Audiovisual Gold Rush: The Value of Sync Licensing for Streamed TV and Film to Emerging Artists

By Drew Quercio

Introduction

The convergence of various forms of media is something that we almost take for granted today. We don’t bat an eye when a song comes on during a TV show or movie. Ads feature songs with punchy hooks or the eye-catching work of visual artists to grab the attention of viewers. We’ve almost come to expect it. Music, specifically, has been woven into the structure of many forms of media since the mid 1900s. So much so, that their absence would be quite unsettling or, at least, noticeable.

As the integration of music into other forms of media became an integral part of their success, intensive processes and entire careers have been created to most effectively accomplish it. Attitudes surrounding the compromised integrity of participating musicians initially peppered these conversations. Today, however, there is a surge of enthusiasm towards such collaborations, and more to gain from them than ever before.

Before getting too far, it is important to establish the very basics of this practice. The act of obtaining usage rights and aligning audio works to visual media is formally known as synchronization licensing. The name refers to the synchronization of the music or audio to the media it is accompanying. Licensing is the process of working alongside and compensating respective rights holders in order to legally use their work in a new production.

Because of how specific these procedures are, there are many who have made official careers out of them. Those figures are known as music supervisors (also referred to throughout this paper as ‘supervisors’). While they will sometimes license music from production libraries, which create (usually instrumental) tracks for the sole purpose of sync placements, the bulk of their work takes place making deals with established artists and musicians as well as their labels and publishers.

The work of music supervisors has expanded greatly over the past few decades, as the desire for sync placements has increased significantly. New media is pumped out at an unparalleled rate in entertainment history and it takes some strong content to stand out among the thousands of releases across hundreds of platforms. As a result, the largest on-demand streaming services have taken it upon themselves to create their own series, often integrating a fair amount of licensed music to magnify the emotional experience of the media and draw in new audiences.

These on-demand streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, are what I would like to focus my attention on. This paper explores the various ways through which new or lesser known artists in the modern industry are able to derive value from the process of licensing their music for media on these platforms. I argue that the value falls into three different categories, the first being potential for discovery, the second being the maintenance of artistic integrity and the final being payout, or compensation.

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Part I: Potential for Discovery

The modern music market is incredibly oversaturated and competitive. It is constantly flooded by lookalike artists, social media blowups and those starting as independent. Landing a sync deal is a much more realistic vision for an aspiring artist to realize than seeking out a record deal. This is because it doesn’t require a very active relationship between parties, but still offers some solid options for revenue (to be discussed in depth later on) as well as potential for significant gained exposure.

Because of this, artists aren’t going to the same figures they traditionally would in order to get their big break. The inboxes of music supervisors are getting more and more crowded as artists are reorienting their efforts from record deals to sync deals. In a way, this expands the authority of talent scouting within the industry from those who often hold a majority of it: A&R reps.

More formally known as ‘artists and repertoire’ representatives, these music industry workers are responsible for scouting and signing new talent to record labels as well as working with their signed artists throughout their careers on the label. Online music education source Music Gateway states they’re also typically responsible for, “what songs get recorded (especially when the artists don’t write their own songs), what songs go on an album, and how the artists are presented to the public” (Ray). These roles are even more complicated in the rise of the digital industry in the 2000s, as more forms of exposure and variations of content exist than ever before. A&R figures have long been the easiest way to get in touch with a label and if in their good graces, it can spell success for an artist early on.

Similar to the role of A&R, the music supervisor is responsible for picking out exciting and effective music to show to the masses. Although it isn’t their job, music supervisors also introduce audiences to new acts by virtue of strategy. There are several incentives for music supervisors to seek out and license the music of new or up and coming artists rather than those who are already established, the first being their leverage in negotiating deals with smaller acts.

When licensing music for media, the music supervisor seeks to be as efficient with their spending as possible. This is because companies are always looking for means of cutting costs on top of the fact that music is not typically framed as a main budgetary aspect of a production and is licensed in a very frugal manner after much of the project is completed (unless the music is a central aspect of the production). Unsurprisingly, choosing to license a song that has topped the Billboard Hot 100 would cost exponentially more than one that comes from an underground artist. This leads many supervisors to seek out lesser known music with similar arrangements and sonic qualities as their dream placements. Not only do they find that smaller artists are much more open to licensing their music, but they will also save boatloads money.

In fact, sometimes the objective of a music supervisor is to avoid picking a mainstream name even with a budget that could afford it. Often, it can be advantageous to avoid overused, controversial or highly politicized artists who audiences would be able to recognize. All of these attributes have the potential to deflate any appeal that a movie or TV scene could offer, regardless of its artistic qualities otherwise. When the song or the artist who performs it outshines the media itself, the placement has not done its job.

Let’s take a few examples. “To Build A Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra is a perfect track to exemplify the overused. The somber and stripped piano track has been used in countless TV shows and series, including Orange is the New Black, One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Friday Night Lights, This is Us, and Schitt’s Creek, just to name a few (“To Build a Home.” Wikipedia,). After so many appearances, the track’s value has certainly increased, but audiences could benefit equally by hearing many other tracks that follow the same structure and sound.

Other times, artists have political or social ties that polarize audiences. Lady Gaga, for instance, has had her career intertwined with social change and politics since its start in the late 2000s. Most recently, she even performed at the inauguration of President Joe Biden. A New York Times writeup stated, “The singer’s ties to Mr. Biden date back to his time as vice president, when they worked together on the White House’s campaign to fight sexual assault on college campuses” (Gold). These types of relationships or stances are enough to entirely alienate certain audiences, so supervisors are encouraged, again, to seek names with fewer social ties.

As a result of this potential for discovery, new artists have recently prioritized their outreach to music supervisors, even more so than to A&R reps at times. Music blogs and websites will now have guides on how to land placements, detailing everything from the necessary branding elements of the perfect portfolio to the strategy in seeking media that best fits your desired creative positioning. Global music marketing agency Moon Jelly even provides a trusty template for email outreach, ensuring that artists hit all the right spots in paying respect and effectively communicating their desire to connect.

The other side of these communications is busier than it has ever been. National Public Radio (NPR) wrote a piece detailing the affinity of music supervisors to A&R reps, including several supervisors in the field. One interviewee, Amanda Krieg Thomas (whose work includes The Americans and Pose), stated that she gets upwards of 50 pitches a day from those looking to get their music in a show (McCabe). These workers are understandably in demand when looking at the value they can add to an artist’s career, even if it’s just a simple check. For those who have yet to break onto the scene, however, there’s much more than just a check that comes along with a secured placement. ___________________________________________________________________

Part II: Maintenance of Artistic Integrity

While it can be thrilling to land a sync placement anywhere, there are certainly some forms of media that artists and audiences alike are more likely to embrace. As nice as it can be to cash a giant check from any major placement, there are considerations to be made on behalf of the artist regarding the use of their music. These include whether the accompanying media displays values similar to their own, presents their music in a favorable and respectable manner and who the audience is for the accompanying media. Maintaining the integrity of their work should always be a priority of an artist.

That being said, each form of media and platform where it can be found have their own unique offerings. Here, we will be focusing on the attributes of TV and film content on digital streaming platforms. In my opinion, these platforms (which, again, include Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and more) have immense value when looking from the standpoint of sync placements.

First of all, the optics of landing a sync placement within film or TV media as opposed to advertising are much more desirable. Oftentimes, attaching art to consumer content and leveraging it to promote sales will not gain an artist brownie points from their fans. It can be seen as “selling out” or as cheapening the value of the art itself. One study by UK management researchers showed that audiences considered music placements in ads to erode the emotional connection they consider themselves having with music. It goes as far as concluding, “When a piece of music associated with a consumer’s sense of self-identity becomes less authentic through commodification, the consumer may feel that their own identity is threatened” (Abolhasani, Oakes). While not always this extreme, the idea of authentic art being reworked to fuel a capitalist scheme is often unsettling to diehard fans of featured artists.

Other times, advertisements can get so much traction or airtime that the song becomes inseparable from the product or campaign it accompanies. This can be a nightmare for any artist, especially when they want their music to connect with audiences on a deeper level than sales and marketing schemes. Cases of this are available in list form on many blogs and sites today, one of which being Shortlist’s “Great Songs That TV Ads Ruined” article. Of the ten that are listed you may recognize Alex Clare’s “Too Close” which was used in a Microsoft Internet Explorer ad or Cobra Beer’s seemingly unforgivable use of the Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling.”

The other side of music placements find the accompanying content to enhance the appeal, integrity or sentimental value of a song. Great music placements in TV and film will fit right into their respective scenes, providing an emotional soundscape that takes them to a new level. In select cases of licensing, an artist will find that the media aligns very well with their own personal values or visions for their music. I find that the content offered on streaming services has the potential to realize this more than that of advertising or other forms of media.

One example of this is the music of Hulu’s Love, Victor. The TV series was based on the film Love, Simon which followed a similar coming-of-age storyline including a gay teenager whose high school experience is complicated by accepting himself and coming out. The soundtrack to this series, however, had an extra meaningful layer to them. A writeup by Refinery 29 explained, “The songs in Love, Victor accomplish the usual role of a soundtrack, furthering the story through music, but beyond that, the soundtrack was one more way the series is working to raise up LGBTQ voices” (Sorren). Featuring gay artists such as 18 year-old Massachusetts pop artist, Isaac Dunbar, Neon Trees’ Tyler Glenn and Greyson Chance, the soundtrack provides an authentic and appropriate connection to the show’s content.

Placements like these that bring an artist’s work directly to an audience who will appreciate them are truly special. We can also see this type of intentional placement in the music of Netflix’s Dear White People, which boasts an impressive roster of mostly Black artists. Present are rappers like Tkay Maidza and Noname as well as R&B and pop artists like Chloe x Halle and Shamir.

The benefits to using these streaming platforms don’t end there, though. Who could forget the sheer size of the audiences who consume these shows and films? What’s On Netflix, a Netflix fan site, gathered all of the platform’s released statistics as of February 2021 to show just how popular these releases are. The most popular Netflix original shows and films had 80 to 90 million views. Even those that had been released just months earlier had earned over 20 million on demand streams. Landing a placement in one of these works is no joke. By getting their content out in front of this many eyes, an artist is sure to gain a few fans. From there, new fans will add value to the artist’s career in the form of streams, merchandise sales, word of mouth marketing and more. This is the very least that a great sync deal can do. They can also add layers of meaning and nuance, projecting the artist’s own heart in a way that a song can’t do unaccompanied. Most practically, though, they can provide a pretty paycheck.

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Part III: Payout & Compensation

The modern music industry can be a revenue desert for artists. In order to keep their head above water, artists need to work to find alternative forms of income that go beyond sales and streams because, put simply, people don’t like to pay for music anymore. As sad as it is, the reality is that since the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing with Napster in the early 2000s, people have adjusted to the notion that music is not something that they should have to pay for in order to own or consume. Because of this, music streaming platforms like Spotify operate on low cost subscription services and, in turn, pay out dust to artists who aren’t racking up millions of streams per day.

Compensation by platforms like Spotify is so egregious that many have taken comical jabs at the service to get the word out. Multi-platinum selling artist and producer Mark Ronson made a celebratory post of King Princess, an alternative artist signed to his own label, holding up about ten $1 bills at a bar with the caption, “Look what 90M streams can buy u” (Ronson). The real math is less dramatic, but not too far off. Artists who aren’t in the good graces of Spotify playlisting and global charting will earn from one-third of a penny to one-half of a penny per stream (Davie). Realistically, this would give King Princess thousands of dollars for her hit single “1950,” but with only 13,500 artists reported to have earned over $50K from Spotify in 2020 (out of 7M), we end up with a fraction of a single percentage of artists earning what the US would consider minimum wage through Spotify streaming annually (Ingham).

In the wake of streaming’s cruel payout, artists have recently gravitated towards touring to earn income. However, the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 has cancelled tours across the globe for more than a calendar year. Other revenue streams for artists include sales of merchandise or exploitation of publishing, both of which can require a devoted fanbase, expanded team or entirely new set of skills. In a time where even established artists are rarely compensated enough to support themselves on their music career alone, sync placements can provide a much needed, and often substantial, check.

Payment structures for synchronization licenses will often fall into one of two categories (options to renew the license at the end of the term or expand other aspects including the permitted territories, platforms and more are typically available in both cases). The first of these is a buyout, which allows the licensor to obtain the rights to use the song for a single, fixed payment. The second is a royalty payment. Royalties are small payments that are made to the rights owner each time their work is displayed or used. In the case of streaming platforms, it would be each time that the show is streamed. This structure is much more beneficial for the licensee, or artist, because it allows for them to share in the success of the work. If the show is a hit, their placement will earn them even more. As an added bonus, royalty payments come through for as long as the work is displayed, meaning that an artist could potentially license a single song and rake in monthly checks for years following (Gordon).

As ideal as they are, agreements to royalty payments are harder to come by with online streaming services, as a majority of their budget is used up to compensate producers and writers for their original series. Buyouts are more likely, much to the dismay of composers, songwriters and artists. In this way, compensation is not ideal with sync licensing, either. A Hollywood Reporter article detailed the ways in which Netflix controls the conversation with strategic wording: “The company instead uses the term ‘direct licenses’ to refer to deals, in which the streaming service and affiliated production studios directly negotiate with composers, circumventing performing rights organizations that negotiate fees and collect ongoing royalties on behalf of composers” (Kranhold). Artists and composers across the globe are working to prevent this practice from becoming the standard for the industry, as it unfairly excludes musicians from sharing in the long term success of such productions.

Nonetheless, payments that can result from buyouts are still significant, especially for new or smaller artists. Digital Music News states, “a major motion picture will usually pay from $10,000 to $25,000 for a song or master by an indie writer, artist or producer” (Gordon). This is quite the payday for a 2021 artist who has close to nothing coming in from streaming services and no capacity to tour. Other deals for more widely known songs can go for over six figures. In a world where placements are promotion, this can set an artist up well if the song catches on and the value increases with each subsequent exploitation.

The direct earnings from the license are furthered even more if the placement grants the song and artist a considerable amount of attention. One great example of this at work was the success of indie artist Ashe’s “Moral of the Story” track after its use in the Netflix original film, To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You. After the massively popular film’s debut in early 2020, the track became her first ever charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the top ten of Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart (Glicksman). Furthermore, the track was rereleased featuring One Direction’s Niall Horan later that year and has since been certified gold, selling over 500,000 units in the United States (Moral of the Story (song), Wikipedia). Whether Ashe was treated to a royalty-structured payment or not in that license is not disclosed, but it’s safe to say that she’s doing alright even if she wasn’t able to secure it.

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Conclusion

As small a gesture as it may seem, the song that pokes its head into the heartbreak scene of a film could change an artist’s entire career. Streaming platforms have not only revolutionized the way that we consume content, but also the way that content in various mediums are combined. Synchronization deals on these services hold several pillars of value. I find the three most important of these to be the potential for discovery in a dense market of aspiring artists, maintenance of artistic integrity where some sync deals cause emotional dissonance, and compensation during a time when money is hard to come by for artists.

It will be interesting to see where the future of these deals takes artists. Will music supervisors command the attention of aspiring artists and eventually displace the desire to impress record label A&R reps? Will sync deals continue to hold such weight if the payment structures of streaming services like Spotify are rectified to compensate artists more justly? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can expect to see artists scrambling to cash in on this modern industry gold rush and get some incredibly curated content for our TV shows and movies as a result.

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Works Cited

Armitage, Helen. “Every Song On The Dear White People Season 1 Soundtrack.” ScreenRant, Screen Rant, 27 Sept. 2019, screenrant.com/dear-white-people-soundtrack-season-1-netflix/.

“Every Viewing Statistic Netflix Has Released So Far (February 2021).” What’s on Netflix, 26 Feb. 2021, www.whats-on-netflix.com/news/every-viewing-statistic-netflix-has-released-so-far-february-2021/.

Glicksman, Josh. “How Ashe’s Divorce Therapy Song ‘Moral of the Story’ Became a Hit.” Billboard, 26 Mar. 2020, www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/9336021/ashe-moral-of-the-story-to-all-the-boys-interview.

Gold, Michael. “Lady Gaga, Who Performed the National Anthem, Has Longstanding Ties to Biden.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/us/politics/lady-gaga-biden.html.

Gordon, Steve. “A Simple Guide to Signing the Best Sync Deal Possible.” Digital Music News, 10 Nov. 2020, www.digitalmusicnews.com/2015/05/25/a-simple-guide-to-signing-the-best-sync-deal-possible/.

“Great Songs That TV Ads Ruined.” Shortlist, 19 May 2016, www.shortlist.com/news/great-songs-that-tv-ads-ruined.

Ingham, Tim. “How Many Artists Are Generating $50k a Year on Spotify? Over 13,000.” Music Business Worldwide, 18 Mar. 2021, www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/how-many-artists-are-generating-more-than-50k-a-year-on-spotify-over-13000/.

Kathryn Kranhold, Billboard. “TV and Film Composers Say Netflix, Other Streaming Services Insist on Buying Out Their Music Rights.” The Hollywood Reporter, 12 Dec. 2019, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/tv-film-composers-say-netflix-streaming-services-insist-buying-music-rights-1261940.

Ronson, Mark @iammarkronson. 13 June, 2018. Caption. https://www.instagram.com/p/Bj9Ke_zHhrm/

McCabe, Allyson. “With Shows Breaking New Artists, Music Supervisors Are The New A&R.” NPR, NPR, 10 Mar. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/03/10/809269088/with-shows-breaking-new-artists-music-supervisors-are-the-new-a-r.

“Moral of the Story (Song).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Apr. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_of_the_Story_(song).

Morteza Abolhasani, Steve Oakes. “Music in Advertising and Consumer Identity: The Search for Heideggerian Authenticity — Morteza Abolhasani, Steve Oakes, Helen Oakes, 2017.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1470593117692021.

Music Gateway. “A&R: What Is A&R And How Does It Work For Creatives?” Music Gateway, 22 Aug. 2019, www.musicgateway.com/blog/how-to/what-is-ar.

Owen Davie on 08/21/2020 in Music Business | Permalink | Comments (2), et al. “Calculating Spotify’s Per Stream Payout Harder Than You Might Guess.” Hypebot, 21 Aug. 2020, www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2020/08/calculating-spotifys-per-stream-payout-harder-than-you-might-guess.html.

Reading Time: 3 minutes Written by: Matt Lillywhite, and Written by: Matt Lillywhite. “How to Get Your Music Used by Netflix & Amazon TV Shows.” Moon Jelly Agency, 20 Jan. 2021, moonjelly.agency/how-to-get-your-music-used-by-netflix-amazon-tv-shows/.

Sorren, Martha. “The ‘Love Victor’ Soundtrack Is Full Of LGBTQ Artists.” Every Song From Hulu Love Victor Series — LGBTQ Artists, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/06/9863891/love-victor-soundtrack-songs-list-hulu.

“To Build a Home.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Mar. 2021. Web. 5 Apr. 2021.

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