Glee’s music man runs one of the world’s biggest hit-making machines By Michael Gallant
Adam Anders remembers his first season as executive music producer for the hit TV show Glee with a mix of pride and horror. “It was brutal,” he says. He and production partner Peer Åström worked six days a week, often running on a few hours sleep per night. “It was horrendous, but I love doing it,” he says. “And we have a much better system going now.”
The Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer now has the process down to a science—one that involves a network of highly specialized collaborators, down-to-the-wire deadlines and swapping thousands of files with Åström, who mixes and programs from Anders’ native Sweden. The results have been wildly successful: In less than two years, the show has produced eight Top 10 soundtrack albums, three Top 10 EPs and a staggering 156 charting singles on the Billboard Hot 100. The show’s repertoire mostly consists of cover songs, although lately original songs have been introduced.
Anders’ deep and diverse musical upbringing prepared him well for the challenges of his gig. “My first memory as a child is sleeping under a mixing console in a studio when my dad was working on a record,” he says. “He’s an opera singer and my mom’s a concert pianist. I grew up traveling the world—and it was just music, music, music.” Anders boasts an impressive resume of collaborators outside the Glee classroom, including Sinead O’Connor, Nick Lachey, Clay Aiken, the Backstreet Boys, CeCe Winans and Jesse McCartney.
Before Glee he made his name as a producer and writer for various Disney franchises, including High School Musical and Hannah Montana. “That’s what led to the Glee phenomenon,” he says. “It was the perfect match. I have this history of doing jazz, classical, pop, rock—all the different styles we do on Glee every week.” He and wife Nikki (herself a singer and songwriter) have opened Anders Music, a production company and record label whose roster includes Shane Harper and Zac Poor. We spoke with Anders about the joys and pressures of setting a hit TV show to music.
How did you get into music?
When I was 13 my family moved from Sweden to Florida. I studied jazz bass at the University of South Florida while still in high school. Thanks to my parents, I had a solid classical background and had been exposed to many styles of music. My parents would push me in different creative directions: “It’s not rocking enough! Do more rock!” (laughs)
What was your first gig?
When I was 16 I finished my studies, moved to Nashville and started gigging as a session bass player. I did tours with artists like Shania Twain and Steven Curtis Chapman. I also started producing and writing songs in my bedroom—and one of the first people to hear my work was [former Sony Music Entertainment head] Tommy Mottola. He decided to give me a break, and the buzz kicked in—“Tommy hired some new 21-year-old kid!”—and suddenly everybody wanted to work with me. I started rolling and didn’t look back.
How did you start working with the Backstreet Boys?
Swedish pop had exploded at the time. My being Swedish, my then-publisher and I got the bright idea of sending me to Sweden to write in order to capitalize on that trend. The first song I worked on while I was on the plane was “More Than That” for the Backstreet Boys. I remember sitting in my hotel room in Stockholm writing those lyrics and a few months later seeing this crowd on MTV singing those lyrics back to the Backstreet Boys. That was very cool. But you are measured by your latest, biggest thing—and because I had that huge hit with the Backstreet Boys, I got pigeonholed as a boy-band guy. But then boy bands died. I always joke that I killed boy bands, because I had the last really big boy-band hit of that era. (laughs) I couldn’t get arrested after that. The door just shut.
How did you deal?
You just have to reinvent and keep trying. I don’t know anything else to do other than music, so I kept chugging along until things started clicking again. Nick Lachey and I worked on his album What’s Left of Me . That was a fresh break for me. I also worked with Clay Aiken, Ashley Tisdale, CeCe Winans and the Backstreet Boys again—so it came full circle.
What’s the Glee schedule like?
It never stops. It’s the most relentless 10 months you can imagine, seven days a week. I start my day at 7 with coffee, checking in on Skype with Peer in Sweden and checking mixes, because they’ve been mixing all night. They have the mix up while we talk, so if there are tweaks they do them on the spot. Once changes have been made and they’re approved, they send the songs off to the show. That’s all done in my home studio. Then I eat breakfast and head to the show’s studios in Hollywood, where we do arrangements, vocals with the cast and demos. Finally we upload everything I did during the day to Peer, who finishes things up while I sleep—and then we start all over again. It’s like Groundhog Day.
How do you do instrumentation?
We use an incredible amount of virtual synths. If there’s one out there, we’ve got it. We’re moving so quickly, with so many tempo and key changes, that we have to stay virtual as long as possible. For the most part, most of what you hear is programmed. Peer happens to be the best drum programmer on the planet, and a great drummer as well. He’ll play drums on some songs and program drums on others. Most people can’t tell which is which.
How do you share files?
Fast internet, baby! (laughs) Most everything stays programmed until the last minute, so we’re sending session files back and forth without a lot of audio content in them. Our entire team—which includes programmers who just add horns or strings—all have computers and Pro Tools rigs that match, so it’s easy to send files around. When I do choir vocals or something big and multilayered, I always mix them down to stereo stems as well, so rather than uploading two gigs of vocals, I’m only uploading 600 megabytes.
How is working with the cast?
A huge part of my job is managing personalities. The kids on Glee have the toughest schedule in Hollywood, so I might get Amber Riley or another actor coming in tired after waking up at 4 a.m., and now it’s 10 p.m., and she has to sing a huge song. A big part of what I do is keeping them motivated and getting the performances we need. We literally have a van running outside the studio. It’s not like we have two days to get a vocal right: We’ve got 45 minutes. It’s pretty intense. I get frustrated when people judge the cast’s singing or lip-syncing. They don’t know the song, they don’t have time to rehearse and they still do a fantastic job. In fact, they don’t even hear the vocal comps until they walk on set to shoot the scene, so they have no idea what vocal I’ve picked for them to lip-sync. So of course the lip-syncing isn’t always perfect. That’s just the nature of trying to do so much music with so little time.
Do you use vocal tuning?
There’s so much jibber-jabber on the internet about that. Of course we use it. The music is not supposed to sound realistic—it’s fantasy. We want it to sound like the original record, but we don’t want karaoke. We want something big and lush, something that sounds as good as the original but also features the characters that the viewers love. That’s the essence of the show. So yes, Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” is tuned like crazy, but “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” isn’t. It depends on what we’re doing.
Who were your favorite guest artists?
One of my favorite experiences was working with Gwyneth Paltrow. She was absolutely lovely, had no attitude at all and is a really talented singer. Beyond that, her husband, Chris Martin of Coldplay, is my musical hero. So working with Gwyneth, I knew Chris was going to hear the music, and that added another level of pressure for me. We did this complicated mashup of “Umbrella” and “Singin’ in the Rain” and I was afraid he was going to hate it—but I got his thumbs-up. That was special.
Any other standout experiences?
It’s been great to see how many major artists are Glee fans. Paul McCartney sent a mixtape of stuff he wanted us to use, which was wild. Billy Joel called and was like, “How do I get my music on Glee?” There’s a lot of crazy moments when you have to pinch yourself.
Why did you start the record label?
It’s a passion of mine, and with the craziness of Glee, it’s a grounding thing for me. It’s where I come from. I’ve toured with artists and grew up on the road. I know that life, relate to it and don’t want to forget it. I just love finding these talented guys and girls and seeing what I can do to help them.
Isn’t this a bad time for labels?
It’s a terrible time, but my theory of doing what you love and not worrying about the rest is something I apply to this. It started organically, because I met some amazing artists I wanted to help. Things started more as a production deal—“Let’s make a demo and write some songs and see what happens.” I didn’t want to trust our work to record labels that are in such bad shape right now, so I thought, “What can we do on our own?” It evolved from there.
What advice can you offer?
Be patient. Success comes and goes. If you’re doing this to make money or be famous, quit now. That’s not going to sustain you for the three-, four- or five-year cycle when you can’t get work. If this is what you do and who you are, you always have to remember why you do it—and just love that you’re spending your life making music.