TV Had A Memorable Year For Music Discovery In 2022, But Why Can’t Reality TV Do The Same?

One can’t swing a dead rat on the sinking ship of making money in the music industry without hearing about how TikTok has become this incredible tool for music discovery. And sure, it’s true — a new generation has learned to vibe with Fleetwood Mac, Gayle, and Kate Bush. Wait, hold up, that last one, while a TikTok banger, was on the Netflix to TikTok pipeline in 2022. While TV shows aren’t using music as prolifically as they once did or introducing us to as much new music (there are a lot of great shows leaning heavily on catalog songs and fewer shows like the recently completed tastemaker Insecure), it’s still a fantastic music discovery tool.

As is the case every year, this year a myriad of shows wowed us with clever placements — although more and more of them are catalog songs. The Dropout made fine use of reintroducing Wolf Parade’s excellent “I’ll Believe In Anything,” an underappreciated track in its own time that caused a bit of furor among aging indie rock fans since it was released in 2005 and soundtracked a moment set in 2002. Author and showrunner Jenny Han turned in a pitch-perfect soundtrack with The Summer I Turned Pretty, packed with familiar hits from artists modern (Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Cardi B, and Kim Petras all made the first episode) and classic (Electric Light Orchestra, Edith Piaf, and the Pussycat Dolls appear throughout the season). Season 2 of Euphoria dug deeper than most and made us all fall in love with Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 not totally forgotten hit “Right Down The Line” and Sinead O’Connor’s 1987 deep cut “Drink Before The War” by embedding them into pivotal lives of the characters. Derry Girls took us back to the late ‘90s with an emotional Fatboy Slim-soundtracked episode. The Bear and Station Eleven provided fantastic music moments for dad rock. Stranger Things gave us justice for Kate Bush.

TV in 2022 dealt a lot of wins to the well-known artists of the current generation and the forgotten hits of the near and not-so-near past — no doubt Rafferty and O’Connor had to scramble to get official versions of those songs up on YouTube to cash in, just as Spotify had to scramble to get them featured on some playlists. And a lot of songs that hit the sweet spot after a TV placement go on to viral success elsewhere — the number of TikToks suddenly throwing Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” on a video about the best places to eat in a random city or relationship advice was through the roof, and more than a little weird. It feels like, for the past several years now, TV has been running to the catalog instead of trying to break new artists. The Sex Lives Of College Girls and She-Hulk may have done the most to feature new artists, with soundtracks heavily focused on the hottest and newest from Gen Z and contemporary women in hip-hop, respectively. Although neither has quite had the cultural capital to create a breakthrough moment for a new artist. If, as The Guardian suggested earlier this year, “syncs (industry terminology for music used in shows) are becoming a bigger part of the music industry than ever,” aren’t we missing a massive opportunity for syncs to break artists?

It would seem that another amazing outlet for syncs for newer, emerging musicians would be reality TV. The genre has garnered quite a lot of buzz in the past year for its soundtracks, especially on the splashy Netflix shows. When Selling Sunset dropped, all we wanted to know was where all this comically bad “girlboss” music came from — and the show leaned all the way into that genre in season 2, which dropped in two parts this year. One of the songwriters told Buzzfeed, “It’s been very funny to watch Twitter, and I feel like so many people have been talking about the music. They don’t understand that we know this is garbage.” And as another artist who creates a lot of reality TV music told Mashable, “This music is so hilarious, so funny to create, but at the same time, yes, it’s so dumb some of the time.”

It’s the same story in the universe of Real Housewives, The Kardashians, the cooking competition genre on the Food Network, and the full constellation of Netflix reality shows. Why is so much of this music trash?

In short, most reality shows are set up to use music libraries rather than license actual music. The Hollywood Reporter gracefully broke down how that process works in an interview with former Laguna Beach and The Hills showrunner Adam DiVello, the current showrunner for Selling Sunset. Twenty-ish years ago, when he was working on the MTV shows, the network had it in their licensing agreements with labels that it was allowed to use any song a video was submitted for in the soundtrack of their shows for a minimal fee. As major label groups renegotiated, and indie labels objected because they were getting a lot more money from The OC and Grey’s Anatomy, it became more than the budget of a reality show could bear to license real music. So, the network began creating a music library. And it set the tone for the whole industry: now using libraries that license what’s known as bed music. And as time has gone on, it’s become more and more common for these unknown library artists to get prime placements and long needle drops (industry speak for when a song plays) in reality shows.

Those extended placements have bands and labels hungry again. Polygon noted that Coldplay got in on the Love Is Blind season 3 action this year, licensing their song “Biutyful” partly because the show does such long needle drops. The Kardashians will license a track from the Billboard Hot 100 from time to time, which has been the blueprint of their reality history from nearly the beginning. But otherwise, we’re getting a bunch of music that’s cheesy on purpose to soundtrack TV that executives like and continue to green light because the production budget is so low.

Musicians lose on all fronts in this scenario. Those library artists who create tracks earn a flat fee for licensing their music, and it can be as low as hundreds of dollars for a use — or even one dollar. If the show airs on cable or network TV, they can collect money from the performing rights organization (PRO) that represents them, with fees in the low thousands, depending on when and on what network it aired and for what duration. But that’s not enough — it’s nowhere near the tens or hundreds of thousands that music licensed through a label or agency would cost. And we have yet to see a career launched from a reality TV show placement. If it’s not creating social cache and delivering anything to the discourse — and we all think it’s kind of dumb — what is the point?

This model is also not doing any favors for working-class musicians. And is it just happening because production companies are being cheap? It’s time to ratchet up the budget, take a chance on some up-and-coming artists, and make some careers.

Some of the artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.