Roadies, the new Showtime series created by Cameron Crowe, follows the managers, guitar techs, bouncers, bus drivers and miscellaneous crew of a touring arena-rock band, and while the music-industry milieu owes much to Crowe’s classic films Singles and Almost Famous, its hard-R treatment is much closer to his great early screenplays The Wild Life and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There are expletives. There is nudity. There is a groupie having sex with a microphone.
But the series is notable for another reason: It is the latest in a recent proliferation of TV shows that focus on the music industry, following network hits Nashville and Empire, as well as FX’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and HBO’s Vinyl. This August, Netflix premieres Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, about the birth of New York City hip-hop.
It’s no coincidence these shows have arisen during one of the most turbulent times in the history of the music industry. As Lucious Lyon pronounces in the pilot episode of Empire, “Times have changed. The internet has destroyed the musician’s ability to make money.” That was in January 2015, and since then things have only gotten bleaker.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, physical CD sales fell 17 percent in 2015, while album and single downloads dropped five percent and 13 percent, respectively—numbers that would have been far worse had Adele not released her album 25 in late November. (In six weeks it sold 8 million copies, accounting for three percent of total album sales in the U.S. in 2015.) Meanwhile, streaming continues to cannibalize the industry. Subscriptions to sites such as Spotify, Apple Music and TIDAL were up a combined 52 percent last year, and when streams go up, artist payments go down. In 2015, the per-stream rate dropped 24 percent, to $0.00506. And that’s what the label makes.
For decades, musicians bashed the greedy executives, soulless bean counters and corrupt radio programmers who ran the record industry, from Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime.” The internet was supposed to serve as the great democratizer, rendering extinct the parasitic middlemen in their towering corner offices. And so it has. Who needs A&R when you can get discovered on YouTube and SoundCloud? What’s the point of a promotions department in the age of the surprise release? Why bother with payola when no one listens to the radio?
But the truth is the middlemen didn’t go away; they’re just different middlemen now. They wear hoodies instead of suits, and they moved from corner offices to airy loft spaces or eco-friendly corporate campuses. And they got even greedier. The website Information Is Beautiful has calculated that a signed artist needs 1,117,021 monthly streams on Spotify just to make the U.S. minimum wage, a target that only two percent of artists on the service can hit. And let’s not forget that the website Genius (formerly Rap Genius) raised more than $50 million for posting annotated song lyrics. It took five years and the threat of a lawsuit by the National Music Publishers Association for the site to finally sign a licensing agreement.
In comparison, there’s something quaint about the old ways of the industry—which in part explains all these new TV shows. (It also explains why the one nonstreaming sector that increased in 2015 was vinyl sales: up 32 percent, better than any year since 1988.) Watching Lucious Lyon conspire to steal artists away from a rival label or Vinyl’s Richie Finestra ply a DJ with cocaine in exchange for more airplay of a Donny Osmond record is sexier than today’s actual music industry, where shady moves are more likely to involve algorithms and the drug of choice is Red Bull. The premise of Roadies is itself a commentary on the industry today: With less money to be made from record sales, artists have been forced to tour more.
But these shows aren’t simply eulogizing a dying industry. They’re also throwing it a lifeline by doing what was once the job of radio and MTV: introducing audiences to new artists. Vinyl’s opening theme is by emerging alt-country star Sturgill Simpson, and the show has featured young artists including Jess Glynne, Alex Newell and the British rock duo Royal Blood. Actors Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray (a.k.a. Yazz the Greatest) both signed record deals with Columbia after their breakthroughs on Empire—whose soundtrack debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Nashville used award-winning songwriter and producer T Bone Burnett to craft the show’s early music. Roadies will feature cameos by real-life acts, and Crowe told the Television Critics Association earlier this year that he sees the series largely as “a great radio station.”
One of those acts is the Head and the Heart. The Seattle-based indie-folk artists, who appear in the show’s pilot, have also done a stint on the CW’s Hart of Dixie. “The importance of TV introducing people to new music has a far greater reach than people my age want to give it credit for,” says singer-guitarist Jon Russell.
Although he enjoyed watching the Roadies pilot—“It made me laugh out loud and sometimes cringe at how cliché some things really are in our world”—Russell admits he isn’t usually a fan of TV series based on the music industry.
“I have not seen any of those shows you mentioned,” he says. “I get enough of it firsthand. Too much sometimes.”