Folk singer James Taylor succinctly summed up the relationship between television and popular music in a recent issue of TV Guide: "The national life takes place on TV, and if you're not there, you're not in the national consciousness."
Perhaps Mr. Taylor was overstating the medium's importance as a mirror of society and culture. But when it comes to selling pop records and promoting rock artists, television is a force second to none.
In the rock 'n' roll era, popular taste has often been shaped by televised events: Elvis' censored hips, Mick Jagger's lascivious lips and the Beatles' mop tops on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and the gyrating teens on "American Bandstand," "Soul Train," "Hullabaloo" and "Shindig" embodied the energy and ubiquity of teen culture, the "it's-got-a-good-beat-and-you-can-dance-to-it" generation.
If anything, the impact of the tube on pop music has become even more pervasive in the last decade, with the emergence of round-the-clock video channels such as MTV, VH-1 and the Jukebox Network.
Rock videos are little more than commercials for selling records, and a "heavy rotation" video on MTV virtually guarantees a record's success -- though it can take several weeks or even months to have a demonstrable effect on record sales.
For instant gratification, record executives tout live appearances by rock and pop artists on talk and comedy shows, which generally appeal to a wider audience than MTV.
'SNL,' the late-night jewel
"Saturday Night Live" is considered the "crown jewel of late-night TV," says Cary Baker, director of publicity for Morgan Creek Records, because of the importance music plays in the program -- the acts get to play two or three songs instead of one, and they share billing with the host -- and because its audience crosses the generations and often looks to the show as a barometer of what's hip.
Since "SNL" first aired in 1975, a number of talk shows, especially "Late Night with David Letterman," "Arsenio Hall" and "Dennis Miller," have incorporated music into their formats. Others, such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show," have showcased music much more sparingly, but still have a powerful effect on sales.
Even the conservative granddaddy of the late-night crowd, "The Tonight Show," has begun taking a more adventurous bent lately. Guest host Jay Leno, who takes over full-time for Johnny Carson in May, in the past has introduced such acts as They Might Be Giants and Poi Dog Pondering to Middle America.
If the MTV audience is largely made up of teen-agers, a group that is inclined to buy lots of CDs anyway, the talk-show crowd is generally older and less conversant with musical trends. But these viewers also have money to spend; they will buy CDs if something tickles their ear.
Ms. Winfrey's show reaches an estimated 20 million viewers, mostly women who gravitate toward so-called adult-contemporary pop.
"It's amazing the impact she has on record sales," says Ron Shapiro, vice president of public relations for MCA Records in California. "When Oprah looks at the camera and says, 'This record is great,' her audience will buy it."
Although the Winfrey show rarely schedules pop performers, the ones who do appear -- Luther Vandross, Michael Bolton, Oleta Adams, Gladys Knight -- have seen their record sales soar.
Ms. Adams was a relative unknown when she sang on the Winfrey show a year ago, but her "Circle" album shot to No. 20 on the Billboard pop album charts in the weeks after.
Ms. Knight's appearance last July had similarly dramatic results.
"We immediately saw sales increase by the hundreds at retail outlets in the days afterward," Mr. Shapiro says. "At Tower Records in Atlanta she sold six albums the night before the show and 300 the night after."
Immediate impact on sales
"SNL" has a reputation for taking more chances than any of the other shows that book music, scheduling everything from metal act Skid Row to fresh-faced alternative rockers Teenage Fanclub.
" 'SNL' is one of the few things in this business that can have an immediate impact on record sales," says Robert Smith, director of marketing at the David Geffen Company in New York, which recently had Teenage Fanclub and Nirvana booked on the show. "Usually it takes a variety of elements to break a band: good press, radio airplay, regular rotation on MTV. 'Saturday Night Live' is different because its effect can be so instantly pronounced."
Jim Powers, a talent scout at Zoo Records in Chicago, signed the Cowboy Junkies to RCA Records when he worked at that label several years ago. He says the Toronto group's appearance on "SNL" in early 1989 "encapsulated in 10 minutes what slogging through two months of touring and MTV exposure would have done. It took what was going to be a gold record and accelerated the process."
Mr. Powers says the album, "The Trinity Session," sold more than 100,000 copies in the week immediately after the "SNL" appearance, compared to 25,000 copies the week before.
Mr. Smith enjoyed similar success with Nirvana, after its January appearance on "SNL," in which the band ripped through a couple of tunes then ripped apart its instruments. Old Who fans who had seen such calculated temper tantrums before probably yawned, but to hundreds of thousands of youngsters who hadn't been able to attend the band's club tour last fall, it was a small epiphany.
The week after, Nirvana's "Nevermind" album sold 500,000 copies and surged from No. 4 to No. 1 on the pop charts.
An "SNL" appearance also can help a record company market a band in other ways.
"It provides credibility within the industry and with the public," Mr. Smith says. "It can have a secondary, subliminal effect on radio programmers who may have been wavering on whether to put the band's song into their rotation. For our sales staff, it can mean more retail space. They can tell a retailer, 'This band was on "Saturday Night Live" and all those other bands weren't.' It's a major selling point."
Such sales power has made "SNL" and its producer, Lorne Michaels, the focus of more than a little industry massaging over the years.
It helps to have clout
"Clout helps get a band booked," Mr. Baker says. He recalls that when he was at Capitol Records in California, a call from company president Hale Milgram to Mr. Michaels helped pave the way for an appearance by the Smithereens in 1989.
An executive at David Geffen Company in New York says the booking of the relatively untested Teenage Fanclub on "SNL" a few weeks ago "was political. For something like that, anyone who's anyone at the company makes calls, including the namesake."
The company's efforts did not go unrewarded. The Fanclub's "Bandwagonesque" album sold 35,000 copies the following week.
Mr. Michaels agrees that "relationships" can make a difference in deciding which bands get booked because the show is "barraged" with requests from record labels.
"Sure, the head of a label will call us to check out an act," he says. "Geffen was on us about Nirvana way before it [the record] happened. But they [the labels] don't work us too hard, because they tend to know what we're looking for. It's more a question for us of trying to be of the moment."
The show's history bears out the claim. It was scheduling acts such as Elvis Costello and Prince long before their prime.
TV not ideal for music
What's ironic about television's commercial impact on music is that it's not a music-friendly medium. Even Mr. Michaels acknowledges that television "is the third best way to expose music, behind live shows and listening [to] the CD player in your living room."
That's because the size of the television screen and the poor sound quality tend to diminish a band's impact, and the artists themselves usually don't have a clue about playing to a camera.
The Replacements' January 1986 appearance is generally regarded as a low point in the "SNL" musical past.
"They were very young and very raw," Mr. Michaels says charitably.
"People saw them as these really bad, alcoholic musicians," says one record executive. "Which is true, but it doesn't come close to telling the whole story of what they're about."
Even Neil Young, who gave a galvanic performance of "Rockin' in the Free World" on "SNL" in September 1989, says, "There's no way to be great on TV with all the distractions."
Mr. Young was great that night only because he broke all the rules. He leaped and sprinted in and out of camera range while whipping his instrument side to side and overhead, oblivious to the program director, much less the viewing audience.
"I was on another floor the day of the show, working out with my trainer," Mr. Young explains. "By the time we played, I was jacked up; my blood was pumping at about the same level it is when I'm halfway through a show."
There are other factors that make the talk-show circuit less than ideal for music-making. On the Letterman show, it's policy for the house band to back up all the performers. That usually means only the lead singer can perform for the cameras; the rest of the group is out of luck.
Mr. Baker, who while at IRS Records in California booked the dance trio Fine Young Cannibals on "Letterman," says the policy can lead to some tense moments.
"The [Letterman] band is good at learning the songs; they do their homework," he says. "But separating [singer] Roland Gift from the other two Cannibals was no picnic."
Nonetheless, Mr. Baker says the bottom line makes all the hassles worthwhile: "TV simply sells records."