Fox's new prime time soap Empire, which debuted last night, opens with a frustrated recording artist singing the same riff over and over, until a bigwig executive decides her sound is as close to full devastation as it can get. The studio where she sings has walls made of wood and a soundboard with a thousand buttons and levers; on the second level of the studio, a man sleeps on a full-sized leather couch, while his colleagues bicker over the perfection of the last note.
The studio, the executives, and even the sound are nostalgic, calling back to a version of the record industry that exuded money, talent, and confidence. But that's also a record industry that no longer exists. Fortunately, the show quickly proves it realizes that.
Empire is a show about the record industry in a time when no one actually knows what the record industry is, much less what it will look like in 10 years. That's what makes it such an interesting show, particularly for music fans. Empire dares to deal with a question that no one can answer.
The music industry is just that: an industry
Music, we like to think, is art. Its creators believe it to be art, and its fans find it sublime.
"Show me your soul in this music," Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the aforementioned bigwig, commands the singer in the opening scene. The people around him think the vocalist already sounds great. But Lucious isn't satisfied. He evokes her brother's death, and forces her to a level of passion and range she hadn't exhibited before. That's art.
But everything beyond the creation of art is the business of music. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll may make for fun storytelling, but they aren't what weaves together a billion-dollar industry. By attempting to tackle the business behind the art, Empire goes somewhere similar shows like Nashville and Power never dared touch. For many shows, the music business is far too messy and complicated to bother with.
Yes, the industry is ridiculously complicated. Every song has multiple authors and six copyrights, and the Department of Justice is involved in who gets paid how much for which format. To create a show like Empire and center it on the industry is to risk having the premise for your story outdated before the show even airs. Fortunately, the show has an ace in the hole. Much of its storyline is rooted in the family dynamics of Lucious.
Music is a personal business
Lucious, patriarch of Empire and head of the Empire Enterprises label, is dying. His massive music label needs a new person to run it, and Lyon believes that he can find that leader among his three sons: Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem.
All art is based on interpretation, and the show is just as much about Lucious's judgments of his sons as it is about the future of the business. Andre, the oldest and the obvious choice, has shadowed his father, gone to grad school, and worked to take over the company. But Lucious worries that he doesn't have the artistry; that he isn't as talented as he needs to be. The youngest, Hakeem, has the opposite problem. Hakeem is probably the most talented musician of the bunch and sounds like a young Kendrick Lamar when he freestyles in the pilot, but he's fickle and has an alcohol problem.
Jamal is the happy medium, a talented songwriter who understands artistry but also has good business sense. His life seems more stable than his brother's, but he's gay, which for Lucious is a hurdle he can't quite clear. Lucious is uneasy around Jamal and doesn't have the understanding and love for him that his mother, Cookie, so clearly exhibits. Jamal would be the perfect candidate if music and life weren't so tightly woven together.
Lucious doesn't make his choice in the pilot. After all, there wouldn't be a show if he did. But there's another, deeper reason for why he hesitates on this deeply personal choice. The industry his sons belong to is massively different from the one Lucious came up in.
Early in the pilot, Lucious announces to his board of directors that he's taking the company public. But first, he tells a personal anecdote: "I started selling drugs when I was 9 years old in Philadelphia. I did it to feed myself. But it was music that kept me alive when I thought I was gonna get shot." It's a story not unlike Jay-Z Carter's rise to fame in Brooklyn. In fact, Empire Enterprises makes a solid fictional stand-in for Jay-Z's very successful label Roc Nation. Its only problem is that Lucious is stuck in a past that just doesn't exist anymore.
Lucious was nationally famous, beloved by many, and known by all. His sons, however, live in a world one where no one buys albums, streaming is the future, and the monoculture is long gone.
Music is not a dying business
Yet despite the perennial doomsday chatter around the music industry, the Lyon family battles over who will get to run the company, and not just for sentimental family reasons. Even though Lyon is clear that the company needs money and the industry is in trouble, his sons (and his ex-wife) clamor to run the company. There's money in music somewhere, and everyone knows it. They just have to find it.
How people make money off music is no longer clear. As Lucious notes, "The internet has destroyed the musicians ability to make money." There are no more records to print and ship around the company and sell at a huge markup. There are no CD cases. There aren't even any true iPods left to buy. Instead, the music industry is trying to calculate just how much it can charge artists so musicians and songwriters can be fairly compensated, without charging so much that listeners give up and simply pirate what they want to hear.
On top of all of the family drama, label mishaps, and allusions to Lyon's criminal past, Empire hangs its hat on one of the most popular arguments against streaming: "It's impossible for disenfranchised kids," Lyons says to the board about making money in the music in 2015. And that is where the show fails dramatically.
It's not impossible for disenfranchised kids to make music. In fact, its easier than ever. Any kid can become a YouTube star, theoretically. Though that won't likely lead to becoming a leather-couch-owning, golden-record-touting record titan, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Lucious's view of what it takes to become a hip-hop artist is hopelessly out of touch, ignoring the Yung Leans and Kendrick Lamars of the world. But there's also so much inherent drama in the balance between making money from art in a time when no one's quite sure how to do that.
Despite tackling all of these issues, Empire is fun, soapy, and ridiculous in the way only primetime television can be. But if we're being honest, the music industry is just as soapy and ridiculous. In music, the business and the personal endlessly mix together. In that regard, Empire is absolutely successful.