Brian Hiatt
February 07, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Like most fledgling rockers, Rooney are not in the habit of arriving at their seedy club gigs in gleaming, black stretch limos. But on this brisk winter evening in Orange County, the quintet emerges from just such a vehicle, strutting single file through a shadowy nightclub parking lot. As the musicians head backstage, one wide-eyed fan — a jockish blond kid named Luke — voices an urgent, if clueless, query: ”Which one’s Rooney?”

At that moment, millions of television viewers are probably asking the same question. Rooney, you see, are working it ”O.C.”-style — as in Fox’s teen-soap smash; the band canceled a real-life tour date to peddle their power pop on the Jan. 7 episode. ”I can’t say it was the most important gig of our lives,” says frontman Robert Carmine. ”But it was a good thing for the band.” The next week, sales of Rooney’s self-titled debut CD tripled, moving it onto the Billboard album chart.

And the relatively unknown group’s ready-for-prime-time moment is no the-Flaming-Lips-play-the-Peach-Pit anomaly: From car ads to, of all places, JAG, in 2004 you’re far more likely to encounter cool new music on network television than on mainstream radio. Says ”O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz, who’s also showcased such indie acts as Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes (and is planning a series of ”O.C.” soundtrack albums): ”The traditional avenues for hearing about new music — radio and MTV — have gotten less open. So record companies are recognizing that [mainstream TV] is a great opportunity for getting it out there.”

Plus, unlike radio programmers, TV creators and ad agencies specifically want songs completely unfamiliar to most listeners. Not only is obscure music vastly cheaper than, say, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s ”Like a Rock” but ”you get to attach a piece of music to your brand that has no baggage,” says Kathy Delaney, managing partner for Deutsch, the ad agency behind the music-centric Mitsubishi ads that currently have a suburban dad boogying to Brooklyn post-punkers Radio 4’s ”Dance to the Underground.” Adds Beth Urdang, founder of music-supervision firm Agoraphone, ”We get calls all the time [from agencies] saying ‘Find us a new cool song.”’

Show creators have similar appetites. The producers of HBO’s ”Six Feet Under” — who’ve used songs from the Soundtrack of Our Lives, the Electric Soft Parade, and Boards of Canada — actively pursue below-the-radar music. ”They feel a song that people know will take you out of the scene,” says one of the show’s music supervisors, Gary Calamar. ”[If you’re watching a scene and] all of a sudden a well-known song comes on, you think, ‘That’s Pat Benatar.”’

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