to use a few seconds of a single song in one episode of a prime-time series.
By contrast, a Session Five song might cost as little as $6,000.

Labels frequently cut deals with networks to make their songs more financially attractive, particularly in the case of newer acts. But the music agent notes that, with revenue from album sales in perpetual decline, labels are desperate to make money in other ways—including selling songs to TV and film.

“There’s a lot of pressure to hold the line on license fees,” the agent said.

One of Mr. DiCecco’s biggest challenges in convincing producers to use in-house talent, of course, is the shoddy reputation of so-called “sound-alike” tunes. Mr. DiCecco said his unit’s work rises above the cheap rip-offs networks sometimes used in the past.

“We make sure that our songs are no different than songs you’d hear on the radio,” Mr. DiCecco said. “If I played you two songs—one by a record label, one by Session Five—I doubt you’d be able to tell the difference.”

Incubators

Acceptance of Session Five artists has no doubt been helped by the Internet-fueled democratization of pop music. Artists such as Colbie Caillat have been able to break through on the strength of little more than MySpace, making audiences far more willing to embrace songs from unknowns.

“Grey’s” also has proven to be a powerful incubator for fledgling artists. The Fray, Snow Patrol and singer Ingrid Michaelson all saw their careers explode after exposure on the ABC hit.

By grooming its own talent, and signing them to exclusive deals, Session Five is setting itself up to benefit big-time if an artist such as Mr. Hlookoff happens to take off after being featured on DATG programming.

“That would be a two-pronged success story for us,” Mr. DiCecco said, cautioning that the Session Five artist series’ primary mandate is not to compete with record labels or “American Idol” in the star-making arena. But if a TV-powered breakthrough does occur with one of its acts, Mr. DiCecco said Session Five will be ready.

“Disney has at least three record labels we can turn to,” he said.

Session Five isn’t the only TV-based entity taking advantage of the small screen’s growing role in helping break artists. Two years ago, CBS Corp. resurrected the CBS Records brand as a digital label, with the intent of signing a handful of artists and breaking them via prominent placement on CBS programming.

Mr. DiCecco said Session Five and CBS Records have different missions.

“For us, the primary focus is on television. CBS is focusing on selling albums,” he said. “We’re not trying to create a new business model.”

Still, Session Five has experimented with direct sales of singles to consumers via iTunes and other music services. Just last month, Session Five artists—including Mr. Hlookoff—contributed songs to a digital soundtrack album for ABC Family’s “Samurai Girl” miniseries.

As for the deal with Mr. Hlookoff, Mr. DiCecco said he was chosen for his musical versatility and ability to quickly come up with songs for producers.

“He’s able to hit each of the genres we need him to hit, and he does it incredibly well,” Mr. DiCecco said. “He gets inspired very easily.”

For Mr. Hlookoff, hooking up with DATG provides a solid alternative to the more traditional path of struggling for years in obscurity on the off chance that a major label might sign him.

“It raises my profile and it’s a way to get my music out,” he said. “Every artist I know would die for this. ABC has so much great music on its shows, and this is a way for me to establish a lot of credibility.”

Mr. Hlookoff said for singers of his generation, getting a song on the radio—or even MySpace—doesn’t hold as much appeal as it once did.

“Everybody listens to music on their iPod, and even MySpace has become cluttered,” he said. “TV seems to be the new model.”