Mallory Zumbach, the Creative Director at Round Hill Music, shares her knowledge and insight about the music publishing industry by breaking down a recipe for success in the world of music for those Music Think Tank musicians looking to make it in the world of music licensing.
Most young bands these days understand the importance of synchronization licensing—a really great use of your song in an ad, TV show, movie, video game, or trailer can help launch your band to the next level. However, many of those same songwriters and artists don’t really know how to get their music licensed. As the Creative Director at Round Hill Music publishing, it’s my job to help land the songs we publish in advertisements and other media. Here’s what I’ve learned so far in my career that might be of help to you.
Watch and Listen, Listen and Watch
When I was in high school, I had a really great band director, Mr. G., who was constantly imploring us to listen to all sorts of different music. His point was that you can’t become a great musician from practice alone—you have to immerse yourself in music and learn from your contemporaries and predecessors. I really believe that the same thing applies for succeeding in the synch world. When you’re watching TV, don’t just regard the music as wallpaper—pay attention to what’s getting used in the shows you’re watching and the ads playing throughout them. Try to observe the trends in song uses, and then go back to your own catalogue and pinpoint which of your own songs might fit into those trends. It’s such a turnoff to music supervisors when you send them stuff that doesn’t fit the mood of their show or sounds too dated for their commercial campaign. If you have more awareness of what’s currently working for people, that will help you have the kind of targeted approach that they appreciate. It can also help give you ideas for things to incorporate into new songs when you sit down to write and record.
In the ad world in particular, there is a constant need for music with positive lyrics. At the end of the day, agencies are trying to help their clients sell their products, and a depressing or angry song, no matter how great, isn’t typically going to help them accomplish that goal. I don’t think there will ever be a time when agency music producers will stop requesting songs with lyrics about positive, universal themes like togetherness, feeling carefree, things changing for the better, etc. Nothing is more of a bummer for me than having a writer I work with send me a song that is musically uplifting (yay!) with negative lyrics (boo!). Which is not to say that you should only write cheery tunes—no one can be happy all of the time, and there are still synch needs for sad/mad songs in other areas like film, TV, and video games. It’s just that having one or two big, anthemic songs with positive lyrics will give you something to work with across all synch mediums. Our band American Authors has a fantastic song, “Best Day of My Life”, that’s getting all sorts of synchs, from ads to film trailers to TV shows, because it’s a feel good song with feel good lyrics that’s also really genuine.
Expand Your Options
There are so many ways to help increase the likelihood of having synch success beyond just getting your current songs pitched to music supervisors. The absolute easiest step to take is making sure that you always have an instrumental version for each of your songs. Instrumentals get requested a lot because lyrics can compete too much with important dialogue or voice over in a commercial or TV/film scene. Additionally, if you have an anthemic-sounding song with problematic lyrics (as referenced above), you can at least hope to get some traction with the instrumental version of it. Beyond having instrumentals to work with, think about doing covers of older songs that can put those songs in a new light. We recently had one of our indie bands, Sleepy Kitty, create new covers of two of our classic songs (“I Wanna Be Your Man”, originally by the Beatles, and the Ann Peebles classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain”). They took the songs to a completely different place from the original versions, which opens up the possibility of licensing those songs for us, and boosts the chances of the band getting some notoriety out there for their particular recordings. If you’re really up for a challenge (and have easy access to a studio), make yourself available to write songs “to spec”—in other words, be willing to write something new specifically for a synch use. Being a bit more creative about ways to expand your reach can lead to additional synchronization opportunities.
Don’t Go It Alone
I think one of the biggest challenges that anyone trying to get their music licensed today faces is that the competition is extremely stiff. If you try to pitch your songs on your own, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you. This is where working with a publisher, label, or synch placement company can really make a difference. Our synch team is able to get more of our Round Hill writers’ and artists’ music in front of music supervisors because we have strong relationships with them, established over years of working in this part of the industry. That’s why we get sent song searches in the first place—because they trust us to send them the right songs for each project. A good publisher (or label or placement company) can be the difference between your music being heard by the right people or not. If you’re just blindly emailing MP3s out to supervisors, chances are they’re not going to listen to them. They have to listen to so much music every single day that songs don’t stand out unless someone they trust is championing them. It’s also really important to have a good advocate on your side when it comes time to negotiate the actual license. It’s as much my job to help make sure our writers get paid fairly for synch uses as it is to land the uses in the first place. A lot of young or inexperienced artists going it on their own don’t know what a fair license fee is, let alone how to ask for on. Letting songs go for virtually nothing can set a poor precedent for the value of their music that can come back to bite them later. Having an intermediary like a publisher there to negotiate helps prevent that from happening. My colleagues and I have both the trust of the music supervisors we work with and the knowhow to look out for our writers/artists, and that leads to far better chance for synch-related success.