How sync licensing works: What artists need to know

Illustration: George Wylesol

The music and sound design ecosystems are always shifting and evolving with consumer trends, industry changes, and innovations.

We like to keep up with opportunities for creators to earn revenue, sustain their careers, and feed their creativity. With that, we were keen to learn the inner workings of sync licensing.

We spoke with three music supervisors across film, television, and commercials / branded content about their processes, how they build their libraries, who they work with, and what advice they have for artists looking to find a place for their music in today’s cultural and media landscape.

According to IFPI’s 2019 Digital Music Report, sync revenue has maintained a 2.3% share of the total music market. That may not seem high, but we see an incredible opportunity as streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon continue to invest billions in original programming.

As Chris Swanson, music supervisor and founding partner of Secretly Group (home to record labels Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar, and Secretly Canadian; and Secretly Publishing) said, “It can sometimes feel like you’re making music in a bubble, spurring the ‘does this even matter?’ question. In a film, your music is seen. It’s heard. It matters. It checks some existential boxes and some commercial boxes, and that check can be a nice bonus for the artist, too.”

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Sync licensing basics: what you need to know

As a creator, the first thing to know about sync licensing is that there are two parts to every song: the master recording and the composition recording, and each has its own license.

The master represents the recording of a song. There can be many masters—different ones for live recordings, cover versions, radio edits, etc.—and each can be controlled by different labels or distributors. Your master recording royalties are collected and controlled by your label or distributor, if you have one.

The composition recording refers to the unique qualities that define a song or piece of work, such as the lyrics, melodies, or structure. The composition copyright (or ownership) belongs to the songwriters and their publishers, who both collect composition royalties. If there are several songwriters for a given piece, each has their own license in need of securing. The ownership of these rights are commonly referred to as a synchronization (or sync) license. We’ve also seen them called a composition or a publishing license.

If not signed to a label, the artist controls the license. In their Modern Guide to Music Publishing, Songtrust shares, “Copyright law protects songwriters by giving them exclusive rights to grant or deny the reproduction, distribution, or performance of their work. When that work is shared and engaged with by the public, the recording of that song starts to generate royalties. As well as creating and owning the songs, you become the publisher of your songs.”

But the landscape is complicated, especially when working across countries with different laws and regulations. It helps to hire people who can help navigate that so you can focus on creating.

Typically, an artist is represented by a sync agent who pitches their clients’ work to music supervisors. After selecting the music they want to secure for a project, supervisors approach publishers and rights administrators at record labels with a pitch. Those folks share the project with the songwriter to get their sign-off. Then, after much negotiation and paperwork, a deal is struck and the rights are secured to use in a project.

Budgets vary from project to project but are categorized into tiers. We’ve been told commercials are a high-tier license because your music is an implied endorsement in selling a product. TV campaigns and film trailers tend to have the highest budgets. After that, it’s films, then TV shows. Video games range across the spectrum, depending on the company creating them.

What a music supervisor’s process looks like

The project kickoff

The project intake and kickoff process looked fairly consistent across film, TV, and commercials among the folks we spoke to. Each starts with a general meeting where the potential client shares the vision of the project and its music. Some have very specific ideas and even write songs into the scripts. Others have a general idea of the tone or texture they’re looking for.

The music supervisor can receive the script before or after this meeting, depending on the client’s process. They discuss ideas and determine if they’re on the same page or not.

For film, this meeting is with a director or producer, in Chris Swanson’s case. Swanson has worked on The Comedy and The Mountain with Rick Alverson, independent darlings Drinking Buddies and Heart Beats Loud, the hit Netflix docu-series Wild Wild Country, and many other notable titles.

Swanson says he uses this meeting to determine if the project will be creatively fulfilling and if the director is realistic about their budget. He avoids projects that have their mind set on securing a huge song they’ll never afford. When working on lower budget projects, he prefers to work with people who agree that necessity is the mother of invention and that limitations can lead to better work. In his experience, the second song option is often better than the first idea, anyway.

For television, the meeting is typically with a showrunner first, then a producer for Tiffany Anders, partner at Listen-Listen in Los Angeles. She’s worked on hit Hulu shows like You’re the Worst and Pen15, as well as star-studded films such as The End of the Tour and The Circle.

Anders uses this meeting to pitch her overarching ideas while narrowing in on the client’s vision and budget. This time is also spent gaining a sense of the tone based on characters, eras, or another angle. She says that all projects are a huge collaboration and these meetings are critical for ensuring visions and approach align.

Commercials and branded content are a bit different in that a supervisor is often—though not always—working with an advertising agency rather than directly with the client. In this case, professionals like Jonathan Hecht, founder of music supervision company VennArts, have to win the agency over before they get directional buy-in from their client.

Hecht says sometimes clients will have a vision with a song in mind or a well-defined music brief. Other times, they’ll approach him for a thorough music exploration. He’s worked with brands like Subaru, Jaybird, Svedka, and many more. He’s also worked on Amazon’s original docu-series, Free Meek and HBO’s Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.

The initial playlist

After the first meeting, all three supervisors say they start creating an initial playlist. For some, this is after signing the contracts. Others are more willing to include a conceptual playlist as part of the pitch.

Swanson says he creates his first playlist after joining the project, which can be anywhere between 40 and 200 songs. He delivers it during pre-production so the client can refine the musical direction as early as possible. From that playlist, they’ll generally land on two-five concepts everyone agrees on.

Interestingly, all three professionals mentioned the use of their intuition in this part of the process. After developing a creative brief with the client, they usually have a gut feeling about the direction, tone, or even specific artists to start with. We attribute this to their past experience listening to a ton of music day in and day out.

Refining and pitching

After that, it’s all about the feedback. Once they have a short list of songs, it’s time to start pitching and negotiating with publishers and labels. This part of the process is quite laborious and time-consuming. We won’t get into the weeds but it’s good to know so you can show music supervisors who use your work a little extra appreciation.

How a music supervisor builds their music library

Naturally, all three of the people we spoke with are music lovers and ingrained in the music industry. They have huge existing libraries compiled from a wide variety of sources and each loves to make and subscribe to playlists.

We found the different relationships to streaming algorithms quite interesting among the three. Anders says she tries to not fall into the algorithm trap. She likes to lean on her own creative choices. She largely relies on her library consisting of personal choices as well recommendations from trusted sources, such as friends and close colleagues.

She also uses the database her Listen-Listen team has built in a program called Disco. Everything pitched to them gets uploaded and tagged accordingly. She doesn’t listen to every song submitted, but her team does in order to tag the content. She then filters through when looking for a specific genre, mood, sound, era, etc.

Swanson, on the other hand, says he “feels seen by his algorithm.” They know him and his tastes. He’s also pretty meticulous about following specific playlists, artists, and indie labels on Spotify and YouTube, allowing the algorithms to deliver the content he wants. This includes Spotify’s popular Discover Weekly playlist.

In addition to that, although he’s President of A&R at Secretly, he devotes a lot of time to being a fan. That means spending about 10 hours/day listening to music and going to about six shows/week. His library is built from recommendations from friends, trusted sources, and bands he’s stumbled upon. He says his partner in music supervision, Jessica, listens to a lot of what gets pitched to them but he doesn’t. He’s more likely to discover those artists organically – by someone he knows saying, “I think you’d really like this.”

When it comes to Secretly’s sync team, he’ll sometimes go to them for alternative options if his first selections don’t work out. He’s not supervising to get Secretly artists into films – he doesn’t see it as a self-serving endeavor. Rather, it’s an outlet for his love of DJing.

We asked him about his work on Wild Wild Country, which features several Secretly artists. He explained the client wanted “a cowboy narrator” and he happened to know a lot of them. Also, they needed to edit and cut up a lot of the songs, making them virtually un-Shazamable. That’s a tall ask for a third party, whereas it was easier to pitch the project to people he already knew.

Hecht says he draws from research from previous work, algorithm recommendations, and music pitched to him and his team. He says, “No Spotify playlist is going to give you what you’re looking for because you have to listen very closely to the songs and how they relate to the creative brief. That said, Spotify has been huge for discovery.”

When he has a sense of what he’s looking for, he’ll start with a handful of artists who speak to the project and dive deep into their catalogs. His next step is looking into the related artists Spotify recommends and playlists the artists have appeared on. It’s an algorithm-driven rabbit hole he navigates guided by his expertise and the parameters he’s working within.

Sometimes, he’ll do industry outreach, where he sends the creative brief to his contacts at labels, publishers, and licensing companies. Hecht says this approach is useful when he’s looking for something specific. These folks are intimately familiar with their artists’ catalogs and will sometimes have something in mind that hasn’t been released yet. Hecht’s clients often love when this happens because it gives them a chance to break a new song.

The role sync licensing plays in the career of the modern musician

Having your music appear in a film, show, or commercial can reach far beyond financial gains. Swanson put it beautifully. “It’s using music to achieve narrative goals that are hopefully beautiful and elevate the visual. In the Shazam era, hearing a song you like married to a visual that resonates with you – there’s an alchemy to it. It’s a great way for an artist to seep into a listener’s life and to become a part of our cultural fabric.”

He added that there’s been more than one occasion where an artist may be experiencing a moment of existential dread when they’re questioning their career decision and thinking about going back to school or “getting a real job.” He said an $8,000 sync deal could easily put them in the black and re-motivate them to invest that back into their art.

Hecht added that most artists today have to diversify unless they have an immediate breakout moment with a huge label advance. Those cases are few and far between. Working on a score or writing sync material is a way to earn income they can invest in creative endeavors between album promotion cycles. He has seen artists create music with “commercial appeal” but it’s all in the name of funding their greater vision.

Anders added that sync licensing has become very competitive for artists now that so many barriers to entry have been lowered. However, that also provides an opportunity for artists to earn a living without having to be on tour 24/7.

First steps to getting your music synced

All three music supervisors shared that the best way to get your music into media is to work with a sync agent who aligns with your values and interests. Yes, they typically take about 20% of the sync profits, but they’re the most effective way to reach someone like Anders, Hecht, or Swanson.

Hecht says he gets sent enough music by the people he knows and trusts that he doesn’t always have the bandwidth to attend to cold emails from artists. He respects his network’s A&R and curatorial process and suggests artists try to partner with an agent or licensing rep who can do the sales work for them.

Swanson says you don’t need access to a publisher or label to secure an agent, either. Sometimes it’s a smart business decision to get an agent first because those appearances in TV or films could lead to a bigger label or publisher deal. He added that he thinks Rachel Komar at HyperExtension in LA is doing great work but said that it’s best to ask your artist friends who they work with. Or if you are at a label to ask them who they work with.

Anders echoed this sentiment and said she has go-to agents she works with. She added that it’s good to know what a music supervisor is working on before blindly pitching them – to ask yourself if and why your music is potentially the perfect fit for those types of projects. She suggests not creating “music for a Pepsi commercial,” but rather the music you want to create, and then finding the audience and opportunities that align.

Have questions about getting your music synced in films, TV shows, or branded content? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to find you an answer!

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July 17, 2019

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.