Singer/songwriter John Legend’s concerts have sold out huge stadiums and arenas, but recently the R&B crooner performed some of his signature songs in front of an intimate crowd in the basement club of a New York soul food restaurant. The soft-spoken Legend also opened up about his music to the audience in a rare interview that added some unique notes to his already popular music.
With music programming all but silenced on cable over the years, as music fans flocked to the Web for concert performances, shows like TV One’s HelloBeautiful Interludes — which featured the Legend performance — offer music fans a rare, up-close performance as well as interviews with top artists.
Executives said the hybrid performance/ interview shows — which also include CMT’s Crossroads, VH1’s Storytellers and more recent entries such as DirecTV’s Guitar Center Sessions, Palladia’s Live From Daryl’s House and Ovation’s Song by Song — give viewers the best of both worlds with concert performances and artist interviews packaged into a 30- or 60-minute show.
“I think you’re seeing the concert aspect of music move to the Internet, but I think you’re seeing a successful hybrid of music performances on cable channels where you have a cross between a concert and interviews with the performers,” Scott Woodward, senior vice president of programming and production for Ovation, said.
The shows help fill a programming void on cable. Networks like MTV, VH1 and BET have significantly decreased concert and music video programming over the past decade for the beat of reality and scripted series, as music fans turned to digital platforms like on-demand and the Internet to get their groove on.
Just last month, BET cancelled its daily music-video countdown show 106 & Park after 14 years. It plans to convert the series into a digital offering.
Executives said the limited exposure of music on traditional TV keeps fans from seeing their favorite artists up close and personal outside of live, stadium-size performances. Shows like TV One’s Interludes bring top acts to the fans in a more intimate environment where the artists and fans can interact with each other, said Smokey Fontaine, chief content officer for Interactive One, the digital arm of TV One parent company Radio One.
Interludes, in which Fontaine interviews such stars as Legend, Jennifer Holliday, Kem, Toni Braxton and Babyface prior to their respective musical performances, is currently averaging nearly 200,000 viewers, more than TV One’s 178,000 average primetime viewers during the third quarter.
“These stars become so massive and in demand for big stadium shows that we don’t get a chance to see their talent up close and personal,” Fontaine said. “I wanted to create an experience where I could see someone really gifted and talented in a small venue.”
Several networks are playing the genre in different and unique keys. Ovation’s Song by Song focuses on musical performer sthrough the songs they sing. Artists discuss what prompted the song’s development before performing the tune during the 30-minute show. Now in its third season, Song by Song has profiled such artists as Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry and Blondie and Sheryl Crow.
GOING ‘SONG BY SONG’
Ovation’s Woodward said the show appeals to older viewers looking to hear familiar songs from an artist, as well as to younger viewers seeking more information about a particular singer.
“When we have a Dolly Parton or an older performer, you have a range of people watching it — you have the older fans of the performer, but you also have younger viewers that had a taste for it on YouTube or have seen a clip of the person as they search the Internet,” he said. “I think there is a very broad audience for all forms of music and art.”
With audiences, particularly young millennials, consuming more of their music in short song bites rather than long-form concert performances, Woodward said shows like Song by Song help fulfill the desire of music fans to hear from artists about both their music and their personal background.
“The thing I love about it is each artist is four episodes, but each takes a specific song in their career and that becomes the setting for the storyline for that half-hour show,” he said. “When Sheryl Crow does My Favorite Mistake, everybody wants to know, who that mistake is. Over the episodes, you get to find a lot of intimate details about their life.”
Indeed, viewers are looking for more creative and interactive ways to experience music and artists, VH1 president Tom Calderone said. Storytellers, now in its 18th year, provides a documentary-style look at an artist’s life and career, as well as offering a concert performance in front of a live audience. The show has featured such artists as Sting, Garth Brooks, The Bee Gees, Elton John, Paul Simon, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera.
The series last aired in 2012 but will return in 2015 with new episodes.
“In a very disposable, hit-and-run world we live in, I think viewers come [to Storytellers] to get an immersive experience,” Calderone said.
Artists also appreciate the genre because it provides an opportunity to interact with their fans, he said. “Every artist to a person walked off the stage saying it was a good experience for them,” he said.
“We also book it in their minds that there is hard work here — this isn’t just a concert where you just do your top six songs, say a couple of nice things to the audience and keep playing.
“This is really about expressing yourself and going deeper than what’s on the lyric sheet,” he added. “They have to prep for this — it’s not just a plug-and-play show for them.”
CMT’s quarterly series Crossroads expands the genre further by pairing a country music artist with a pop, rock or R&B singer to perform together and discuss the similarities and differences in their music. The series, now in its 12th year, is the longest-running music series on the network. Crossroads has partnered such artists as Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock, Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson, Def Leppard and Taylor Swift, Vince Gill and Sting and, in last week’s episode (Nov. 28), Bob Seger and Jason Aldean.
“Music fans are very passionate about the artists that they like, and a lot of them can’t get enough of what they like and enough information about the artist,” John Hamlin, CMT senior vice president of music events and talent, said. “Everyone that puts music on TV is looking for the next concept that will generate interest like Crossroads. They are hard to come by.”
The next concept could be the infusion of live episodes into the series, executives said. CMT is tinkering with developing a live concert/ interview series sometime next year, Hamlin said. And VH1’s Calderone said the network’s first Storytellers episode in 2015 will be presented live, although he would not offer specific details.
“We really think the live component of Storytellers is really important to that franchise so people feel it’s really unfiltered and unedited,” Calderone said.
Ovation will look to break new artists who may not be familiar to most music fans. Song by Song this month will shine a spotlight on violinist and Internet sensation Lindsey Stirling. Her YouTube channel, “Lindseystomp,” has more than 5.5 million subscribers.
“We are always going to do Sheryl Crow, we’ll always do Blondie, we’re always going to do Dolly Parton, but we have to curate and be on the cutting edge and find those artists in all forms of art that are pushing the boundaries, like Linsdey Stirling,” Woodward said.
The network will also debut, in first-quarter 2015, a music-themed show that features performances and interviews with artists as they go back to their roots, Woodward said.
VH1’s Calderone said music will always find a way to rock on traditional TV, but programming has to be innovative to compete with music content across a number of video and audio platforms.
“You have to make it event-worthy,” Calderone said. “Anything we do has to have some meat on it to make it important to our audience, because music is everywhere.”