Stagecraft and performance for TV

View from behind the cameras of the Beatles performing in a TV studio

The Beatles performing on US television © National Museums Liverpool

As a mass-medium, television provides popular music performers with the opportunity to project both their music and image to a wide audience. On mainstream television channels musicians can reach millions of people simultaneously and the medium has historically been invaluable in the creation of popular music stars. Both Elvis Presley and the Beatles' enormous impact upon popular culture was tied to their appearances on TV shows. From the 1950s onwards TV shows such as 'Ready Steady Go', 'Top of the Pops' (UK) and 'American Bandstand' (US) became increasingly important in launching new acts and records onto the market.

The medium of television allows performers to project in a slightly different way to the common conventions of the live concert setting. The camera allows for a variety of different shots (in terms of angle and distance) meaning that performers can use smaller, more intimate gestures or can make use of facial expressions in close-up shots.

Many performers adapt their performance styles specifically for the medium. Cliff Richard, one of the most successful British pop stars of the 1950s and 1960s for instance, credits the TV producer Jack Good with coaching him on his TV performance style. By intermittently directing his gaze away from direct eye contact, Richard perfected a technique of flirting with the camera which became something of a trademark in his TV appearances. Many performers have specifically tailored their acts for their TV appearances. From the early days of TV to the present day, acts have performed dance routines especially choreographed for TV whilst many popular musicians are styled to make their outfits look their best under the studio lights (to avoid glare and to create interest for the camera).

Some artists have deliberately played with the perceived unnatural performance setting of TV, especially when recorded appearances are mimed. The BBC disc jockey John Peel for instance, 'played' mandolin on the TV show 'Top of the Pops' in a performance of Rod Stewart's 'Maggie May' despite not being able to play the instrument. Similarly at the height of the success of the UK Ska label Two-Tone, two of the label's bands (the Specials and the Selector) swapped bass players for their performances on the programme. These examples show some of the ways in which musicians have deliberately sought to maintain credibility in the eyes of audiences and critics by distancing themselves from the perceived commercialism associated with certain TV programmes (whilst at the same time taking up the promotional opportunity of appearing before a mass audience).