The Music Industry As Depicted in TV Dramas

We may currently being experiencing peak TV, but even that doesn’t really explain the recent glut of TV series set around the music industry.

A couple of weeks ago, Netflix’s new magnum opus was released – The Get Down from Baz Luhrmann. The series is rumoured to have cost a record amount, at least on a per episode business. And based on the first 90 minute episode that I’ve watched so far, this is sort of understandable.

It’s set in 1977 and seems to focus on a group of youngsters basically discovering the birth of hip-hop. The characters are part fictional and part based on real characters like Grandmaster Flash, who is also an executive producer.

Meanwhile HBO has cancelled the at-first-renewed Vinyl. This also had a lot of weight behind it, with a pilot from Martin Scorsese, and input from Mick Jagger. This was set in a New York record label slightly earlier in the 70s, as they basically started to discover disco and punk. The series mixed fake bands on the fake record label, but was set against the backdrop of real artists like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

Meanwhile Showtime’s Roadies, comes from no less than Cameron Crowe, but is this time set in the present day. But even it has callbacks to the 70s, an episode featuring a flashback to one of the crew’s early life when he was supposedly working for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and in particular Ronnie Van Zant. Another episode revisited the tragedy that occurred in 1979 at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati.

It is peculiar that all of these big projects, each backed by major Hollywood directors, should all arrive on the small screen at the same time. In Hollywood lingo, they probably all count as “passion projects” because part of the reason they’re made is that big names, and often, big stars come attached. Networks love the glamour and commission them. But why now, and why all at once?

I suspect that it’s because at a certain level, studio executives are in their late forties and early fifties, and this period has a particular appeal because these people were discovering music then. Plus the music industry was rawer; there were groupies and drugs, and there was an enormous amount of money to be made.

I’m not saying that’s not still the same, but not to the same extent. Sure, if you’re Taylor Swift (who in Roadies, has seemingly performed a concert in space!) the glitz and the glamour is perhaps bigger than ever, but let’s face it, what money there still is in the music industry is far more polarised, the rich getting much richer, and everyone else having to work harder to make a living.

I confess that I’m watching or have watched all these series. Vinyl was probably rightly cancelled as its direction just wasn’t clear enough. While Bobby Cannavale’s coke snorting record exec Richie Finestra was an entertaining and off the wall character, tales of excess only go so far in storytelling. Plus when a character is murdered after a drink and drugs binge, you haven’t really got anywhere else to go. And the series missed a trick in not properly developing its female characters, with Olivia Wilde as Richie’s wife Devon, being particularly underutilised.

I’ve enjoyed Roadies a lot more. It doesn’t take itself quite as seriously, and I suspect presents the dullness of life on the road with a band relatively accurately. I’m not sure who the fictional Staton-House Band are supposed to be analogous to, but there are lots of those white middle-of-the-road bands in the US that basically don’t cut through much beyond the US market. The Dave Matthews Band perhaps? In the final episode, a number of stars playing themselves appear and I found myself Googling an awful lot of them, trying to work out who they are. Cameron Crowe has clearly pulled in lots of favours from lots of friends.

Indeed throughout, the series had a nice line in including real musicians constantly showing up to be support acts for a night or two, and they get to perform a song or two – just enough to get me to tempt me into learning more. The series is probably too reliant on a couple of will-they/won’t-they relationship teases, meaning that the through story struggles a little. But the characters are fun with Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino running the show, while Imogen Poots and Colson Baker mess around. Rafe Spall’s character is a bit one-dimensional, only slowly emerging from a caricature. And while I completely believe that labels do have someone like him constantly running a spreadsheet against tour costs, I’m not sold on the idea that he’d be touring with everyone else. If Roadies gets a second season, it’ll have to work hard to keep his character in the mix.

Interestingly, of the three series here, Crowe seems to have been most closely attached. While Luhrmann and Scorsese directed their respective first episodes, and probably determined the overall direction of their series, Crowe has directed four of his series, and is credited as a writer or co-writer on six of the ten episodes.

Having only seen the first episode of The Get Down, I can’t really determine its direction, but they’ve found a good selection of largely young and unknown actors to populate the series. The show is edited to within an inch of its life, and although that first episode runs to more than 90 minutes, it does fly by.

Conjouring up The Bronx in 1977 is never going to be easy – or cheap – and a lot of visual effects are used to manage this. But despite upwards of 10 VFX houses being listed in the credits, I’m uncertain that they’ve carried it off. They pictures are graded to appear like stock footage from the time in places – because they mix them with lots of real stock footage. But this means that when we see a city block being burned down (for the insurance), the fire just doesn’t seem real.

Of course things are never real with Luhrmann. He doesn’t do verisimilitude. That means we get at least two dazzling set pieces in the opener – one set in a club, and the other at the eponymous “Get Down.” They’re both excellent.

What all three shows share is excellent music soundtracks, and I say that despite not really being a fan of any of the genres depicted. Indeed the sheer reverence shown towards some of these artists feels a bit forced and fan-boyish. But I am enjoying listening. Vinyl seems least reliant on music, although there’s plenty of it. Roadies presents its music with complete technical assurance, and is superbly sound-mixed. Everyone sounds simply superb. Each episode features a “Song of the Day”, part of the crew’s routine, and these are standout moments acoustically, usually deftly worked into the plot. The music on The Get Down just doesn’t stop. You get a barrage of music almost non-stop. The music “sync” rights for the show must have been massive.

Roadies is on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, and interestingly Kill Your Friends recently popped up there too, the movie adaption of John Niven’s searing novel set in the UK music industry of the mid-nineties. That too was a period of excess, because Napster, Limewire, eDonkey and AudioGalaxy hadn’t quite yet arrived , so piracy was not yet rampant, and people were still buying music to own (as opposed to stealing or renting it).

The film is relatively to the novel, with its anti-hero Steven Stelfox doing literally anything to get a leg-up in the biz. In the book, there are wonderful little chapter intros that seem to be real press-releases sent out to Music Week announcing big money new signings in the 80s and early 90s. We readers, of course, know that none of these signings would pay off. Having over-dosed on versions of seventies American music, it was refreshing to see a British take on affairs. Yes, the excess is endless, but it feels believable while incredibly cynical – nobody actually seems to like music. This level of cynicism would be impossible in any of the aforementioned US series, because there’s too much musical reverence.

I’d like to see Roadies open up its world a bit more, and it’ll probably need some new characters if it gets renewed. But of the three, this is the series I’d like to see more of.