Warning: This article on Glee might tend toward the meta, as while I write this article, I will be listening to the first Glee Soundtrack*: seventeen songs from Ryan Murphy's hit show on FOX. And the songs are exactly what I wish to discuss: the transmedia of music.
During the Futures of Entertainment 4 conference, as Henry Jenkins comments on his blog, "Nancy Baym asked us to think about when and how music has gone transmedia. We struggled to come up with examples - everyone of course immediately latched onto the ARG created around the Nine Inch Nails; I proposed the comic book Tattoo where artists and writers used Tori Amos songs as their inspiration." What I wish to bring into the limelight is that we've been participating in a musical transmedia experience of epic proportions for the past few months, on TV, on Hulu, on our iPods, and even in our living rooms: the rockin' music of Glee.
Before I continue to discuss how exactly Glee works as transmedia, let me discuss the concept of the fan experience. Henry also writes in the same paragraph, "The question looks different, though, if we ask about transmedia performance, because most contemporary musical artists perform across multiple media - minimally live and recorded performance, but also video and social network sites and Twitter..." Back in October, I wrote an article for the Consortium blog, Performing with Glee, which examines the fan (re-)production that has emerged on YouTube from reenacting scenes from Glee's television episodes. While this fan performance has pushed the Glee experience into a transmedial mode -- the total experience of interacting with the Glee "franchise" spreads across mediums, regardless of its production origins -- the fan activity obviously is not the same as the actual artists or content producers performing across mediums. I try to make the distinction obvious, especially by putting quotation marks around franchise, above, because when we consider transmedia, usually we apply the term franchise to the complete production consumed by the audience without taking into account the extensive continual experience that moves beyond the original production (think: Star Trek conventions, anime cosplayers, or even Superbowl celebration parades).
So I wish, in examining why Glee's business model has been so successful, to explain how Glee's business model has been so successful. And this is due to the fan experience.
Read more after the jump.
Henry has written thoroughly about fan practice and production in 1992 text, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, but a comprehensive text has not yet been written to explain how the fan experience -- how an audience consumes the entirety of a story, from the original production to all of the offshoots, both those of the original producers (trailers, webisodes, characters' Twitter profiles, etc.) and those of fans (fan fiction, cosplay, even action figures aimed primarily at children) -- influences the understanding of a franchise. The fan experience might be different from the viewer experience: taking Glee as the example, a viewer consumes only the television series in its 1-hour weekly serialization. The fan, on the other hand, will watch the television show, view the extra clips on Hulu.com, record some karaoke on FOX.com, and buy the Glee soundtrack on iTunes. The experience of the viewer is limited to the original text; however, the fan will understand the franchise on an individual, subjective level (laid on top of the more-objective viewer's experience), which shapes his or her understanding of the Glee story, favoring certain characters, episodes, and (for Glee) songs above others. Not that the viewer's experience would be non-subjective: he or she is free to make subjective judgments on the series and probably talks about the show at work or home, with friends, coworkers, and family. Still, the fan experience crafts a much different and more complex (and sometimes detrimentally biased) relationship with the media, as the association of audience with the characters and world becomes a much deeper and broader participatory involvement.
Glee's business model succeeds because it caters to the fan experience. It builds loyalty to the Glee franchise by immersing the audience in a continual story that extends beyond a weekly visit to the television set. Glee is available on the FOX network on television while also available in specific amounts (limited episodes of the series with extra content, like cast interviews) on Hulu.com (with the remaining episodes removed from Hulu available via torrent or other P2P websites). However, here I am only mentioning the television series spread across distribution networks. This isn't necessarily what we would identify as transmedia. Yes, it's transmedia in that it extends across mediums, but not specifically what Henry Jenkins calls "transmedia storytelling": a narrative that continues separate elements of its plot and/or story across these mediums.
So, that brings us to Glee's music. Glee has garnered a loyal fan base -- gleeks -- and much of this popularity stems from the talented cast, handpicked here and there from the Broadway circuit (the show also features some Broadway guest celebrities, such as Kristin Chenoweth, lauded recently for her role as Glinda in Broadway's Wicked). So Glee's music is certainly of a spectacular quality. But it also banks on the popularity of the actual musical content: a mix of showtunes, Top 40 billboard hits, and a range of other songs (oddly, but which creates a wonderful vibe, some great and a few unknown hits from the '80s).
Initially, the songs were available on an individual basis, in weekly rounds, for purchase on iTunes, and, evidenced by my notice at the top of this article, eventually compiled into distinct soundtrack releases and distributed through a number of online stores. However, the songs also appeared in a number of forms online. Just like many pieces of mainstream video content on YouTube, as Joshua Green explains in his book, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture, Glee's songs have appeared quite often illegally on YouTube's platform. However, as Josh explains, some of these uploads tend toward a more celebratory purpose: we upload because we like them and want to share, instead of primarily circumventing legal distribution processes with the sole purpose of providing free content. Before some of the songs were available for purchase or scenes clipped and available to embed via Hulu, users uploaded to YouTube screen captures from their computers or even camcorder-recorded copies directly from their television sets of specific scenes that featured favorite songs. Eventually, user "LeelooDoyle" uploaded for promotional purposes HQ- and HD-quality versions of the Glee songs (featuring only the song and a promotional image). These higher-quality versions have become popular among users wishing simply to listen to the music with no barriers to access. Already, the Glee rendition of Journey's Don't Stop Believin' has received over four million views. Below are two examples of these celebratory videos: the first intersperses pictures from the series over the audio, and the second provides lyrics laid over pictures of the characters.
The availability of these songs seems to have propelled interest in purchasing and owning the songs as well. On 13 July 2009, the New York Post reported that Don't Stop Believin' reached #1 on the iTunes top-selling songs chart, selling over 350,000 copies of the song overnight (as Variety reports); LeelooDoyle's version of the song premiered on YouTube on 19 May. As for how the CD soundtracks have sold in competition with the individual songs, today, the first Glee soundtrack (released on 3 November 2009) sits on Amazon.com at #1 in Television Soundtracks, #1 in Musicals, #4 in Pop, and #4 in overall Music, while the second soundtrack, after two days (released 8 December), rests at #1 in overall Soundtracks, #2 in Pop, and #2 in overall Music.
Aside: The New York Times has also briefly covered the success of Glee's music in their Business section.
While it's all well that Glee's music is selling, the success begs a question: Is Glee's music even an example of transmedia? To be distinct: is it transmedia storytelling or transmedial distribution? As I have explained before on this blog, there is a difference between transmedia and mere adaptation (the reimagining of stories), the latter of which seems to account for renditional covers of songs. However, I think that we can consider Glee's music to be a solid example of transmedia storytelling tactics, precisely because the initiative weaves its storytelling in with the fan experience. Glee isn't successful because it crisscrosses mediums; instead, it is successful because it moves between mediums, places, and even generations.
In a way, Glee is redefining what we think of as the musical cover. The fan experience latches on to the emotional connections created between the characters, story, and music to create a different kind of meaning for the new musical version beyond "Oh, it's a remake." For example, below I've embedded a comparison between Billy Idol's song "Dancing with Myself," and the Glee cover sung by Artie, a high school boy in a wheelchair (with, in my opinion, one of the better, more sonorous male voices). The episode, Wheels, focuses on Artie's disability and his resultant loneliness, which prompts the song (the choice should be a bit obvious given the title and lyrics).
Billy Idol's Dancing with Myself
Artie's rendition of Dancing with Myself
The emphasis on emotional connection between song and series carries Glee's music into a transmedial realm when linked with the fan experience. The songs, supported by the series' story, puts the lyrics and melodies into a new light and may even connect personally with fans, just as many songs do, but with much more context, especially for a similar demographic (high school and college age viewers). Beyond a personal connection, the songs also carry social meaning -- of course, in a more celebratory sense. As I'm sure is common with other fans, I've found myself whistling or singing along in the living room or kitchen to the soundtracks. Yes, it's great music, but to me I feel like it's retaining a connection to the show when I'm not watching the episodes.
These song covers also provide an exploratory aspect to the fan experience. Since they cover such a wide range of musical genres and backgrounds, it becomes a quest to search out all of the original songs (especially on YouTube, where you can watch the authentic music videos as well). The connections between old and new generations of music fans has even created some controversies. If you look at the comments section of Artie's video, above, there is a recent squabble about the quality of Billy Idol's song and the Glee interpretation (which is drastically different, both in musical styling and in video, if you can find the clip online):
[placed in chronological order]
*jaw drops* Not even gonna say anything about this one. Just gonna mark it with a rating and move on to the incredible original.
Dude come on... I really love Billy Idols version too and yeah this one's different but don't hate on it just cause it is "cool" to have heard the original... They made a different version of a well-known song, and as such it's actually really good, this guy really can sing.. So chill and stop hating, music is for everyone
I like the jazzy tune to this version
Sorry, it is not just because "it is cool to have heard the original". It's because I don't like it and think the original is much, much more incredible. If people can say they love it, people can say they dislike it too. And yeah, I agree - music is for everyone, but that doesn't mean I have to like the same music everyone does.
Personally, I have even heard complaints from friends my age (early twenties) that kids in high school have been attributing Don't Stop Believin' to Glee rather than Journey, the original band. But this exploration of music fuels discussion and helps the transmedial model for Glee by creating loyalty to the franchise for both fans and anti-fans alike. And we certainly can't forget that in comparing across performance aesthetics, Glee is interpreting the music in other ways, such as with the mashup of Bon Jovi's "It's My Life" and Usher's "Confessions" (the latter of which is transformed to match the energy of Bon Jovi's pop song):
Might we ask, Does it even matter whether Glee follows a model of transmedia storytelling or transmedial distribution? Should this discussion remain in academic circles for debate over aesthetics and audience theory? The show is selling. But if we simplify the success of Glee to only monetary transactions, we would ignore so much behind the triumph of the connection between fans and the show that extend far beyond sitting down for an hour every Wednesday evening. It is this connection that will help continue Glee's business model, particularly now that the model has switched from promoting the soundtracks to promoting the DVDs, which are due out on 29 December and which will cater specifically to those fans that are singing in their living rooms.