Music Licensing 101: How to Sync Your Music
Sync licensing deals—“syncs," as they're known in the industry—have become a vital source of income for recording artists and music rights holders. According to a report from the Recording Industry Association of America, the estimated value of sync royalties for the first half of 2022 was $178 million, a record 29.9 percent increase over the previous year. Music labels and publishers are taking note, expanding their licensing departments to seize opportunities to secure coveted placements that spike streams and attract listeners. The stunning resurgence of Kate Bush's 1985 single "Running Up That Hill" is perhaps the most obvious example of a sync boosting a song’s popularity (thanks, Stranger Things). But syncs can also be a powerful tool for emerging artists, such as Orville Peck, whose track "Dead of Night" saw a jaw-dropping 812 percent increase in streams after it was used in HBO's Euphoria.
The impact of music placements on discovery and consumption is undeniable, but for many artists and producers, entering the world of sync can be daunting. At a recent Berklee Career Jam session, "Music in Sync," an expert panel shared advice on navigating the complexities of the music licensing process.
"We're probably not gonna sync your avant-garde opus about, like, your great uncle who is a taxidermist."
What Makes Music Syncable?
Not all music is created equal in music synchronization. That’s why it’s critical to understand what makes music syncable, says Michael Jurasits, creative director and music supervisor for Human Worldwide.
“We're probably not gonna sync your avant-garde opus about, like, your great uncle who is a taxidermist,” Jurasits says. “And that's not because we don't love taxidermy. It's because the people on my side, in the advertising world and at brands, are looking for familiarity. They're looking for something that they know.”
Kristoffer Roggemann, creative producer and partner at Mophonics, agrees that lyrics that are too specific can limit brand interest, noting that while songs with romantic themes often play well on TV and film, advertising tends to favor music with more universal themes that will resonate with a broader audience. Finding authentic and non-generic ways to express universal themes, however, can be a challenge, especially in a market that’s become crowded in recent years with sync-seeking musicians writing overly formulaic songs.
“I think that kind of got exposed after a while—it’s like, is this really a song about working together?—and it became this paint-by-numbers kind of thing,” Roggemann says. “Now it's more like: how do you find an interesting adjacent way to sing about working together without using those words? Just getting a bit more creative with lyric choices is helpful.”
Sync Artist vs. Synced Artist
Are you a “sync artist”—a musician who builds their brand writing specifically for sync opportunities—or an artist who simply happens to get synced? That’s a fundamental question for anyone venturing into this business, says Allegra Willis Knerr, executive vice president of global sync licensing at BMG Rights Management.
If it’s the former, it’s essential that your music is sync-ready, which means, among other things, having many versions of your songs—such as instrumental tracks, a cappella mixes, and clean versions—available to pitch. If it’s the latter, however, authenticity and uniqueness are key, so it’s better to focus on your craft and on building your brand as an artist. “That's what's gonna make supervisors and sync agents want to come to you,” Willis Knerr says.
Know Your Musical Lane
Artists should target shows that cater to their style of music, says Dom Jones B.M. ’19, a specialist for Sony SyncShop. So if your music is pop, she says, it’s likely a better fit for the CW sports series All American than it would be for the Starz strip club drama P-Valley.
“If you're sending happy pop music to the music supervisor of P-Valley, they're not going to be happy with you,” Jones says. “And they'll remember that you sent them exactly what they were not looking for.”
It’s also important to know your strengths, and to prioritize quality over quantity, says Chris Brown, vice president of production, North America, for West One Music Group. “From our side, it’s focusing on something you’re really good at,” says Brown. “We have so many people who write and say, ‘I can do anything,’ and that’s generally not true.”
Get Your Splits Straight
If you’re cowriting, then it’s critical that your split sheets—or “splits,” an agreement between song contributors that specifies their ownership percentages—are sorted out before pitching music to potential clients.
"Nobody wants to go back and forth with you while you figure out your splits. If they love the song, make it easily clearable for the person that you're pitching,” Jones says. "And the last thing I'll say is specifically to producers: if you're sampling in your beats, clear the sample—or don't sample."
“The person that you're sitting next to can be tomorrow's executive that you need a favor from, that can put you onto your next opportunity.”
Networking is a key factor in gaining a foothold in most industries, and the sync world is no different. “You're probably not even getting looked at by a big company unless you can show some real sync history or fan engagement through social media followers or through Spotify listeners,” Willis Knerr says. “Getting in rooms with people, whether that's artists and writers to collaborate with or music executives that might want to hire you for an internship…that's really what's going to get you to me, to that next level.”
Building connections is not just about networking up, but also laterally, Jones says, noting that one of her primary collaborators today, Eric Fells B.M. ’18, is a former Berklee classmate (and current faculty member). “You'll get work from your fellow alums,” Jones says. “The person that you're sitting next to can be tomorrow's executive that you need a favor from, that can put you onto your next opportunity.”
Sync Agency vs. Music Publisher
Independent artists who lack industry connections or who are struggling to build relationships with music supervisors might want to consider signing with a sync rep or agency. A reputable sync rep has access to production houses, music supervisors, and directors, and these types of clients often prefer to work with reps rather than with artists. “Music supervisors trust sync agencies. They know that the samples are clear. They know that the splits are determined,” Jones says.
But, she warns, it’s important to understand the difference between a sync rep and a publishing company. "There are some publishing companies who will masquerade as a sync rep, but a sync rep is only supposed to take commission when they get you an opportunity. A publishing deal takes some of your publishing [earnings],” Jones says. "If you're talking to a sync rep and they try to take some of your publishing, that's a red flag."
5 Tips on Standing Out to Music Supervisors
- Exercise patience and persistence, recognizing that supervisors receive a lot of emails and may not respond immediately.
- Be personal. Don’t send a generic email that's obviously been sent to hundreds of people. “What really stands out to me is, ‘Hey, I've listened to this catalog, I've listened to this label, I particularly like this track, and here are some demos that I've written,’” Brown says.
- Make sure your music is easily accessible. Experts recommend using a platform like Disco, which allows artists to put all their essential information—such as streaming, downloads, and metadata—in one place, so it’s simple for music supervisors to review submissions.
- Timing is critical, as music supervisors typically start working on seasonal projects well in advance. “We’re working on holiday music in the summer, which is weird, so if you have a great holiday song, make sure you get it to people six months ahead of time,” says Roggemann.
- Send as many examples of your work as possible. For students and emerging artists who haven't yet had the opportunity to work on a paying gig, creating their own interpretations of famous ads by syncing their music to them or working on short films can be a valuable way to showcase their talent.
Build a Trusted Network
Landing a sync placement is a major accomplishment, but it's important to know how to handle what comes next: navigating the business side of the industry. This requires a specialized set of skills and knowledge and is where building relationships with trusted individuals in your professional network becomes essential, experts say.
“Find the people that are your chosen family, that you can trust and rely on from a creative standpoint and from a business standpoint,” Willis Knerr says. That’s especially true for those new to sync who wouldn’t know the difference between a contract and a clearance request letter. Asking a trusted source to review these documents, whether that’s a sync rep, agency, publisher, label, or a business-savvy friend, can aid artists in making informed decisions and safeguarding their interests.
When negotiating a sync deal, artists need to be aware of the different types of media and their respective pay structures. Trailers and commercials typically offer the highest payout, while fees for TV and films can vary widely. Programs like The Voice and American Idol, which Jones calls "MFN shows,” pay the same fee for all songs used in the series. An MFN (most favored nation) clause in a contract ensures parity between the rights holders by requiring that all sides are to be paid an equal fee.
Before signing any agreements, artists should ask about the project's budget, what other songs are being licensed, and, if the project involves other independent artists, what fees those artists are receiving to see if everyone is getting similar compensation. “Maybe [clients] can't divulge exact numbers,” Jones says, “but you can get a sense of what they're looking for and what's being paid.”
“There’s a lot of, like, ‘Who’s gonna say a number first? What’s your fee for this song or for a year license? Well, how much do you have?’ That back-and-forth happens a lot,” Jurasits says. “But there's a baseline for what you should feel your song is worth.”
Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive Licenses
There’s also the question of exclusivity. A nonexclusive license is typically the best option, Willis Knerr says, as it provides more opportunities for your music to be synced without locking you in. But you shouldn’t necessarily dismiss an exclusive license.
“If you're talking about total exclusivity, for a very long period of time, or if it's for a film, that's really uncommon,” Willis Knerr says. “But if it's an advertisement seeking exclusivity for a limited term—like, say, a Coke commercial—that's something to consider.”
“If somebody wants exclusivity, it's usually because they want to pay for something iconic—they don't want Buick using the same music as Chevy,” Jurasits says. “You'll have to decide, based on the situation, what's good value for your music at that time.”
In-Context vs. Out-of-Context Uses
It's also important for artists to understand the distinction between in-context and out-of-context uses of their music. In-context use refers to the use of a song within a film or TV show, while out-of-context use involves using the music in related trailers or other promotional materials.
“If they're building a whole trailer out of it, that's a separate deal that should not be wrapped up in the in-film or in-episode fees,” Willis Knerr says. “So if you're asked for that, cross it out. Tell them no, you get in-context only,” and negotiate the out-of-context deal separately.
Sync Begets Sync
Negotiating a sync deal can be a delicate balance, as the temptation to hold onto a special piece of music and demand a higher fee can lead to missed opportunities. “I've seen independent artists lose deals, sadly, because they were so attached to a song and really were trying to, like, squeeze blood from a stone and cash in on their first sync,” says Roggemann.
This mindset stems from a common fear among artists that once they've synced a piece of music, especially if it's closely tied to a particular brand, it will lose its shine. “Which is sort of true,” Willis Knerr says. “It may keep that song from being used for a certain period of time, but it won't be closed off forever in most cases. It means that you're opening yourself up to more opportunities.”
For proof that a song doesn’t shed its syncability after being licensed once, look no further than Tunefind, a music discovery platform that helps users identify music from TV shows, movies, and video games. Moses Sumney's "Doomed," Jones points out, has been licensed on Westworld, Grey's Anatomy, and Orange Is the New Black, among many other shows, and has not diminished in its commercial appeal.
"It’s one of the most synched songs ever; like, it's been in so much stuff. So sync really does beget sync, because maybe a music supervisor heard that in someone else's project and was like, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this project.’"
Listen to Ramin Djawadi’s arrangement of Moses Sumney’s “Doomed” from Westworld:
Go Deeper: Learn About Sync at Berklee
Looking to further explore the world of sync? Berklee Online offers undergraduate and graduate courses on music licensing. Peter Bell's Writing and Producing Advertising Music course is also a good entry-level option—read an expert from the course and then meet an alum who started her own production house after taking the class.
Starting in fall 2023, Berklee's Songwriting Department will offer an eight-credit major elective grouping focused on music licensing, with courses on songwriting for film and TV, music supervision, popular song styles, jingle writing, and more.