Inside business: Play it again: pop is all around us

Music publishers used to be content to collect royalties. Now they give songs a new lease of life by getting them into films
It is a rare television commercial these days that does not feature a classic pop song. At the same time, films and television programmes make increasing use of contemporary music on their soundtracks.

It is all a sign of the extent to which music publishers have become more businesslike. In the past this was one of the sleepier areas of the music business, with staff concentrating on collecting the right royalty payments. But now the sort of aggressive A&R activity more usually associated with the record-making side of the business is being brought to bear. Getting a song on the soundtrack album to the right film can not only boost earnings but also introduces an artist to a new audience.

According to Richard Manners, managing director of PolyGram Island Music Publishing, which in the last quarter topped the market share listings, this focus is a response to the decline in the market for "cover" versions of songs. This has come about as a result of record companies' growing aversion to acts that do not write their own material. At the same time, advertising agencies have woken up to how powerful a song can be and "how quickly it can get a feeling across to people".

Mr Manners' company concentrates on the chart end of the business and perhaps its biggest success has been getting Wet Wet Wet's version of Love Is All Around on to the soundtrack of Four Weddings and a Funeral, a film made by PolyGram's movie operation. As Mr Manners admits, the connection opens doors, but he also gets songs placed with independent projects.

You do not have to be a big player to get songs into the movies. Bug Music, which started life administering song catalogues for lesser-known artists, has also begun to be creative in this way. One of its acts, the roots rock band Los Lobos, has recorded the soundtrack album for the Keanu Reeves film Feeling Minnesota. Having proved that it can do the work the group, which did the tie-in album for La Bamba a few years back, also has other similar projects in the pipeline, says Mark Anders, UK managing director of the company.

Bug was formed in Hollywood 21 years ago after its co-founder, Dan Bourgoise, successfully helped the now-deceased pop veteran Del Shannon to collect back royalties. Now with an office in the country music capital Nashville, as well as London, the company has about 40 staff and an eclectic roster that includes the likes of country star Johnny Cash, blues survivor John Lee Hooker and recent signing Richard Thompson, the British folk-rocker .

The primary purpose of the business, which is now headed by Dan's brother, Fred, is to get a fair deal for the sort of writers that do not have great power but do often see their songs performed by other artists. But Mr Anders, a former musician and producer, stresses that he and his colleagues "also work very much on the creative side of songs". This involves pitching them for use in television programmes and the like, getting them into other territories and also on to the growing number of themed compilations.

A particularly important side of the business is what Mr Anders calls "the sad area" of acting on behalf of dead artists' estates. Apart from Shannon, that list includes the blues giants Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters as well as Harry Nilsson, famed for Without You. So there are plenty of opportunities.

Indeed, Mr Anders claims the company has a strong incentive to be creative because, unlike most music publishers, it does not own the songwriters' copyrights. Instead, it represents the writers and their catalogues for a limited period. Moreover, it typically signs deals lasting only between one and three years and therefore needs to impress artists.

However, he feels that "the fact that we're independent and we work very hard to turn something around very quickly" wins them over. But at whatever end of the market the publishers find themselves, the same rules apply: they need to make sure the administration is effective because, as Mr Manners has pointed out, "there's no point having a hit if the money isn't being collected properly." That said, they must also be constantly looking for new angles.

Placing a song on a film soundtrack can earn the writer anywhere between $5,000 (pounds 3,000) and $60,000, but the real money comes when something is covered in a variety of ways and is sold all over the world.

Mr Manners points to the example of Sailin', a song that had been languishing in the catalogue long after the writer's group, Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, broke up. Then, he says, "somebody got Rod Stewart to cover it".

The result was a huge hit, and a myriad of other versions by artists as varied as brass bands and crooners.