By Emily White of Whitesmith Entertainment, Readymade Records & Dreamfuel.
Back in the day, associating one’s music with advertisements was basically the most sell-out move an artist could make. So much so that Neil Young parodied those who did so in his 1988 song and video, “This Note’s For You."
A decade later, Moby shattered this notion after his album Play was rejected via traditional promotional outlets such as radio. The decision was made that every track on the album would be licensed in some form or another. An album that was initially a commercial failure, eventually shot to Number 1 in multiple countries, selling over 12 million copies in it’s wake. Not to mention, the revenue generated from the licenses itself as well as making Moby a household name, which increased his touring numbers drastically.
Moby made licensing one’s music not only acceptable and cool, but it caused a movement. When the traditional music industry crumbled, almost all artists and industry folks turned to “synch,” short for synchronization, placements for income and exposure.
We are now knee deep into Music Industry 2.0 and everyone wants to land a synch. With the landscape as competitive as ever, it begs the question, “How does one go about landing a coveted placement?”
To me, the steps are actually quite straight forward, assuming the music is great. I’m going to lay them out below but with one caveat: remember that we are dealing with the literal synchronization of music with picture. I’ve had albums that are beloved by music supervisors who tried incredibly hard to land the tracks, but just couldn't fit the music to picture. When I was working with The Dresden Dolls, we were told that the music stood out too much to blend well into film or TV. (Though the band did land a jam preserves ad placement in Austria, which instantly caused our show numbers in Vienna to spike.) On the other side of the spectrum, Brendan Benson has had an incredibly strong licensing / synch career. As his manager, I know his catalog inside and out and I constantly hear his music played when I’m strolling through airports or grocery stores. And many fans know his music through an iPod ad, ESPN promos and film trailers.
But let’s start at the beginning. You have your music that is as strong as can be and you’re ready to go. Where do you start?
I consider there to be three different tiers for landing a synch placement.
1. Music retitling companies via Music Dealers and Jingle Punks. Most of my publishing colleagues will not be pleased that I am endorsing these outlets, but artist / writers have to start somewhere. These companies will literally take on anyone. How does one stand out? Easy: Be pro-active and reach out. Make a friend / colleague at the company and keep them in the loop on press, shows and other activity around your music. Make yourself available to write for picture and offer yourself up for parties and showcases that the company is putting on. Obviously don’t be obnoxious about it. Keep your emails, short, to the point, informative and about once a month max. I’ve had artists land their first placements through these companies, who take a very large cut (generally 50%) and re-title the songs on the PRO end. However, the writer’s share of the PRO can be massive, depending on the placement. I have had these companies land songs that have led to 6 figure annual PRO royalties and significantly increased digital sales / streams, which in turn led to publishers and labels ringing me to snatch up the artist. A very good situation to be in.
Note that these companies do not take any rights ownership and you can generally get out of the deals right away, should you want to move on.
2. Selective pitch companies such as Terrorbird, Lip Sync, Music Alternatives, Zync, and Bankrobber. I love all of these companies. They have incredible taste and excellent track records. There are extremely talented people at these companies who really know what they’re listening for. I’m not offended in the least when these folks reject music I send them as they literally know what they can and cannot place. However, I’m psyched when they do take on one of our artists as we’ve had a lot of success when they do. Note that these companies particularly love it when you own your master in addition to publishing and this is also a good move because you retain even more income when placements are landed. It also makes clearing incredibly easy and everyone appreciates it when you help to make their job as smooth as possible. Not surprisingly, many of these companies have spawned publishing arms, which can be a natural evolution should you be lucky enough to work with these great folks and have some success. All of these companies also throw showcases and parties at SXSW and CMJ, so again, making yourself available to play these opportunities is of course a good thing should an offer come about. Synch placement companies at this level do not take any rights ownership and generally take 20-25% cuts depending on if you are exclusive with them or not.
NOTE ON EXCLUSIVITY. It might sound like a good idea to be non-exclusive and have everyone and their mother pitching you. I am generally ok with two reputable companies pitching for my artists / writers - often times one on the master side and one on the publishing side, with everyone working together to easily clear. However this is a world where one can run into the definition of “too many cooks.” Trust me that it sucks when a big placement is landed and even in the world of e-mail chains, it’s not clear who pitched it first. We’ve lost big placements that way as the music supervisor just doesn’t want to deal with sloppiness, which is understandable. Find a great company to work with, maybe two depending on the situation or if there are multiple writers and stick with it. Otherwise you’re diluting your opportunities and making yourself look like an amateur to the very small music supervisor community when they are being hit with your music multiple times by multiple people. Keep it focused, keep it streamlined, keep your cohesive team informed and eventually you will most likely achieve some results.
3. Publishing Companies. This is the holy grail of synch pitching for a few reasons. It might surprise some folks to hear that as artists / writers and many industry folks are terrified of publishing companies. There is way too much fear about publishing that is primarily based in lack of understanding of what publishing is. All publishing companies do is look after your songwriting competitions, the way record companies exploit (in the legal sense) your master recordings as far and wide as possible. Artists grow up dreaming of being on hip labels when in reality, if they are a songwriter, they should equally dream of working with a great publisher.
As a music fan, I tend to be drawn to strong songwriters, therefore my artists’ publishers are generally key team members and, often times, their number one revenue stream.
Fear of publishers is also historical. There are countless horror stories from the old music industry about writers signing away their rights for what seemed like a lot of money and then the song turns out to be “Y.M.C.A.”
Times have changed and things have swayed very much into the writer’s / artist’s favor. There are still crap full and co-publishing deals with no advance or reversions that no one should sign, but they are few and far between. Generally when I’m speaking to a publisher who is interested in one of my writers / artists, they ask me what I want in which we structure a deal around where the writer / artist is at and what their needs are.
I talked a lot about this in a blog I wrote for MIDEM in advance of moderating a panel of brilliant publishers last year. You can check out those links to educate yourself further. But to stay on point, you might not be ready for a publishing deal out of the gate, and following the above tiers is a great way to eventually get one; assuming that is the goal. Remember that entering into a publishing deal does not mean that you are giving up your rights. Many artists have administrative or “admin” deals in which the percentages heavily favor the writers and the writer maintains ownership. This is exactly the same as licensing your material on the master side to a label. Everything reverts back to you at some point; usually after 1 - 5 years. However, I often times do co-publishing deals at the beginning of an artist’s career. Why? Although there can be advances associated with admin deals, co-pub deals should always have larger advances because the company is taking a stake in ownership. We generally take these funds and funnel them back into the artists’ career, using the income to fuel tours and hire promo teams to get an artist off the ground. After they climb through the ranks and build a fanbase when the publishing deal is up, they can ideally do an admin deal, should they want to go that route.
My favorite publishing companies, in no particular order are Downtown, Peer, and BMG. It’s important to work with a company that fits your style and needs.
Reminder for all: Always create instrumentals. They are often placed more than songs with lyrics as to not take away entirely from the scene at hand. Also, if you’re going with option 1 or 2, register for Songtrust to ensure you’re not missing out on any owed royalties.
No matter what level you are at, it is on you to continue to write and record great music and inform your synch team. Keep them in the loop on press, tour dates, and offer them guest list spots to give to music supervisors as well as the team itself. Don’t be above playing an ad agency’s office—florescent lights are flattering on no one. Remember you are making those music supervisors’ day on a break from work and hopefully your performance will leave an imprint that will help land you a placement when that sup remembers your appearance and personal touch further down the line. Reminder to have you or a team member give out CD’s / vinyl / download cards at these type of events as well.
Good luck! Excited to hear your music the next time I’m watching something on my computer as I’m a cord-cutter that hasn’t owned a TV since college ;).
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