The ABC series "Nashville" has tried to mirror the country-music business with stories about fictional stars struggling to stay on top and fresh talent surging from below. One of the most realistic things about the show plays out off camera, as its music team competes in the real Nashville to snare quality songs and potential hits.
The drama has had middling success in the TV ratings, but its music strategy has scored. A soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett (husband of series creator Callie Khouri) and released this week is in the iTunes top 10. It's also the top-selling soundtrack album on Amazon.com, ahead of the companion to the film "Les Misérables."
The show pits a country singer past her peak (Connie Britton) against a young starlet with a chip on her shoulder (Hayden Panettiere). A secondary story follows two budding musicians (Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio) as they form a chemistry for songwriting and perhaps romance. Each episode features up to six songs, all sung by the actors.
Where "Glee" and other music-driven TV shows hinge on cast renditions of familiar hits, "Nashville" is the rare series devoted to new compositions not previously released. That means producers have to seek out material at its source by tapping into the ecosystem of music publishers and writers peddling songs in Nashville, where the show is shot.
Last June, months before the fall premiere, series music supervisor Frankie Pine and Dawn Soler, senior vice president of music at ABC television, were heading for a flight home to Los Angeles when a contact at publisher Universal Music persuaded them to stop by. In a lounge with barstools and lunch laid out, they listened to a pair of rookie songwriters perform three songs on acoustic guitars.
The 25-year-old musicians, Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, go by the name Striking Matches. They connected in a guitar class at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tenn., after being randomly paired for a writing exercise. Later they signed with Universal, which put them on a standard regimen of daily writing sessions with established songwriters around Nashville. Ms. Zimmerman recalls that when they played their stuff for the two "Nashville" music scouts, "both of them ended up crying, so that was a good sign."
Last week, one of those songs appeared in the show. During a lovelorn moment in the Bluebird Cafe, Nashville's famous songwriters' haunt, Mr. Palladio's character picked a guitar and sang "When the Right One Comes Along." It was his recording that leapt onto the iTunes country chart, but the songwriters also got a boost after they were featured in a "Nashville" Web video spotlighting the show's songwriters.
It's nothing new for TV shows to break music, but it's usually recording artists who get the exposure, not songwriters. And music supervisors are more likely to musicalize a screen moment with the sound of rock or pop. "Country music doesn't get a whole lot of love out of film and television," says Ms. Pine, who has also picked songs for such movies as "Magic Mike."
To identify the right material for "Nashville," she works closely with Ms. Khouri, an executive producer, and Mr. Burnett, who oversees the recording of the tracks. On her computer, Ms. Pine has 300 folders for the show, each containing demos of songs submitted by various publishers and songwriters. She has a stockpile of about 20 songs for certain characters that were recorded before scripts were written, and she routinely meets with the show's script writers to try getting those songs worked into the story. If she has to go hunting for a song, she'll put the word out to as many 25 publishers and songwriters. She and her team typically have a deadline of about a week to find the right song and get it recorded.
"Nashville" has been a welcome addition to the industry. "I sit here with 10,000 songs in my catalog, so it's nice to know there's another avenue. [With 'Nashville'] it's just like having another record label in town," says Carla Wallace, co-owner of Big Yellow Dog Music. The independent publisher has had hits such as Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now." One of its writers, Kate York, has had four songs picked up by "Nashville," two of which have aired so far.
But "Nashville" also has to compete like a label. In a system somewhat unique to country music, labels often put songs with hit potential "on hold" with the publishers representing the work. It's a handshake understanding that the publisher won't pitch the song to anyone else until the label passes or gets one of its artists to record it.
Ms. Pine currently has about 50 songs on hold, including seven with Big Yellow Dog. Mindful that the fee for licensing a song to television pales in comparison to the money generated by a hit on country radio, Ms. Wallace has occasionally cautioned her writers, "Don't pitch that just yet [to 'Nashville'], I want to get that on Miranda Lambert's record," she says.
"The really great pop tunes get eaten up by the big artists in Nashville," Ms. Pine confirms. That's partly why the music of "Nashville" is dominated by intimate, acoustic numbers that would fall into the category of "Americana"—all the better to underscore moments of sexual tension or heartbreak. The songs also bear the fingerprints of Mr. Burnett, known for the salt-of-the-earth sound of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and recordings by many artists including Elvis Costello, whose previously unreleased song "Twist of Barbwire" is on the "Nashville" soundtrack.
"It's not exactly what country radio sounds alike. It's a little to the left, just a few degrees," says Scott Borchetta, chief executive of Big Machine Label Group, whose artists include Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw. Big Machine distributes and markets the music of "Nashville."
Though "Nashville" skews to the rootsy side of the songwriting craft, —"artsy," as Mr. Borchetta describes it—the show is also gunning for commercial hits. "Telescope," a romping song of seduction by Cary Barlowe and Hillary Lindsey (she wrote Carrie Underwood's hit "Jesus Take the Wheel") was delivered by Ms. Panettierre in the pilot episode. The actress also shot a music video that went into rotation on country TV channels CMT and GMC. As a single, it has inched into the Top 40 of country radio. Mr. Borchetta urged Ms. Khouri to bring "Telescope" back into the show in hopes of goosing radio play, which he argues could attract some needed viewers. Ms. Khouri agreed; a concert rendition of "Telescope" will be included in an episode set to air next month.
The network has committed to a full season of "Nashville," but a second season is not guaranteed. If the show lives on, Mr. Borchetta hopes, "it turns into a franchise not just for ABC, but a franchise for Nashville."
Corrections & Amplifications
Musicians Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis met at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tenn. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said they met at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.