Sing, Sync, Score
Digital distribution allows artists’ music to be heard around the world on a wider range of mediums – and at a faster rate – than ever before. Musicians’ income is no longer delineated via just recorded music sales, gig attendance and merch desk turnover: in 2009, an artist can license their work to many commercial ventures. ANDREW MCMILLEN looks at three avenues.
26: TV series sync licensing
In April 2009, Brisbane indie rock band 26 had their song ‘A New Beginning’ placed in the season finale of the NBC TV show Life. The opportunity arose after the band licensed their music to Brisbane boutique sync agency Hook, Line & Sync, who specialise in pitching unsigned music to film and television executives across the world. What did the Life placement mean to 26?
Guitarist and vocalist Nick O’Donnell admits: “It had a massive effect. We went from doing regular indie band sales – where people stumble across you for whatever reason – into the thousands. The particular NBC music supervisor who placed our song makes a point of featuring indie bands and pumping the music up in the mix, rather than just featuring as a background soundtrack.”
O’Donnell believes that the opportunity – while undoubtedly assisted due to Hook, Line & Sync’s industry connections – was largely serendipitous. “It’s more a case of the music supervisor going after a specific sound, than a band saying, “We’re really great! We’d be perfect for your atmospheric, movie-like soundtrack!” It doesn’t work like that, at all. Music supervisors have a list of what they want: the tempo, lyrical themes, sound, and whether they want an indie act. For example, they might have already had ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay set in the mix, but since they can’t afford to license ‘Clocks’, they want someone who sounds similar.”
O’Donnell remains buoyant about 26′s first sync deal. “It’s certainly given us more of a hunger to present our stuff to more things like that,” he admits. “Sync deals are something you really want to continue happening. There hasn’t been anything negative from it.”
The big question, though: what did the opportunity mean to the band financially? “What we got was a fairly small licensing fee, which is the up-front money they pay you to make the placement. I’m told we got a pretty good average deal for an indie. We’ll get back-end payment as well, from royalties. Once those come in, we get royalties of it being played in 24 or so countries.”
Having been yet to see the royalty cheque, do 26 have any idea what the number on it might read? “We have no idea,” O’Donnell admits. “That’s one thing that’s up in the air.”
Yves Klein Blue: TV commercial sync licensing
A young couple playfully load their car from the third story window. The soundtrack? Yves Klein Blue’s equally playful indie rock tune, ‘Polka’. You may have witnessed the 30-second Mitsubishi Lancer Hatch ad a hundred times in the last 12 months. But how did it come about? Singer/guitarist Michael Tomlinson elaborates.
“The ad company contacted our manager, sent through the ad, and we asked how much they’d pay. And after a brief conversation about the amount, we agreed to have the song placed on the ad. It was the first time we’d agreed to an ad placement; the most important thing to us was that the ad wasn’t a bad match. It wasn’t offensive in its product or execution, so we said ‘yes’.”
“To us, having ‘Polka’ placed in the Mitsubishi ad simply gave us a wider market reach. It doesn’t really matter how people hear our songs. So if ‘Polka’ is forever to be associated with Mitsubishi Lancers, then so be it. A lot more people heard it as a result, so I have no problems with that.”
What did the sync deal mean for the band’s back pockets? “It was wonderful. It wasn’t totally lucrative, but at the same time it’s really helped us pay for our tours. We haven’t seen any of the money personally – we’re not swanning around in luxury cars – but it’s been a fantastic, positive experience.”
“It’s tough to tour Australia,” Tomlinson states. “Until you can charge a decent amount for your shows and know that you’ll sell out a large room, it’s quite difficult to make a profit on touring. Being in a band is like digging a huge hole, taking all the money you’ve ever earned, throwing it into the hole, and burning it. People ask me if I have a job, and I have to reply ‘kind of’, because being in a band, it doesn’t pay money; it just takes money all the time,” he half-jokes.
Despite their win with ‘Polka’, Tomlinson is unsure whether they’ll be able to re-bottle sync-lightning. “I have no idea about how one would go about putting their song ‘in harm’s way’, so to speak. I’m not sure how we were selected, or whether we’ll ever be selected again.”
Some closing advice: “Sync deals are definitely worth doing, but make sure a lawyer reads everything,” Tomlinson cautions. “Their fees are high, but it’s better to pay them and be safe, rather than sign something that you can’t get out of.”
Karnivool: iPhone app licensing
In July 2009, West Australian gaming studio Staring Man released an iPhone application named Pools Of Blood, which allows handheld gamers to defend their tower from hordes of incoming orcs. As the player rotates their perspective to vanquish foes, a hard rock song seems to drive the pace: Perth band Karnivool licensed their single ‘Set Fire To The Hive’ for the game. Staring Man CEO Robert Spencer describes how the studio came to work with one of Australian’s most revered hard rock acts.
“We were developed the game for a couple of months, but it seemed to be missing something. We started talking about background music; as rock fans, we agreed upon Karnivool.” Serendipity is a recurring theme among these three licensing opportunity examples. “We called their management and discovered that it was really convenient timing, because we were working on the game at the same time they were finishing up their second album, Sound Awake.”
Karnivool’s manager Heath Bradbury confirms: “It was a targeted approach from Staring Man, which is part of the reason why we went ahead with it. It wasn’t just a random request for a game soundtrack; it was a request to work directly with the band. And in terms of running a successful gaming company from the most isolated capital city in the world, we can empathise with some of the Perth-based trials and tribulations!”
Spencer continues: “Once we heard ‘Set Fire To The Hive’ we had to increase the gameplay pace! But our original vision was so close to that sound, so it worked out really well. Both ‘Hive’ and Pools Of Blood are departures from what both groups are known for.” In addition to the gameplay in Pools Of Blood, Staring Man built in a Karnivool portal that lists upcoming tour dates, band news and provides a link to buy their music on iTunes.
Manager Bradbury is positive about the experience: “I think we’ll have an ongoing relationship with Staring Man. As Karnivool releases roll out in different territories, we’ll start to see how effective Pools Of Blood has been as a marketing tool. At this early stage, it’s hard to get a tangible idea of the impact that opportunities such as this have on a band’s profile.”
“Financially, licensing is one of the few great areas of the music industry,” Bradbury laughs. “I think it’s going to be more important that managers have direct relationships with the people that run gaming companies and other licensing entities.”
Boxout: Shelling Out
You’ll note reluctance on the bands’ part to divulge exactly what these licensing deals meant for the bank accounts, and for good reason: how would you feel about being asked what your art is worth?
Jamie Brammah of Brisbane-based music licensing agency Hook, Like & Sync says: “For an Australian indie band’s song to be placed on US network television, the upfront fee can range from $1,000-$5,000. It really comes down to negotiation, and how badly they want the track.”
With regard to TV commercial sync deals, Isabel Pappani of California-based licensing agency Undercover Tracks says: “I’ve licensed Australian music to local commercials for $8,000, up to $100,000-plus for nationwide. A new push lately is ‘gratis licensing’, where companies don’t offer an upfront fee. Their justification is that the exposure results in adequate artist compensation. The licensing industry isn’t happy with this, but they argue that there’s always someone to take the deal.”
Here’s the original pitch I sent to jmag.
My intended source for the video game sync deal didn’t come through in time, but the story felt complete with three bands’ experiences in sync licensing.
I submitted the initial article on September 8. A rewrite request came through from triple j on October 1, and I sent through the final copy on October 8. The main change was the ‘shelling out’ boxout, which provides some $ figures on what these deals mean for bands.
Thanks to Jenny Valentish, Everett True and Nick Crocker.