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The PRiMER … TV and Film Music Licensing - Jan 10, 2011

“Potential licensors need to pay attention to the way we use music in the show, and pitch me what I really need.“

picture One consequence of floundering physical music sales is that artists are forced to seek alternative revenue streams to try to supplement a traditional business model under fire. Besides live performance, licensing is one of the chief sources of income being tapped by both major and independent artists, and their respective record companies and publishers.

For this latest edition, The PRiMER boils down a series of archive interviews on music licensing in TV and film into cold hard fact to create a useful reference point for anyone interested in getting their music licensed.

Click on the interviewee name for the original full interview.

What are the creative challenges when selecting music for a TV or film?

BRONWYN SAVASTA (director of music at Warner Bros. Television for TV shows Friends and Cold Case): “It’s challenging to listen to music creatively at the same time that you are listening to it critically. I think of songs in terms of what show they would work in, what scene they would work in; I evaluate whether or not the lyrics are applicable or too on the nose. Would it work in a montage, as a main title theme … ? When selecting songs for a show, you have to combine these considerations with a basic instinct about how the feel, tone, pace, and timing impact a scene.”

DAN LIEBERSTEIN (music supervisor for TV shows Sex and the City, Nurse Jackie, The Corner): “The biggest challenge is finding music to support the emotion of the scene. The music must also help the transition from scene to scene, help the pace of the film, and add something to the story.”

DANNY BRAMSON (President of Soundtracks at Warner Bros. Records): ”The one thing [movies] all have in common is that they start with the script. You go through the script and try to get an idea of the colour and shape, and then you discuss it with the director, the producer, the studio execs, the actors, the writers …

Then it really comes down to taking music and putting it up against the picture. Usually that includes working with a music editor - key to the shape, design and result of any movie.”

LAURA Z WASSERMAN (music supervisor for Moulin Rouge, 28 Days Later, The Full Monty): ”Finding a song that the director feels comfortable with is the greatest creative challenge - something that fits the movie and the overall vibe of the movie [but] on a business level, something that can also be cleared and purchased for the film.”

”Finding a song the director feels comfortable with is the greatest creative challenge”

(music supervisor for TV shows Southland, ER, Third Watch, The West Wing): ”Time is a huge factor. Sometimes there’s a song you really want but you probably won’t have time to clear. Perhaps it has a lot of writers, so you’re going to be dealing with a lot of publishing companies, or the management is on tour and won’t be able to get back to you overnight. So it’s great to have a stable of songs that you love and which are pre-cleared. It’s also good to work with independent labels, and even unsigned artists who you know you can reach at any time and who will help you work within your budget.”

What qualities are needed to be a successful music supervisor?

Laura Z Wasserman: “Patience. You need to know the art of making deals, because the hardest part of music supervision is the deals and the politics. The political aspect involves making sure that decisions made by the director, the producer, the film company and, if there is a soundtrack involved, the record company, all work together and within a budget.”

Ann Kline: “The job deals with so many different issues. There’s the creative aspect of picking different music and artists, and then there’s also the whole business side, which involves negotiating fees and rights. The most important thing is being able to determine what the producers and directors want, understand what they’re feeling and find a song that fits.

How do music supervisors find new music?

Bronwyn Savasta: ”We enjoy close relationships with the major labels and publishers who are instrumental in keeping us current with existing and emerging artists and writers. There are also quite a number of independent music providers who offer an array of talented unsigned artists. Our music library also houses production library music, which saves us on countless occasions.”

Dan Lieberstein: ”I have a huge music library - I’m sitting here looking at about 5000 CDs. I have many relationships in the music industry, so if I have a scene where I need an artist or some type of music that I feel I don’t have enough of I call publishers and record labels.”

GREG DEBONNE (music supervisor for MTV, VH1, The Discovery Channel, BRAVO): ”I have a lot of go-to sources. I also look for new sources as well because - especially with a lot of reality programming, which is wall-to-wall music - you can really wring dry sources. You need to keep it fresh. You need to keep bringing in new music. Producers can want their show to have its own definitive sound. ”

SPRING ASPERS (music supervisor/co-ordinator for All Detroit Rock CIty, Big Lebowski): ”There are so many ways. Somebody might send you something that sounds great, or you might see somebody live who is really talented. Or you could find them through a publisher because maybe they have a publishing deal but do not have a record deal yet.”

How do publishers get their music placed in TV and film?

BRADY L BENTON (Senior Director of Film, Television and New Media at peermusic publishing): ”We stay in close contact with all film and TV production companies and all music supervisors in town, finding out what they’re working on and what they need. We feed them as much music as they need, try to give them ideas and new things they might not have thought of and that might also work within their budget. It doesn’t make sense to supply them with a song that’s going to be too expensive. It’s important that it works both musically and financially.”

How do you work to find the right song for a project in your vast international catalogue?

Brady L Benton: ”It’s hard! Fortunately, some of us are just music fans, so we have a vast knowledge of our catalogue inside our heads. People use us as resources for digging up obscure titles and older songs. We also send out e-mails to all of our offices when a specific request comes up and have them submit ideas.”

Do you feature music from unsigned artists?

Danny Bramson: ”There are so many movies that don’t have any money, but still want a soundtrack. There used to be five to ten movies a year that had a really unique song or soundtrack. Now there are five to ten soundtracks every month!”

”There are so many movies that don’t have any money but still want a soundtrack.”

Laura Z Wasserman: ”Yes! Managers you know might have unsigned artists, or you might get something in the mail that you just love. Sometimes it’s a small movie and you can’t afford to invest a lot of money.”

Spring Aspers: ”The cool thing about soundtracks is that you’re not limited to anything really. Soundtracks have discovered new artists many times – and unsigned artists as well.”

Bronwyn Savasta: ”The unsigned artist is actually a good friend to us, because we can’t always use popular artists, so it’s great to be able to offer the show alternatives.

We draw from material that we receive from independent music providers who represent unsigned artists. We are also active in going out to see shows and if an unsigned artist catches our attention, we certainly pursue obtaining their music.”

Danny Bramson: ”When we did ‘Singles’ [soundtrack], The Smashing Pumpkins were a local band from Chicago on a minor label called Caroline. There was also Josh Rouse, an amazing folk rocker from Nebraska, who was on a mix-tape Cameron [Crowe] was given. We ended up using his music in a soundtrack. Sigur Ros were basically an unsigned band coming from a small label in Europe. If you have your music out there, and if it’s great, someone’s assistant, friend or daughter is going to take it and turn someone like me onto it.”

Ann Kline: ”It depends on the show. In Third Watch there are more opportunities than the others, as it has a lot of bar scenes and music playing in the background, which makes it a lot easier. When we’re placing a song, we’re much more concerned with how it works with the scene than whether or not it ties in with an artist’s promotion.”

How can artists looking to pitch their music find out about new projects and their related music supervisors?

Greg Debonne: ”I know people who get online and find out who is the music supervisor of what shows. People look up shows that I’ve done. ‘Who’s the music supervisor on that? I’m going to Google Greg Debonne.’ There’s also the approach of where you simply know a music super’s name and you contact them and say, ‘Hi, are you’re looking for music?’”

What advice would you give people who submit music to you?

Dan Lieberstein: ”They should contact me to find out what I’m looking for. If it’s specifically for Sex and the City, they need to watch the show and understand what it is we’re doing with the show.”

Ann Kline: ”Understand the legal and economic constraints of television. [Understand] the clearance issue - If you don’t own 100% of your publishing and masters, you need to have spoken with the people who hold the rights so it can be cleared immediately. [Understand] the price constraints. With television music budgets are usually pretty tight.

On a creative level, it’s helpful if you have some knowledge of the show. If you know that Third Watch is action-drama and are familiar with the fact that we us a lot of electronica, you could say, “You use Fatboy Slim, I have similar music that you can use less expensively and the rights are cleared.” Or if it was ER, “You use a lot of singer-songwriter kind of music. Following the story line it seems like one of the characters will leave at the end of the season. I have this beautiful song that I think might work. If you’re interested, I can clear it for you immediately.”

Greg Debonne: ”Now, there are some music supervisors who only want what they’re looking for at the time, pertinent to whatever project they’re working. I won’t turn anyone away if it’s good and potentially viable for future use.”

What are common mistakes artists and writers make when submitting music?

Dan Lieberstein: ”Pitching material that is really more about their idea of the show than the way music is used in it. They know what [‘Sex in the City’] is like and they’re pitching me love songs, or songs about people wanting to meet people, or songs about sex. We never use stuff like that. They need to pay attention to the way we use music in the show, and pitch me what I really need.

Another mistake [is] people hear I’m looking for instrumentals and think they can just take the vocal track off their song and send me that. But you can instantly hear that it’s not an instrumental, it’s just a background track. And that doesn’t work. A great instrumental is a piece of music that was written to be music. I’m always looking for great instrumentals that are written as instrumentals.”

How can artists submit their music?

Greg Debonne: ”You can contact a music supervisor directly, especially if that music supervisor is smart and into constantly improving their cache of music. The music super needs the artist/composer as much as the artist/composer needs the music supervisor.

I do know certain licensors who have told me that when they have approached certain music supervisors, the answer they get back is ‘I don’t accept submissions, except by an agent, a library or a publisher, etc.’ It comes down to the actual music and the quality of it and how applicable and/or viable it is to the current needs of a programme. It makes no difference to me whether it’s being pitched to me by a non-exclusive sync house, a library, an agent, or whatever. It’s either right or it isn’t.”

”Soundtracks have discovered new artists – and unsigned artists as well.”

Ann Kline: ”If we don’t know where it’s coming from and it just shows up in the mail, we don’t accept it. But if somebody calls or e-mails and lets us know what kind of music they make, that they’re familiar with the show and that they have a song or two that they think might work, then usually we welcome them to send it to us. We do want to give new artists a shot.”

What catches your attention when you receive a new submission?

Greg Debonne: ”Receiving something with a professional label on it makes a difference in catching the attention. That means it’s not a CD-R with a Sharpie written on it and a piece of paper with type-written track titles I’m probably going to lose. A professional label has more definition by nature and it’s more concise on the eye and mind. It’s usually reflective of the attention to detail that they’ve put into what counts the most: the music itself.

Ultimately, what captures my attention in a submission is the artistry and craftsmanship of the music being presented from every angle. That means composition, arrangement, orchestration, production, engineering etc., and, of course, the soul of it. All of that captures my attention and adds up to an aggregate impression.”

What is the best way to submit music - CDs, MP3s, links, etc.?

Greg Debonne: ”You should find out from the music super is what format they prefer. I know people who don’t want CDs - they don’t want clutter - they would prefer to have it sent as a YouSendIt folder. I also know people that only accept music on CDs.

Regardless of whether it’s sent on a disc or a drive, I always prefer licensors to send me broadcast standard AIFF at 48k, or even WAV at 48k. MP3s are fine for previewing, but they’re a compressed file format that’s going to be applied to programming that gets even more compressed for air.”

As a publisher what are the differences in placing songs for TV shows compared to movies?

Brady L Benton: ”TV shows work very quickly, and they need the music right away. They usually work on a week-by-week basis; we get a call on Monday or Tuesday, send the song to them immediately, and the license may be done by the next week. There’s not a lot of time for thought or experimentation with different musical styles. They know what they want and they have to get it quickly. With film there’s a lot more room to try different things. ”

Do you work with your catalogue only, or do you also work with your composers writing tailor-made music for projects?

Brady L Benton: ”We work a lot with our composers to write songs specifically for projects. Sometimes studios have screenings for writers, or writers will be given a copy of the script. But it also happens that they just get a description, “Here’s the story and here’s what the song needs to be about." Depending on the situation, they may get a fee up-front to write a song, or they might have to write it on spec.”

What sort of money can be made these days with placements?

Greg Debonne: ”Back-end royalties paid from your performing rights society can be lucrative from the usage in TV. Vocal uses pay more than instrumental uses. The longer the use, the more you are paid. Other factors come into play, i.e. whether the programme is on a network or cable channel, number of re-airs …

The more your music is being played, the more royalties add up. It’s always good to look at your royalties as an aggregate because all those little ten-dollar payments - forty dollars here, thirty dollars here - add up. The other way that a licensor makes money is by upfront synch fees, meaning that when a music supervisor wants to license your music, an upfront fee can be negotiated.”

Read On ...

* Music supervisor Dan Lieberstein on how to pitch successfully
* President of soundtracks Danny Bramson on the creative challenges of music supervision
* Laura Z Wasserman on how to be successful music supervisor
* Music supervisor Ann Kline offers advice on submitting music
* MTV & VH1 music super Greg Debonne on the money to be made from licensing