Cheques and plugs and rock’n’roll: how ‘sync’ is changing pop

 

When the Human League recorded their 80s smash Don’t You Want Me, they could not have imagined that 30 years on their song would be squawked by a team of performing chickens advertising Foster Farms’ “amazing nuggets”.

But the business of “sync” - the strategic placing of songs on adverts, television trailers, computer games and film soundtracks - is now a vital source of revenue for artists in an era when record sales are in terminal decline and the streaming of songs currently rewards their creators with pennies.

Sync is the reason why the drive-time friendly riffs of Noel Gallagher’s “AKA…What A Life” provided the soundtrack to a Vauxhall Motors advertising campaign backing the England football team.

It is no coincidence that Kasabian’s terrace anthems play out behind Sky Sports football montages or that Ellie Goulding’s Fireworks provided the sound-bed for an ITV drama promotional trail, seen nightly by millions of viewers.

Pitching songs to television producers and advertising agencies is the specialist work of a new breed of industry backroom figures, charged with “creative licensing”.

When record companies look to “break” new artists on the national stage, the question is no longer “what’s the first single” but “what’s the first advert”?

Southampton singer-songwriter Foxes is now a Grammy-nominated chart star but her commercial breakthrough came when publishers BMG Chrysalis attached her song Foxes to the Debenhams 2013 Christmas advert.

“Sync” generated £19m for the British music industry last year, a revenue rise of 3.2 per cent, according to BPI figures. But the big money is to be found in the US, where studios are willing to pay up to $250,000 for the right song to soundtrack a scene.

Sony Pictures even rewrote an entire episode of Breaking Bad to accommodate the inclusion of a particular song, America’s 1972 hit Horse With No Name, which was deemed integral to the plot.

Next week the Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles, the music landmark where Frank Sinatra first sang Come Fly With Me, will host a summit offering British musicians the chance to pitch their offerings to leading Hollywood music, TV, film, and advertising executives.

Sixty seconds of a song playing behind a key scene on Grey’s Anatomy can catapult a band to international recognition, thanks to apps like Shazam which allow viewers to instantly identify the song and artist.

The Ministry of Sound record label and even the London Symphony Orchestra are among the organisations meeting representatives from studios including Lionsgate, NBCUniversal and Electronic Arts at the Los Angeles Sync Licensing Mission.

They have been given guidelines on how to “pitch” a song by the BPI : “To rise above the clutter, your track needs to sound fresh and exciting and push the boundaries of modern music. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. We heard stories from music supervisors who had been pitched music for shows that are no longer on air.”

Often a studio’s music supervisor will send a “creative brief” – outlining the type of music required and any other stipulations for the label, publisher, or composer to follow.

“The pitches are most competitive for US TV soundtracks,” said Alexi Cory-Smith, executive vice president of leading rights managers BMG Chrysalis UK. “They can be very lucrative and bring fantastic exposure.”

The Rolling Stones allowed Mad Men to use “Satisfaction” in 2012 and have since signed a publishing deal with BMG Chrysalis, tasking the company to pursue further opportunities for their catalogue in film, television and advertising.

Ms Cory-Smith said: “Once only about five per cent of artists approved synch deals. Now only about five per cent of artists object.”

Leicester rockers Kasabian identified football as the vehicle to reach a global audience. A Sony deal ensured that their song Fire was used by international broadcasters in the title sequences before and after live matches in all 206 territories where the Premier League is shown outside of the UK and Ireland.

James Cooper, head of synch and creative licensing at Sony/ATV, publishers of Kasabian and Noel Gallagher said: “Kasabian are hot favourites in the synch world. Their songs are very popular with sports programmers and they also enjoyed a successful advertising partnership with Hugo Boss.”

The synch team at Sony/ATV Music Publishing was invited by Kasabian and their management to an early playback of their new album, 48.13, months ahead of its release.

Mr Cooper said: “Hearing new material in advance can really help the synch team when pitching for commercials, film and TV, games etc. Not only does it give us time to ‘live’ with the music but it also gives us exciting new music to pitch to our clients who sometimes have long production lead times.”

Even artists known for their political commitment have come to an accommodation with the rise of “synch”. Mr Cooper, who represents Billy Bragg’s catalogue, said: “Billy is also open to offers for soundtracks and he would consider commercials if they are right for him. We work with our writers to ensure the offers are appropriate.”

Alternative bands, who would struggle to receive mainstream radio airplay, are suddenly offered a short-cut into the nation’s living rooms. Dreampop duo Beach House benefited from lending their music to a Guinness campaign whilst Australian psychedelic band Tame Impala enjoyed a windfall by synching their song Elephant to Blackberry.

The Human League’s partnership with poultry firm Foster Farms, brokered by BMG Chrysalis, may appear a little undignified but could introduce the synthpop veterans to a new, young audience. Ms Cory-Smith said: “Synch is a great way of reviving songs. We dig up gems from the back catalogue and often they re-enter the charts.”

“Our job is to advise and guide artists if an opportunity is a good fit. Artists now recognise the importance of synch. It’s the core of our business but we have to protect songs for the future.”

It must have been a brave synch manager who first invited Snoop Dogg to incorporate his song What’s My Name into a South Central LA-shot advert narrated by the rapper, which concludes with him saying the catchphrase: “You’re so Moneysupermarket.” Yet Snoop was happy to tell website users how to “save money and feel epic”, for the right price.

Geoff Taylor, BPI chief executive, said: “Not only do sync deals act as a profile-raising opportunity with a mass audience but with the tagging technology of Shazam and the connectivity of a smartphone a well-placed sync can lead to discovery of an artist’s entire catalogue and, importantly, a boost in sales.”

In sync

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‘AKA … What a Life!’: Vauxhall Motors advert promoting sponsorship of the England football team, Codemasters F1 2012 racing computer game

‘Everybody’s on the Run’: London Olympics campaign for BT, Sky TV promotion

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