Arts & Entertainment

A new harmony for music labels, TV

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It's the sobering reality of today's music business -- a record company executive can sign a new act and then tell her, "Keep your day job."

That was one message neo-soul singer Sharon Little got from Larry Jenkins, head of the new CBS Records label, an offshoot not of Sony-owned Columbia Records but an arm of CBS Television.

It's equally telling that since hearing that advice when she signed last fall, Little's response has been gratitude, not animosity.

"It wasn't like they said, 'Here's $50,000 so we can sign you'; it was, 'We'll give you a small advance, but here's all the stuff we're going to do for you,' " said Little, a 27-year-old singer and songwriter who did indeed hold onto her job as a waitress in Philadelphia while recording her debut album this year.

"It was like tough love in a way," she added. "You have to work harder to get where you want to be because you don't have all this money up front to fall back on."

That's one way this new label with an old name is trying to blaze a different path in the ailing record business.

Nancy Tellem, who heads CBS' network and television studio's entertainment division, spearheaded the launch of the label in 2006. The underlying business strategy is twofold: Save on music licensing by building a small stable of acts whose recordings would be owned by the parent group and generate revenue for CBS if any of those acts get a hit.

But for Jenkins, a veteran music publicist who left the Sony family of labels five years ago, it represented a new opportunity to revisit some old values.

"I spent an entire career at the major labels," Jenkins said, "and I learned a lot of what to do -- and a lot of what to avoid. I thought, 'What if we went into this where we'll only sign artists who are really talented? The kind of artists you can bring to your office with acoustic guitar or a keyboard and they sing and play great. The real deal."

For him, that's a group of acts that are all essentially singer-songwriters, including Little, who will open for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on tour this summer, Keaton Simons, Karmina (sisters Kelly and Kamille Rudisill), Will Dailey, and PJ Olsson.

During the last year while CBS Records has been gearing up -- a period in which the original business plan was interrupted by the writers strike -- the label's acts have landed music on TV about 80 times, Jenkins said.

That's a small slice of what he says is more than 2,000 music placements in CBS prime-time shows alone in a given season. It constitutes, he said, "a small dent." But it's a meaningful one to aspiring musicians.

"There's a huge television audience out there, particularly with shows like 'CSI' and 'Grey's Anatomy,' " said Kelly Rudisill. "That's really good for artists like us."

It also provides TV's creative types with what essentially is a one-stop shop for music.

"Two months ago, the label had a showcase with Will Dailey, Sharon Little and Keaton Simons, and within a month of that show, we had used a song from each in our series," said Joshua Rexon, producer of "NCIS." "It's a great relationship."

That relationship cuts two ways. Most of the time, the CBS acts get a five- or 10-second promo at the end of any show their music appears in, directing viewers to the artists' websites or retailers such as iTunes or Amazon.

Other networks have made similar moves. For the last several years, NBC Universal and Target stores have collaborated on a series of holiday music releases. ABC and Disney tag team with Hollywood Records releases from musicians featured on the ABC-owned Disney Channel.

Of course, the potential dark side of a TV network with an in-house music library that's essentially free -- and also eventually could generate additional revenue for the corporate parent -- is that bigwigs might insist that underlings use it.

"Nobody has ever told me to take a song out and put a CBS song in," said Ken Sanzel, executive producer of the crime drama "Numb3rs," which has tapped songs from Simons and Little in recent episodes. "And when I look at our shows, we still have a lot more non-CBS than CBS music."

Said Jenkins: "If a show wants Coldplay or AC/DC, they're not going to take our brand-new artists instead. It's not like this label is intended to replace the rest of music industry."

By the same token, Jenkins' vision isn't restricted to CBS, and he noted that one of Dailey's songs made the cut for a show on ABC.

The new model won't work all the time, even at CBS. Veteran music supervisor Gary Calamar ("Six Feet Under, "Weeds," "Dexter") recently has been scouting songs to use in CBS' series "Swingtown."

"I did have a meeting with the CBS Records people and talked about using some of their music," he said. "Unfortunately, because it's a period piece, set in 1976, and the producers really want to stick with recordings from that period, we couldn't use any of them. . . . In this particular case it didn't make sense. But when it does, that kind of resource would be great to have."

The label is just now putting out its first physical CDs for conventional and online retailers. Little's album came out May 27, Karmina's hit Tuesday and Simons' debut is due next week.

Jenkins likes to talk about another aspect of CBS that's something of a throwback: community. Simons is touring this summer with Dailey, and Karmina's Kelly has joined Simons on stage.

"It's a small family but a very close family. It really is," Karmina's Kamille said. "Everyone works really hard together. We all get along and go to each other's shows."

Said Sharon Little: "It's kind of neat to be signed to a label that's a major label but that has an indie feel. It's like that really popular kid at school who also turns out to be really nice."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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