Why Can’t Anyone Make a Proper Goddamn Music Industry Drama for TV?

I had such high hopes for Vinyl when it premiered back in February. I mean Scorsese and Jagger were behind it, fer crissakes! Terrance Winter–Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire–was the showrunner. The full pallet of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll to choose from for characters and storylines. Set in the anything-goes 70s!

But right from the start, ratings were tepid and the critics were often vicious, especially how the writing played fast and loose with real historical events. HBO bailed after one season.

Okay, fine. At least there was Roadies. Cameron Crowe! Executive produced by Pearl Jam’s manager, Kelly Curtis! Bad Robot Productions! Tons of real-life guest stars! And more sex, drugs and rock’n’roll!

Roadies was a much more gentle show, a dramady more than anything else. It could be a little naive and schmaltzy–the a few of the characters really drove me crazy (except Phil, the grizzled senior roadie, a character that was highly under-used) and the show never became appointment viewing for me, but I still recorded and watched every episode.

No one cared and now Showtime has axed it after its initial order of ten episodes.  Just like Vinyl, Roadies is done after one season.

This means the only thing we’re left with is Denis Leary’s half-hour comedy, Sex&Drugs&Rock’n’Roll, a program that has its moments, but frankly, I’d forgotten that the second season had started. I haven’t seen a single episode of the new series.

Hang on? Isn’t Empire still on? I honestly have no idea. If it is, it’s really nothing more than a bad soap opera. I made it through season one and the first few shows of season two, but I don’t need it taking up space on my PVR anymore.

So here’s the question:  What is it about TV shows set in the music industry? Why can’t TV–even HBO and Showtime–manage to create a show that people will watch? Is the subject matter too difficult? Is it something audiences just don’t want to see? Do producers and writers and networks just keep getting it wrong? Does no one care how the sausages are made when it comes to popular music?

Music documentaries are HUGELY popular. I can’t keep up with the number on Netflix. Why not music dramas?

I mean if Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe can’t do it, who can? And you can bet that with all the money HBO sunk into Vinyl ($100 million, at least) and what Showtime spent on Roadies (certainly a goodly sum), you can bet that no one is going to underwrite anything similar soon. And that makes me sad.

Oh, well. Maybe there really will be a lot of crazy sex in Westworld

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

6 thoughts on “Why Can’t Anyone Make a Proper Goddamn Music Industry Drama for TV?

  • September 18, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    Maybe a metal version. Put Sam from Banger Films in charge!

  • September 18, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    I kinda liked Roadies. Vinyl would have been better with out Bobby Canavale who, in my books isn’t a compelling leading man but rather a second rate villain.

    My guess is that a lot of these shows are being cancelled because the perpetual music licensing is a nightmare.

  • September 18, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    I think interest in the subject matter plays part of it, but also it depends on what audience you are trying to cater to as to how you write the show as far as stories are concerned and how you market it. I’ll be honest, I never watched an episode of Vinyl, partly because I had just canceled my HBO subscription and never heard of Roadies, but the way Vinyl was being marketed leading up to it came off to me as being not very compelling television given the subject matter – just another series with messed up characters that had lots of sex with the setting just happening to be the music industry in the 70’s. In other words, it appeared to me from a marketing point of view that the music part was window dressing – garnish for another series that didn’t have much substance outside of it’s sex scenes, meaning if the show DIDN’T have those, it really wouldn’t be about much at all.

    As lauded (and derided) as Game Of Thrones is for it’s T&A and sex scenes, there is a substantial amount of substance in the story and plot that were you to remove or tone the gratuitousness back, you’d still have compelling television. I think that a lot of music fans probably saw through the veneer that was being applied to the show and just didn’t bother.

    As to why they didn’t come up with something more substantial (I assume) probably has to do with misunderstanding of the market and why some shows were actually popular. I imagine a lot of executives saw the potential that the 70’s music scene had to offer, but didn’t feel that they needed to actually produce much beyond the basest of stories because “hey, look, boobs!” because that is what a lot of people talked about for other HBO and Showtime shows. But if you look deeper than the tabloid commentary to the actual fans of many of those successful shows you find that there were some very compelling stories, the sex and boobs were the garnish not the cake. This is not to suggest that those involved totally didn’t recognize this – Cameron Crowe made one of my favourite music movies “Almost Famous” that had compelling characters and an interesting story presented from the point of view many of us could relate to – a fan of music. So yeah, I do think that we COULD have had a great show in Vinyl, but I think that farther up the food/money chain there perhaps wasn’t the interest in investing in the kind of story material and character development that could have garnered that.

    Contrasted to music documentaries, which lets face it are watched almost strictly by music fans, the attraction there is the inside scoop into what was happening to our music heroes during their rise and achievement of fame. The attraction there is that (we assume) it actually happened so there is a gravity to those that fictional stories often have a difficult time recreating. This isn’t to say it isn’t impossible, but I think it takes a deft hand and one that isn’t necessarily interfered with to be able to produce. And here is where I don’t think copious amounts of money for production necessarily helps. While I’m not arguing for the indie-movie scene, there are lots of cases where a ton of money has been thrown at a project and it has imploded massively, either because of creative interference from those providing the cash or the people producing it just losing sight of telling a story.

    Maybe one day someone will be able to give us the awesome music-based drama we all deserve because they will be able to approach it from an angle that we as viewers find attractive and that isn’t wrangled into a derivative mess because outside hands keep sticking their fingers into the mixing pot.

    Maybe what we need is for Dave Grohl to start doing television.

    • September 19, 2016 at 7:48 am

      Thank you for this! I love considered replies–and so does everyone else.

  • September 18, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    So…. who’s gonna tell Alan that Leary’s show also got the axe last week? I completely agree. How is it nobody can figure out how to do this?!?

  • September 20, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Maybe if they had aired on Netflix they would have done better….I mean who watches real TV anymore?


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