Getting your music on a movie or TV show is seen by many as the best way to make it in this business, but the real money might lie in helping others to do so...
The fifth season of the cable drama Mad Men has just finished, and amid all the online discussions and water-cooler dithering about its many sub-plots, twists and turns, one particular event may have stood out to those with an ear properly tuned. The series is a period piece that has so far tracked most of the 1960s, from the Kennedy assassination to Vietnam. This season introduced the lead character, troubled advertising executive Don Draper, to that era's counterculture.
Draper's musical interests are rarely alluded to (if they were then they would likely tend towards Dean Martin), but an encounter with the Rolling Stones at a 1966 Madison Square Garden concert in an earlier episode set up the show closer in episode 8: Draper puts the stylus down on the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows' in his Manhattan townhouse, getting his first taste of incipient psychedelia through a pair of (now-vintage) Harman Kardon speakers.
The 'Mad Man' seemed less than impressed by what he heard. He might have been more enthused, however, had he been able to fast-forward 46 years and find out what two minutes of a John Lennon album cut would be worth. Several sources, including the New York Times, cited a synch fee of $250,000, presumably for the both the mechanical rights to the sound recording, and the publishing license. The rarity of a Beatles track being used in a sync situation underscored the secrecy surrounding the actual amount: Draper's real-life contemporaries in the ad business told the Times that this might have been the first time that a Beatles song had ever made it into a scripted show. But the Mad Men episode showcases what's become a bit of a mania in the US for music used in television and movies.
Despite the fact that we have more television than ever before on cable systems across America, we also have more music than ever before, and not even 500 bundled channels can absorb it all. The idea of getting a song placed in a show, a commercial or a movie has become a highly sought-after prize, and, with so much music now so readily available, it's also become a much harder target to hit. But the real money might just lie in purporting to help all those musicians do just that.
And that's a good thing. Just as it seems that running a music-business conference on the subject of how to make money in the music business has become the only way to actually make any money in the music business, a growing plethora of Internet companies have started offering to help musicians and composers get their tracks synch'ed with television shows and movies. In the process, it's becoming a business as lucrative as some of those synch licenses themselves, if not more so.
Recording studios have also benefited from this trend. The allure of success has prompted many musical aspirants to up their game and make their tracks more sonically competitive, while online recording services, such as StudioPros (which was profiled in these pages a few years ago) have benefitted perhaps even more directly. Mastering and mixing have been online propositions available through the Internet for years now, but the Internet has made the concept of 'destination' studios — the luxurious residential facilities of the 1970s and '80s, from Caribou to Capri — a virtual reality again.
Of course, this might not help revenue rates in more traditional areas of the industry, like synch licensors themselves. The Beatles' Mad Men coup is near-mythical compared to the current trend in synch fees, which have been declining in recent years simply as a result of supply and demand. There is so much music out there, and the cost of making it has dropped so significantly, that suppliers have bid down the synch values of all but the most well-known songs.
But these services accomplish what we'd want any industry to do: invent, innovate and create. They come at a price, sometimes a fairly steep one. Independent A&R company Taxi (www.taxi.com) require a $300 annual membership fee from their artists, and $5 per song submission for synch consideration. With an estimated 10,000 members globally, Taxi takes in more than most indie record labels these days.
These services do for various sectors of the business what digital technology did for music recording in general: they make it more accessible to more people, and the barriers to entry (if not success) have less to do with talent than they do with the ability to come up with the fees. But that's the nature of the Internet: you will have to put up with millions of cat videos and the occasional viral horror like Rebecca Black's 'Friday' to find the gems. The lounge musician in Oklahoma City who winds up landing a track in an indie film isn't hurting Mark Isham's bottom line a bit. Meanwhile, these companies are employing musicians and engineers. In fact, Taxi founder Michael Laskow, who's run a tight and well-regarded ship there for 20 years, previously worked as an engineer and in management at Criteria Studios in Miami and Howard Schwartz Recording in New York.
The big bucks may still be flowing to the traditional end of the synch-license business for now, and it speaks volumes that a nearly 50-year-old piece of music commands a quarter of a million dollars for 120 seconds on a cable show. But while this era's musical and technological legacy may not turn out to be quite as enduring, it is going to be at least as interesting.