Do Late Night TV Show Appearances Still Move the Needle For Artists?

Last fall, R&B singer October London performed “Back to Your Place” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! with a Snoop Dogg introduction and a seven-piece band including harp and violin players. In other words, the performance wasn’t cheap — and probably far more expensive than the few thousand dollars late-night talk-show guests typically receive under union rules.

According to London’s manager, Adrian L. Miller, the appearance, which has scored 281,000 YouTube views so far, was worth it. London’s more stripped-down GMA3 performance in February had even more concrete benefits, boosting ticket sales for the singer’s show at Brooklyn Steel later that night by 100. “It’s not nothing,” Miller says. “It’s good to have the logos and the exposure through TV.”

Still, Miller concedes that the promotional benefits of late-night TV performances aren’t as great as they were in the 2000s. Back then, Jay Leno and David Letterman frequently drew 4 million to 6 million nightly viewers, compared with the roughly 1.5 million to 3 million viewers top talk shows draw today. Plus, he says, “A lot of an artist’s audience is not on television. They’re not watching these shows.”

For many acts, especially developing artists seeking viral moments, the return on investment for late-night and daytime talk-show performances has become too minuscule to be effective. “They have, like, 2 million viewers of these shows, and that’s what we get on daily posts on TikTok,” says Ethan Curtis, manager of singer-songwriter JVKE, who played The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2022. “It’s an energy drain. We travel and train for the performance and do it in one take. It doesn’t feel worth it for every song.”

And while audiences are down, the cost of mounting a memorable televised performance is way up. Another of Miller’s clients, singer-rapper Anderson .Paak, spent “out of pocket, almost six figures,” he says, for a 2017 Ellen appearance. “Everybody wants a creative director now, and the stylist and the hair and the makeup,” a major-label source says. According to label and management sources, expenses for talk-show performances range from $150,000 to $225,000 — or as high as $700,000 for a potentially career-making Saturday Night Live opportunity.

Targeted talk-show performances sometimes redeem the expense. When JVKE played “Golden Hour” on Fallon in late 2022, his team wanted to “elevate him from a TikTok artist to a ‘real artist,’” Curtis says. “That’s when the late-night show served a purpose: ‘Let’s have an example of JVKE existing outside of TikTok.’ We chopped up the footage, reposted it on social media.” (JVKE’s Fallon performance is no longer available on his socials, but a Tonight Show YouTube video of him “playing my song for the Roots” beforehand has 358,000 views.)

“Most bands come in with the same amount of crew and backline as if they were putting on a show. They ask the record label to pay for it and [labels] don’t want to,” says Chris Gentry, who managed Phoenix in 2009 when the band’s SNL appearance helped turn its album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix into a smash.

In an analysis of 458 artist appearances on top talk shows such as Kimmel, Fallon, Ellen, SNL and The Late Late Show With James Corden, music data analyst Chartmetric found the artists’ monthly Spotify listeners averaged 1.78% more the week after the show. Some artists’ distinctive performances make a bigger impact: BTS on SNL in 2019 and Bartees Strange on Kimmel in 2022 both boosted their monthly Spotify listeners by nearly 85%.

Other talk-show performances barely register. Chartmetric reports that 192 artists experienced decreases in monthly Spotify listeners after their talk-show gigs; London’s Kimmel performance in October had minimal impact on his Spotify metrics. “We’ve had these conversations for a long time: Late night doesn’t move the needle,” says the major-label source, who nonetheless remains a proponent of such appearances because “Jimmy Fallon or NBC helps spread a piece of digital content in an era when we’re constantly trying to break through the noise.”

While Ken Weinstein, a veteran publicist whose company, Big Hassle, represents Phish, Jack White, the Pretenders and many others, acknowledges “labels are definitely more thoughtful about how they spend the money,” he adds that prominent talk-show performances can have promotional benefits far beyond the initial TV appearances. “Honestly, the appearance itself is as valuable as ever,” he says. “Only in a few instances really are there giant sales bumps from a particular TV appearance — but the conversation it begins is still very relevant, very powerful.”

Peter Katsis, who manages Bush, booked frontman Gavin Rossdale on Fallon in January; a Tonight Show Instagram clip of “Glycerine” scored 344,000 views, and numerous media outlets covered the performance. “It’s really not about what Fallon‘s numbers are anymore,” says Katsis. “It really starts with what you decide to do with the opportunity. All that stuff becomes way more valuable than just that initial appearance.”

“Everything’s more expensive, which is the reason to do it at the right time and have it be part of a larger plan,” says Diana Miller, supervising producer for The Talk, which recently booked Bush and Rachel Platten, adding that shows often negotiate with artists over paying a portion of their expenses, in addition to the low thousands of dollars in union rates they pay musicians to appear. “How much would four minutes be for advertising on this show? You can’t just promote to your own fanbase. You can’t assume Ariana Grande fans know she has new music out.”

Some artists have taken it upon themselves to economize. The Lemon Twigs, a band from Long Island, played Fallon in late January with a “very stripped-back backline” and “hardly any money at all,” according to Gentry, who manages the group. “We did it really for the cost of the flight for the drummer from L.A.,” he says. “What’s interesting right now with Fallon is how social media plays into it — 14 million on Instagram, 15 million on TikTok. It’s almost like you get more now.”

This story will appear in the March 30, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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