Sync or Swim
From Saul Williams’ hiring out List of Demands to Nike to Battles’ Race:In being used in a TV ad for Audi (above), artists have never been happier to get into bed with licensees.
Only 10 years ago, this type of deal would likely have led to cries of ‘sell out’ but with traditional revenue streams for artists increasingly unstable, licensing songs out to TV shows, adverts or video games is now seen as a necessary evil. With old lines of artistic integrity and selling out trickier to identify, never mind stick to, for artists who can no longer rely on advances or steady streams of royalties, having your music synced is now a respectable way to pay the bills. So while the idea of music becoming so entwined with corporate interests might be off putting, for those trying to make some sort of living from music, saying yes has never been easier. Traditional boundaries of art and commerce seem to be blurring, with the old rules undergoing a quiet rewrite that no one seems sure what to make of just yet.
We spoke to three people in charge of licensing for independent labels to try and get a better handle on things: Nate Nelson of Stones Throw, Now Again and Miserable Beast, Lauren Harman of the Lip Sync Music Agency and Jeremy Peters from Ghostly.
How important is syncing to modern record labels? Is it more important for the independents?
Nate Nelson: it’s becoming increasingly more important as other facets of the business consolidate. This is definitely a growth industry. More and more brands and products are using music. When I started in 2000, I was working on Dawson’s Creek which was one of the shows that started all this, along with Party of Five. I remember calling indie labels up, telling them the deal, and being told “fuck off”. Labels were selling records then and synch didn’t concern them. The bigger ones like Warner, EMI and Zomba were creating departments that specified in this arena but indie labels weren’t even tripping on it. But then the majors started to take it seriously and the important indies that are still around today, like Sub Pop, Warp, Stones Throw, Beggars, Domino, they all have licensing departments. And the indie labels that didn’t start those departments, they are no longer here with us sadly.
Lauren Harman: It’s probably more important for indies because they aren’t on the level of the majors in regard to touring and merchandise. They don’t have that built-in stability. A major can just throw one of their baby bands on a tour with Pink or Beyonce and call it a day. So syncs can provide more opportunities for indie artists. Supervisors tend to be music heads so ‘cooler’ independent music is more likely to be used. If an indie band gets a lot of syncs they are more likely to get recognized by other companies, like the majors. Supervisors can also get indie acts for lower fees. But there are also a lot of politics that go into it. A lot of producers will want their cousin’s best friend’s band in a project. And a lot of producers, editors, studios have horrifying taste in music.
NN: I think music supervisors have a hard job. A lot of people seem to think syncing can be a great opportunity to break talent but they have to cater to their client’s needs. And their client is the producer. So most of the stuff you hear doesn’t break a band.
How profitable is syncing compared with traditional revenue streams?
Jeremy Peters: Obviously, licensing a song to a TV show pays a bit more than selling a record to a fan, but I’d argue no stream is necessarily more important than each other.
NN: it can be a nice form of revenue. A mid-sized indie can depend on 25 percent of gross coming from it, generally speaking. But it’s not the “core”. The “core” is artists, music and record sales. This is a nice piece of the new business model but it shouldn’t be the only piece. The labels I admire do lots of other things too. The majors, they’re making a much bigger portion of gross off of sync because of their great catalogue. Have you ever tried to clear Pink Floyd? Tell your producers to break out the chequebooks. And they do. They spend it. So the majors are winning even there.
How valuable can something like landing a good ad be for an artist?
LH: Some artists I’ve worked with have zero album sales but are millionaires. But no one outside the film/TV community will know who they are. Tim Myers, Bitter:Sweet, I have seen how much money they can bring in. It’s sickening!
NN: There’s an ad here in the US right now for a Cadillac commercial with the band Phoenix and it drove sales for their record. But the vast majority of syncs don’t do anything for sales. I’d say 90 percent don’t. It’s so not like radio in terms of promotion. So don’t get fooled by the “well this is a great promotional opportunity for your band” pitch. Always ask for your fair due. These TV shows, movies, brands are making money and tons of it and your music enhances their brand more than it “breaks” you.
LH: Broadcast 2000 who I still work with, I recently got him a big end title for CSI, and have gotten him trailers and a few other TV shows. Let’s just say more supervisors know who he is now. But I try not to tell supervisors what my artists have already gotten because they all want to feel like they have discovered something. But I can’t lie - saying an artist was in an Apple campaign gets their foot in the door. And it pays his bills. The ones who get on Grey’s Anatomy, their album sales sure go up.
Is there one particular medium out of games, ads, TV shows etc that is most coveted?
LH: Ads pay the most money usually - though the fees are getting smaller every day. And sometimes they can get a lot of exposure for the band. TV does a lot more volume, and shows like Grey’s will pay 30-50k for an indie song sometimes.
Have artists or a label you work for ever refused a sync opp?
LH: At my last company I worked with Sufjan Stevens. He is a funny one. He would approve a $500 license for an indie student film but would turn down an ad that was less than $150k!
NN: Yeah. There’s certain things some artists aren’t fond of. Hummer comes to mind. Their commercials use great music and it was a great ad agency but some artists have a problem supporting a brand that they don’t like or agree with. And that’s cool. But I’m getting less and less pushback these days.
Have you noticed any change in how artists approach or make their music as a result of syncing opportunities?
JP: I have, but I don’t like it. Supervisors know when they’re handed stuff that sounds “made for TV”. Sometimes people have to use library music because of budgets, and we try to be open enough to allow for some of our music to be used in this way, but it’s always been about releasing great records first, then trying to license that to the right opportunity, should it come about.
NN: Not in my sandbox. But we have a library series if our artists want to contribute to that. That’s just for third parties. We don’t retail it. But Stones Throw artists are very passionate about their vision. And that’s how it should be. I would rue the day I work for a label that starts making decisions on how sync-friendly something is before putting it out. We consider it but it’s not our ultimate decision.
With all the changes in the industry, do you think attitudes towards having music licensed have changed? It seems much harder to be snobbish and think of it in the old terms of ‘selling out’.
JP: I would say yes, but some of it is an understanding of where the money actually goes, which is into allowing an artist to move out of their cramped apartment because they can finally make a down payment on a nice little house, or to pay for health insurance, or have a retirement account, something a staggering amount of artists don’t have in the US. Almost all indies I know require the artist have final say on whether or not their music gets used. With ads, there’s a value judgement inherent, but what’s never considered is that sometimes that ad can make life a little bit more hospitable for a guy or girl whose royalty checks were never quite high enough to let them quit the day job.
NN: Certainly. It was much easier to say “fuck you Dawsons Creek” back in 2000. It’s not as easy to say “fuck you Grey’s Anatomy” in 2010.
LH- I started out when syncing was just starting to get big. I worked with Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar and many of their artists would never think of selling a song for syncs. Like Jens Lekman or Antony and the Johnsons. I’d say in the first year or so they changed their minds pretty quickly. I think it was the big Flaming Lips ad for Mitsubishi that got everyone rethinking around 2003. Now, everyone wants to make music for syncs. Well almost everyone. I have had ad agencies ask me to compile lists of my artists who would compose for projects and I’d say 90% of them said yes. So yes, I have artists who make music that sounds really syncable with that idea in mind. And thank god, cos I gotta pay the bills.
What’s the future of syncing?
JP: The future is trying to find willing parties who are interested in making their project more awesome by willing to take a risk on that undiscovered or indie artist whose music can work a million times better than the Coldplay song that’s been synced 8 million times. It seems people are more open than they were to doing this then they were, so it’s awesome for those of us who aren’t the majors.
LH: It’s hard to predict but I think things are in the process of getting saturated. Now there are 10 new pitching companies like mine per day, a 100 new music supervisors a week. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but most of them won’t make it. But I think there’s an important element to what I do. And it’s a marathon not a race. I act as a filter for music supervisors who get 1000 emails per day from managers, artists, labels, etc but they know they can come to me and get exactly what they’re looking for, narrowed down, and packaged up nicely. I think the best ‘filters’ out there will ultimately stay in the game.
NN: I’m passionate about it. It’s a good source of revenue and a good use of art. But I approach the future with guarded optimism. I think there’s growth in it, but I also feel that as owners of content, we need to make sure we’re doing our part to protect copyright. Google and their ilk aren’t looking out for us, and if we let TV and film go the way of the music industry, we’re all in a boat without a paddle, and Google’s making more money off of pirated content. As consumers, we should pay for our books, for our news, watch our adverts in TV, and pay to rent movies.
Are there any deals you’ve done that were particularly satisfying?
JP: Having our artists’ music used on CSI: Miami, NUMB3RS, Gossip Girl, CSI: Miami, and Melrose. CSI: Miami, NUMB3RS, Gossip Girl, CSI: Miami, and Melrose. I think I’ll remember the first ad we did for a while since it seemed awesome that a big brand was willing to take a chance on a smaller label and artist like they did in the earlier half of the 2000s.
NN: We had a couple songs in this PBS documentary No Subtitles Necessary that was very cool. Really good story. The two biggest jobs I’ve had recently are a couple of Now Again selects in DJ Hero and we just got Aloe Blacc the theme song for the new HBO show How To Make It In America.
LH: The ones I’m most proud of are the low budget ones but that are for really cool artists like Queen Sea Big Shark, this band from Beijing. I got them a 5k spot on this awesome show US of Tara. I never thought I’d place them.
Published in Shook magazine in March 2010.