Streaming and on-demand television services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have changed the way Americans watch TV, John Patrick Pullen at TIME writes.
Netflix currently has more than 50 million accounts, while Amazon Prime hosts more than 80 million — all of which come with access to a wide range of films and television series via Prime Originals. Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix are all betting there’s money to be made in original content. In 2017, Amazon reportedly spent $4.5 billion on original content. According to Ben Munson at FierceCable, the three companies are expected to spend a combined $10 billion annually on original content by 2022.
Should these companies gamble so much on original series? A study by researchers Jeff Prince and Shane Greenstein, summarized in the Harvard Business Review, suggests the answer is yes. Prince and Greenstein examined the relationship between subscribing to streaming video services and “cord-cutting,” or ending a paid cable subscription. They discovered that “if the TV shows from someone’s favorite channel become available to stream on Netflix, for example, that alone didn’t make them more likely to end their paid TV subscription.” Original content, however, does appear to lure viewers away from cable for good.
One of the most engaging features of many paid streaming series is their attention to detail, both in visuals and in music. Amazon in particular is investing heavily in great production, and it’s paying off. To cite just one example, in late 2015 Amazon Studios hired Bob Bowen from Relativity Media to become the company’s Head of Music. Within 24 months, he already helped bring home an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Creative Achievement In Interactive Media with the covers album Resistance Radio: The Man In The High Castle.
Here, we explore what Amazon is doing with its original TV series and films, and why its teams consistently produce standout work in music production.
Dustin Rowles at Uproxx calls Goliath “an old-school legal thriller from an old-school television writer.” The brainchild of David E. Kelley, the show features Billy Bob Thornton as Billy McBride, a washed-up lawyer who gets a second chance when a case against a big tech firm falls into his lap. The twist: His adversaries are his ex-wife (played by Maria Bello) and his former best friend (played by William Hurt).
The show’s theme song, “Bartholomew” by The Silent Comedy, is already familiar to fans of the video game Dark Souls and viewers of the vampire series The Originals. Leo Sigh praises the band’s down to earth nature and the song’s “rockin’” feel. It features some cleverly-structured chords with a simple and effective accompaniment plus lyrics that hit like a one-two punch to the gut.
The first season’s music spanned a wide range of performers and genres, from the Muscle Shoals-esque “Howling at Nothing” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats to operatic classics like “Vedrai, Carino” from Don Giovanni and “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. The result is a soundtrack that, like the show itself, doesn’t try to do too much: it’s a gritty, solid series, and its music says as much.
Last Flag Flying
Last Flag Flying is the story of three Vietnam vets (played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) seeking to bring Carell’s character’s son’s remains to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.
Directed by Richard Linklater, the series relies heavily on dialogue to explore themes of war, duty, religion and patriotism, Sam Kieldsen writes at Stuff. As a result, the soundtrack is stark. Recognizable tunes include voices from the Vietnam era, including Crosby, Stills, and Nash, while background music is often stark, underscoring the weight of the show’s topic focus.
The result is a sense of coming home that encompasses a deeply complex mix of emotions and consequences.
The Big Sick
Picking up a stunning 98 percent positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes, The Big Sick features comedian Kumail Nanjiani playing a fictionalized version of himself, a Pakistani-American thirtysomething trying to build a relationship with writer Emily Gardner (the fictionalized version of his wife Emily Gordon and played by Zoe Kazan) while his parents pressure him into an arranged marriage with any of the several Pakistani women they introduce to him.
New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis called The Big Sick “a joyous, generous-hearted” film that “shows that there’s plenty of juice and possibility left in the American romantic comedy.” Nowhere is this estimation more apparent than in the film’s musical soundtrack, which stands head and shoulders above its mostly functional visuals.
Composed by Michael Andrews, the soundtrack starts off on a friendly, almost ironic note, straddling the line between lighthearted air and suspiciously familiar canned music in a way that turns the music itself into a sort of comic relief.
As the plot turns to drama when Emily falls ill, however, the soundtrack likewise takes a sharp musical turn from the light to the serious, as Peter F. Ebbinghaus describes at Behind the Audio. The sound turns the visual into something more, striking the perfect emotional note at every complex point in this romantic comedy/drama/comedy.
Transparent features Jeffrey Tambor as a trans woman who makes the decision to come out later in life, having already married and raised a family in the guise of a man. It’s heavy subject matter, and the music does it justice.
Dustin O’Halloran picked up two nominations for a Hollywood Music in Media Award for Transparent: Main Title: TV Show/Digital Streaming Series in 2015 and Original Score: TV Show/Limited Series in 2017, making Transparent one of the few Amazon Originals ever to be nominated in a musical category. And for good reason: O’Halloran’s main theme for the show is at once lilting and haunting, preparing viewers for the complexity of the storyline and characters.
“Sprawled out across neighborhoods like Silver Lake, ‘Transparent’ conjures its bourgeois bohemian Los Angeles through music that’s more Laurel Canyon than Sunset Strip,” Judy Berman said of Transparent, noting that the choices made by music supervisor Bruce Gilbert have “the same hippie feel” as main character Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) choices of attire.
But there’s more to the music of Transparent than wardrobe support. Season 4’s musical choices span decades, including songs by Neil Young, Alanis Morissette and Gotye. Musical choices throughout the series underscore “a family narrative determined to show the characters as the multifaceted, sometimes ugly humans they are,” according to Thrillist.
Matthew Oshinsky at Paste calls the music in the series, now in its fourth season, “an indispensable element of the story,” not only in terms of setting the mood for certain scenes, but also in developing the characters: Josh (Jay Duplass) works as a music producer, while Shelly (Judith Light) launches a one-woman revue at the end of Season 3.
Talking Numbers: Is Thoughtful Production a Good Investment?
Amazon uses a unique way of determining whether its Prime Originals are a success. The system measures not only viewership, but how many viewers make a particular show their first stop after signing up for a Prime membership, according to Claire Spellberg at Decider.
Because Prime Originals require a Prime membership to view, tracking how many viewers sign up and immediately watch a show like Transparent or The Man in the High Castle helps Amazon identify which viewers signed up for Prime precisely for those shows.
A March 2018 Reuters article by Jeffrey Dastin revealed that 26 million customers watched a Prime Original or Amazon licensed show between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2017. About 19 Prime Original shows accounted for 25 percent of all Prime sign-ups during that three-year period. And the most profitable shows are costing Amazon about $60 per customer – which means that the company makes $39 on each full-price Prime membership sold to those customers.
Clearly, viewers want Amazon Originals. And with attention to high-quality musical and visual pairings, the series Amazon creates are likely to gather even more viewer attention in the future.
Image by: Mitch Nielsen