I’d like to begin this column with a quick confession: I’m dangerously addicted to AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” I don’t know whether it was the amazing acting, the bizarre yet believable premise, or the carefully crafted dialogue, but somewhere along the line my enjoyment of the show became an all-out compulsion. Perhaps I can take solace in the fact that I am far from alone: Since its first season, the show has developed a simultaneously cult and mainstream following, which eagerly indulges in anything remotely connected with the show. AMC execs, the smart people that they are, carefully crafted an entire ecosystem of related shows, exclusive online content and products that serve to enable these struggling addicts (fans) every step of the way.
Now, you may be wondering why a music columnist is going on and on about a cable-TV drama. Music and TV are completely different animals, aren’t they? Actually, it turns out they’re more similar than they appear. Both industries came of age in a tightly controlled environment with a few key players, both have dealt with the fragmentation of that environment, and both are currently dealing with the free—albeit illegal—sharing of their content. Aided by shows like “Breaking Bad,” however, AMC’s profits rose by $96 million in the last year, according to Variety. Clearly, highly desirable content goes a long way in all corners of the entertainment industry, but the music industry could take a serious page from AMC’s book.
Obviously, music doesn’t engender the same “what happens next” phenomenon that we take for granted in serial dramas, but that isn’t the totality of its appeal. “Breaking Bad” has succeeded in creating conversation around a single chunk of creative content (five television seasons) that extends far beyond the water cooler. Every Sunday night, viewers are treated to an after-show called “Talking Bad,” in which cast members and other celebrities discuss the series. During the show, viewers can follow along using the Story Sync app on their iPads and experience exclusive, interactive content like polls and trivia. There’s even a secret app that only reveals itself once you’ve tweeted a “Breaking Bad”-related hashtag. In all respects, it is no longer just a television show; it’s a way of life.
Now, compare all of these experiences to that of buying a record: If I’m lucky, I might get some interesting liner notes and EPK video on the band’s website. Occasionally I might get to see a live show, but more often than not I’m left with a few scattered performance clips on YouTube (usually of questionable quality). The focused enthusiasm that exists around “Breaking Bad” has been missing lately in the music industry. I’m a fan of many artists, but it doesn’t take much for them to alienate me and send me searching for something else.
As I’ve always said, great music is the biggest seller of records. This holds true for television as well—no one would care about “Talking Bad” if “Breaking Bad” were actually bad. What AMC seems to have mastered, however, is the ability to generate enough buzz around its free content that people want to own a piece of it—whether that be the season DVDs, a Heisenberg T-shirt, or a Better-Call-Saul business card. I know many people own all existing episodes of “Breaking Bad”—whether that is on disc or through iTunes—but I know far fewer who will download an entire musician’s catalog, even if it’s available for free. There’s no lack of incredible content in the music industry, but right now there is a serious lack of good old-fashioned buzz.
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.