Television Tunes

One Tree Hill is not a show I've ever seen. I know it's on the WB and it's popular with preteens and it stars some dudes named James Lafferty and Chad Michael Murray, who is, according to one particularly breathless posting, "like the hottest guy on t.v., movies, anywhere!" I also know that, like its naughty cousin The O.C. , the show uses music, lots of it: Songs by buzz bands like Earlimart, Rooney and I Am Kloot create a kind of emotional wallpaper for the show. Using pop music to create atmosphere, of course, is nothing new; film has perfected the art (see: Complete Works of Martin Scorsese). But it's particularly apt for dramatic shows about and for teens, a demographic that tends to treat music like nothing short of a personal diary entry. And for indie acts, whose meager forms of compensation are ever more scarce in the era of downloads and Clear Channel, money for nothing is nothing to complain about.

I bring all this up because on Tuesday night, Sorta had two songs on One Tree Hill--"To Jenny" and "Sweet Little Bay," two softly strummed, sweetly melodic tunes from 2004's Little Bay. Since I'm writing this before Tuesday, I can only guess at the context. (Tearful goodbye? Riveting reflection? Meaningful glance?)

"If it's done right, it could be very cool," says Sorta front man Trey Johnson. The band's had mixed results with television before: "Crazy," from their 2002 album Laugh Out Loud, has appeared on Real World: San Diego and Real World-Road Rules, the latter segment of which Johnson wasn't so pleased with. (They will have another song used on the upcoming Real World: Austin, although they're not sure which yet.) Still, the band received a cool $3,000 from BMI royalties.

"I'm afraid to say that out loud," Johnson says, "'cause I still think it must have been a mistake."

Of course, that's chump change compared with what One Tree Hill and other music-heavy shows have been able to do for artists like Death Cab for Cutie and Gavin DeGraw, who was just another New Yorker with a chip on his shoulder until One Tree Hill chose his "I Don't Wanna Be" for the show's theme music. Having a song on The O.C. has become de rigueur for an up-and-coming act, like today's version of regular rotation on rock radio or MTV. So far, the show has been resistant to Dallas acts; the now-defunct Jibe broke through in the first season with "Hypocrite" from Uprising; in episode two of this year, The New Year (formed by Bedhead brothers Bubba and Matt Kadane) was featured with its solemn, haunting "The End's Not Near."

"The music supervisor for The O.C. is a fan of The New Year," says Bubba Kadane, who lives in Dallas, as does bandmate Peter Schmidt. "The timing couldn't have been better, because it paid off almost all of our debt from making the record, which went over budget." He doubts it will make much of a difference in the band's overall audience. But, he says, "I do know that in iTunes, 'The End's Not Near' has been our top downloaded song for months because it gets included in all of the O.C. -related mixes that users make."

The real payoff comes if the song ends up on one of the show's compilation CDs. But having your music featured on a show watched by millions never hurt. Slowride recently had two songs on CSI: Miami. And, of course, it seems only a matter of time before media darlings The Polyphonic Spree become regulars on, say, Will & Grace.

"It's vital to get that type of visibility due to the lack of creativity at mainstream radio," says Julie DeLaughter of the Spree. They appeared on Scrubs and Las Vegas, and their music, famously, has been featured in a Volkswagen/iPod commercial. "It's also significant for an act like us because [the band] is visually stunning and stands out a bit from most musical acts appearing on television."

The trend has spawned its own subset of savvy businessmen catering to shows hungry to please their iPod-addled audience and save money on royalties. The Sorta-One Tree Hill deal was brokered by Manish Raval, music supervisor for most of the Farrelly brothers films in addition to Donnie Darko and The Big Lebowski. Raval has made himself a bridge between TV programs and indie acts that would never dream of approaching a television show. I didn't ask, but I suspect Trey Johnson had never even heard of One Tree Hill before his songs wound up on it. It's a win-win situation.

But with so many shows, compilation CDs and indie acts competing for a few seconds of air time, this trend may eventually prove little more than a good way for struggling acts to make some pocket money. After all, how many kids are really paying attention to the music? In the One Tree Hill Web site's Music section, there is a question for users: "What do you think of Earlimart's music?" To which the user responded, "I think James Lafferty is the hottest guy on TV!"

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Sarah Hepola