For years, whenever Paula Cole's phone started lighting up, it usually meant one thing: "Dawson's Creek" had arrived on another streaming platform.
The hit teen drama, which aired on the WB from 1998 to 2003, is synonymous with the singer's beloved theme song, "I Don't Want to Wait." On home video and on streaming platforms like Netflix, however, the series has had almost all of its original music replaced, including, most conspicuously, its theme song. Instead of Cole's tune, episodes of "Dawson's Creek" now open with "Run Like Mad," by Jann Arden.
Audiences have not taken this change lightly. "People really care and are really upset about it," Cole said in a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts. "They tag me in every post — so much tagging on the socials, fans tagging Netflix and Sony. It's prolific." (Cole's song does play before the two-part series finale on Netflix, thanks to a deal Sony Pictures Entertainment, the production studio and distributor, made for a special 2003 DVD release.)
"Dawson's Creek" is one of many classic shows that sound different today than you probably remember. Stream it on Netflix, and most of the pop music it included when it originally aired is absent. It's a bewildering transformation — and one that is surprisingly widespread across streaming services in North America.
Why does it happen? As it turns out, it's mainly a problem of foresight.
All shows have to pay for the rights to use existing songs in their soundtracks, and the process of licensing popular tunes can be prohibitively expensive. Before the early 2000s, in the days before DVD box sets and streaming, producers didn't think much about the long-term future of these programs — as they saw it, they would air live and possibly for a few years in syndication. Many opted for a compromise to get well-known songs onto their shows: limited, short-term licenses, which allowed them to land big artists on the cheap.
"At that point people didn't think further," said Robin Urdang, an Emmy-winning music supervisor who has licensed songs for such shows as "Broad City" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." "'We're airing the show for a year or three years or five years, and then it's going away.' They didn't think they needed the music longer."
The upshot is, once the licenses expired, many shows wound up on streaming services with their music replaced. This can result in some unusual and frustrating viewing experiences.
In an early episode of "The X-Files," Agent Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, interrogates a serial killer who claims to have psychic powers. She doesn't believe him, but as she goes to leave, he sings a few bars of Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" — a song she heard the day before, at her father's funeral. Scully leaves spooked, and the audience is left to wonder whether the killer really does have psychic powers.
At least, that's what the audience might have wondered in 1994, when the episode aired on Fox. If you watch it today on Hulu, you may wonder what the killer is referring to. Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" is no longer heard at Scully's father's funeral. Instead, we hear "La Mer," the French-language jazz standard with a similar melody, by Charles Trenet. As a result, the killer's taunt is now more bewildering than portentous. (The title of the episode, to add to the confusion, is "Beyond the Sea.")
Some changes are less subtle — the music for shows like NBC's "Scrubs" and Fox's "Bones" has been dramatically altered, as fans have been quick to point out online.
When TV producers want to put a song in a scene, even a small portion, they have to clear its use with the song's composers and publishers and pay them a hefty fee. The costs are considerable — between $30,000 and $40,000 on average for indefinite rights to a popular song that has played on the radio and that most people would know, Urdang said. Network and cable TV music budgets, meanwhile, are sometimes barely half that per episode.
"I worked on a show called 'Burn Notice' years ago," Urdang said. "Our first season, the budget was ridiculously low — about $20,000 per episode. The following year it went down to $19,000."
For "Burn Notice," Urdang pursued music by unknown independent artists — "songs that nobody knew," which were therefore more affordable, she said. But for showrunners and music supervisors intent on using hits, limited-use licenses were a cheaper workaround.
"A lot of times you realize that, say, putting an ABBA song in a scene is really key," said Thomas Golubic, a music supervisor who has worked on "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead," among other shows. "Well, ABBA is incredibly expensive, and nobody is looking to cut you a deal."
In order to afford the song, a show might have paid a lower fee for fixed-term use under certain conditions — for one year, maybe, or five. The licenses could be restricted to broadcast TV, not for DVD or online. As shows headed to streaming platforms, these limited-use deals had to be worked out all over again.
"Now they have to renegotiate for an ABBA song for this incredibly long use, and ABBA is able to charge whatever they want," Golubic said. "They now have to ask themselves: Do we pay for the ABBA song, or do we replace it with something else?"
"It's very hard to do this job, and when you get it right, it's an exciting experience," he added. To have to later swap out favorite selections over rights issues "can be heartbreaking."
These limited, temporary licenses could be as low as 5% of the cost of licensing a song in perpetuity, Urdang said. That enabled shows with low budgets, like "Dawson's Creek," to pack their episodes with recognizable tunes, even if only briefly — no one would be interested in watching these shows in a decade's time anyway, the thinking went.
Now producers know better, and whether on streaming, network or cable, in-perpetuity licenses are the norm. "I don't know anyone that would allow any kind of limited option anymore," Urdang said. "We have to get rights forever." Music budgets tend to be higher now to accommodate these needs, she said.
Buck Damon, a music supervisor on song-laden series like "Freaks and Geeks," which aired on NBC, and the WB's "Felicity," has experienced both sides of the licensing issue. The producers of the beloved period high-school comedy "Freaks and Geeks" have prioritized securing whatever clearances necessary in order to preserve the show's soundtrack on digital platforms. (Creator Paul Feig has said he wouldn't allow it to be shown with alternate music.)
A new round of deals allowed "Freaks and Geeks" to return to TV earlier this year, to widespread exultation: When you watch the show on Hulu, its evocative mix of vintage hits by bands like Styx, Rush and the Who remains intact.
"Felicity" was a different story. The charming college drama, created by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, was music-intensive by design, featuring hit songs by popular artists of the time like Lauryn Hill, Damon said.
"There was a lot of great music in 'Felicity' that was cool and happening in 1999," he said. "But with such small budgets, the only way to make that work was to license the music for five years."
When it came time to re-license the music for DVD and streaming, the distributor, ABC Studios, opted not to bother. If you stream the show now, Damon's song choices have been replaced with cheap-sounding Muzak and tracks by unknown bands.
"It's kind of ridiculous, if you think about it," he said. "Why not just pay to keep that great music?"
Fans of such shows are often vocal about their distaste for the altered soundtracks on Reddit and social media. One "Felicity" fan has even cobbled together a guerrilla edit of the show with its original soundtrack painstakingly restored.
This kind of outcry may have produced at least one victory: Sony has apparently conceded to "Dawson's Creek" fan pressure about "I Don't Want to Wait."
Cole, who is set to release her 11th studio album, "American Quilt," on May 21, said that she has recorded a new master for the song and that over the past year, Sony has negotiated with her publishing company to restore it as the series theme.
If all goes according to plan, Cole said, "I Don't Want to Wait" will soon reassume its rightful place at the start of "Dawson's Creek" on streaming services. (Sony representatives declined to comment or confirm this development.)
"It's wonderful to have waited this out," Cole said. "I feel like it's not just vindication for me, but for the fans, and for all artists."
Written by: Calum Marsh
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