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Trends: Meet the supervisors

By | Published on Sunday 27 September 2015

Sync Blobs

In the last decade or so, the small community of music supervisors that control what tracks and songs appear in movies, adverts, television shows and games have become a much sought after bunch, as labels, publishers, artists and songwriters have increasingly understood the revenue and promotional potential of appearing in the right kind of audio-visual content.

But how do the supervisors interact with the music industry? How do they find out about new music and pick which tracks to synchronise? And how much is driven by creative considerations and how much by the commercials of any one sync deal? We spoke to six supervisors from across the film, TV, gaming and ad industries to get their take on the sync sector in 2015.

When it comes to the way the music industry should pitch artists, tracks and songs to the sync sector, supervisors talk in very similar terms to journalists and radio programmers when they are asked how they like to be ‘PRed’ or ‘plugged’ to. And like media contacts, not all supervisors have the same preferences when it comes to the pitching process, meaning – as with PR and plugging – personal relationships with key decision makers, and knowledge of their individual preferences, are a key part of the process.

“A quick MP3 download link in an email is ideal”, says Lisa Hart of Big Sync Music, about how she likes to receive new tracks from rights owners. “WAVs take up too much space, and if I have to log into a website to access your music, I’m less likely to download the tracks. Some key facts about the particular artist or catalogue you represent are always interesting, for example, telling me if any of the tracks you are sending over haven’t been released yet”.

Independent supervisor Iain Cooke also has some logistical advice: “If you’re sending links, make sure they are open ended, I might not get round to checking your tracks out for a few weeks, so you don’t want the links to have expired by then”. Meanwhile, on what to pitch, Cooke says to pick the tracks that will really stand out, “resist the urge to send me 20 or 30 tracks straight off, better to deal in bitesize chunks at the start and build up if there is interest. Send me your most hauntingly beautiful song, something that will stop me in my tracks and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end”.

Again in parallel with media contacts, supervisors talk a lot about rights owners targeting their approach, so they only pitch tracks that are relevant to each sync person’s projects. Of course, that means knowing what those projects are, but people who target pitches – rather than blanket sending every pitch to every contact – are more likely to have their emails read.

“Do your research. Hook me in with something relevant to the film projects I’m working on, all of which should be listed on IMDB”, says Gary Welch at Eyehear. While trailer specialist Will Quiney of Vamanos Music and Empire Design advises: “I don’t work in TV, so I don’t need tracks that bubble under a scene, I need dynamic sounding music that is very emotive and full on”.

Quiney also says that he’s happy for rights owners to suggest what kind of projects any one track might be best suited before, while back on practicalities he advises that labels and publishers double check metadata attached to a music file before sending it over. “Metadata should be totally self-explanatory, including contact details. I don’t have time to change artist names, and you risk being lost in my library of music if things aren’t clearly labelled”.

What about sending physical rather than digital copies of music? “When we’re given vinyl or CDs, that always stands out to me”, says Danny Kelleher at Laced Music. Welch agrees: “I’ll listen to most stuff on physical formats, because people have taken the trouble to send it, and the sound quality is usually better. Anyone can send music digitally, and due to the high volume coming in, it’s impossible to listen to everything”. For both Kelleher and Welch, then, physical may get you to the front of the queue.

Personalised emails also make an impact, and that includes artists and songwriters contacting supervisors directly; which is also part of the relationship building process. Says Cooke: “It’s great when a songwriter or artist whose work I’ve used before gets in touch with their brand new material, straight out of the studio. I always say send me the music as early as possible. It can be a demo and unmastered, just get it on the supervisor’s radar early. Some of the TV and film projects I work on are put together nine months to a year before transmission, so getting music as upfront as possible helps keep the music sounding fresh”.

Which is good advice. Though opinion is divided on whether demos are sufficient. Quiney counters: “As a rule, never send unmastered or unfinished tracks or demos. Even if you’re a big artist, if the audio is not sounding the best it can, when it goes up against other tracks it will have less impact”.

Hart stresses the importance of being honest when pitching, about both a track’s suitability for a project and how easy it will be to access the rights. “When I send out a brief, I prefer the rights holders to be completely forthcoming. If they have nothing in their catalogue that works, just let me know”. Then next time, when the rights owner does have something that its, the supervisor will be much more likely to take notice.

And, of course, as with any pitching role, getting the balance between being persistent but not irritating is key. Says Welch: “Constant emails interrupt your workflow … people checking in for an update to see what you’re working on does become a bit of a nightmare when you’re busy”. And Quiney: “Some people phone in the evenings to ask if I’ve listened to their music. This is not appreciated!”

While there are best practice rules to follow when it comes to the pitching process, as for how supervisors pick any one track for any one sync, the consensus is “it depends on the project”. Which possibly isn’t so helpful, given the supervisors also want you to target pitches to individual projects, how are you meant to know what’s appropriate? But there are some general rules about what works depending on the kind of sync.

“On a drama programme like ‘Peaky Blinders’, the script is key”, says Amelia Hartley from TV producers Tiger Aspect and Endemol. “On programmes like that, we choose key tracks to highlight key scenes. Whereas on unscripted entertainment shows, the music is often added to up the pace and add excitement”. So some assumptions about what music will work can be made based on programme genre.

In film too, subject matter can obviously be everything, depending on the movie. Welch: “A lot of the films I’ve worked on recently are period pieces, which means you are immediately looking at back catalogue over new music. For example, ‘Northern Soul’ is set in the 1970s and needed an authentic soundtrack, while the Raymond Briggs autobiographical animation ‘Ethel And Ernest’ started in 1920s and finished in 1970, influencing musical choices”.

When it comes to film, the way music is selected for a trailer often differs from the movie itself, the trailer being more akin to advertising. As Quiney explains, “trailers often present a heightened version of the actual movie, and we’re trying to push the audience’s emotive buttons, so that you have an immediate exciting, or moving, or uplifting, or quirky feel, depending on the film”. And the music very much helps in that process.

How much of a free reign a supervisor actually has also varies from project to project. Kelleher admits that “the majority of games developers have a very strong idea of what music they’re looking for, and if they have a specific song or playlist in mind, we will just take care of the negotiations and paperwork”.

Though, even where a director or developer has strong opinions on soundtrack, budget can also play a role in what can and cannot be synced into a project, and that’s where the supervisors can play an important role.

Kelleher recalls: “We recently had a project with a limited budget, but the client knew exactly the type of music they were looking for. Unfortunately a lot of their selections were unrealistic so we had to find alternatives. We approached our contacts at publishers, labels and management companies and ended up with nearly 100 tracks for the client to choose from, all on brief and within budget”.

Which brings us to the supervisor’s ongoing challenge of balancing creative and commercial considerations when selecting tracks – what works best versus what a production can realistically afford, especially where direct deals need to be made with rights owners so no standard rates apply.

Most supervisors say that they begin the process with predominantly creative considerations, ie what works best for the project artistically. Says Hart: “A creative idea can stem from anywhere, so I tend to initially look for the right track for each project, before considering whether I will be able to clear it or license it on budget”. Once the creative juices are flowing, that’s when budget considerations are applied.

Though when actually suggesting tracks to a director or client, that’s where managing expectations is a key part of the role. As Welch says: “It’s important to be on top of both commercial and creative considerations unless you’ve got an endless pot of money. More often than not, I will only suggest things that are workable within the budget. And you’ve got to consider that across the whole project, a film might feature 30 tracks, but just one might spike the budget”.

Cooke adds: “The process always begins with finding the right song for the sequence. But of course you do your due diligence before putting songs forward, and you are going to be wary of tracks that look like they have rights holders all over the place, or by huge acts that you know are going to be expensive to license. But you can always pick up the phone and make a quick call to see if something is likely to be a viable option”.

It’s no secret that a song controlled by many different publishers, as a result of it being created through the collaboration of multiple songwriters, is more challenging to license for sync, unless a blanket licence applies, as with TV in the UK.

There has been some talk in the music rights community about the value of one-stop-shop licensing in the sync market place, and that deals are more likely if a rights owner can provide not just all the publishing, but the master rights too, what are sometimes referred to as a 200% licences, in that it covers both the song and recording copyright.

There were mixed opinions amongst our supervisors as to how important a one-stop-shop really is. Quiney observed that “the golden rule for me is that getting the song that’s right creatively comes first and licensing issues second. To be honest, I rarely know with a song I’m reaching out for whether it will be clearable in one deal, of course it helps and saves time, but isn’t usually the first consideration”.

In TV, where blanket licences applies, it’s even less of a concern. “Obviously the one-stop-shop is a nice simple model”, says Hartley, “but I am used to masters and publishing being licensed separately, so to be able to clear 200% in on go isn’t a massive pull for me. On UK projects, my main concern is that rights holders are PPL and PRS members”.

Indeed, readily available information about what deals are required and who controls the rights seemed to be a higher priority for our supervisors to the one-stop-shop. “I appreciate it when people who are upfront and honest about what they can clear”, Quiney says. “And it’s even better if the master rights holder can tell me which publishers control the song and who I need to speak to there”.

It’s no secret that the music publishers and especially record labels have stepped up their sync operations in recent years, and when songwriters and artists sign publishing and record deals, the ability of their corporate partners to secure sync deals is now often a key consideration.

While it was perhaps true in the past that sync-savvy independents were more proactive in this domain than the majors, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. “As revenues from other areas of the industry have declined, sync has become much more important to all players and this is reflected in bigger sync teams”, says Hartley. And Hart adds: “I actually get more mailouts and tracks pitched by the majors than I do independents, though the bigger players have such big catalogues, it can be difficult for them to promote and pitch everything”.

“Obviously with their bigger artists – so, something like the Queen catalogue – the majors don’t really need to do much pushing to secure syncs”, says Quiney. “But I do get emails from the majors, and sometimes they do actually pitch bigger name tracks too. Universal did a recent Amy Winehouse compilation push around the release of the biopic, and when David Bowie had an exhibition on at the V&A the rights holders did a bit of extra promotion around his catalogue”.

Though when it comes to brand new tracks, the majors sometimes lose out because of a paranoia over new releases being leaked. “That makes their lead times shorter”, Cooke notes, which can impact on the number of opportunities available.

On the flipside, however, more conventional marketing and promotions can influence the supervisors, especially with new talent, and the majors generally have bigger budgets. Cooke again: “Building a great buzz online, in the press and on radio, or having a strong live touring presence, is also going to feed into the overall awareness around an act or release, so it’s not simply about having a sync dept”.

While in-house sync teams should be in the pitching game, as we said, it is also about labels and publishers building relationships with the supervisors. “When labels or publishers pitch, it can be a little down to luck, as in luck with the timing”, Cooke says. “Sometimes rights owners just happen to pitch the right kind of track to the right supervisor just at the right moment, when that supervisor has a specific requirement the pitched song meets”. But having good relationships in place means that supervisors will contact labels or publishers direct when relevant briefs come in.

Given the time and place thing, a good pitch by a rights owner doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate sync, but some supervisors have their own system for storing tracks they like for when the right project comes their way.

Says Hart: “When a new brief comes in, I tend to look first at my own playlists, where I have tucked away music pitched in the past by labels and publishers – or artists direct – and see if there is anything suitable”.

The supervisor may use those playlists to inform the brief they receive in the first place. Hartley explained how she will share one or more of her playlists with producers or directors to “start the dialogue on what kind of music they are looking for, and we’ll keep that up until we are all agreed on a feel for the project”.

Production music – as opposed to commercially released songs and recordings – is part of the mix for most of our supervisors, especially with classical and orchestral music which, for various reasons, can be expensive to licence via the labels.

Says Quiney: “Production music is really helpful when you need a piece of classical music. Various libraries have good quality recordings of particular pieces that I can licence for a minimal amount compared to commercial releases. This is especially helpful on comedy films or with animated or children’s films”.

Meanwhile Cooke notes that “the quality of production music has increased massively in the last five years, partly because many producers now have incredible set-ups at home where they can make quality music in a quick and cost-effective way”. And production music can help a project come in on budget, he adds. “If a song only plays in the background, so doesn’t need to be recognisable, using production music can be really helpful when you are on a tight budget”.

Even in TV – where in the UK sync is covered by PPL and PRS blanket licences – production music is a useful option for producers looking at distribution beyond the UK, and especially in the US where direct deals are required. Says Hartley: “If a programme is going to be exploited very widely and the budget is not very big, then we will use tracks from production music libraries rather than licensing commercial releases”.

Whether label, publisher, artist or songwriter, building relationships with the supervisor community can open up all sorts of sync opportunities. Though the personalised approach is always going to be most effective, and that can be time consuming and resource heavy, which is why artists and songwriters may look to their labels and publishers to do the legwork. That said most of our supervisors stressed that individual musicians could also get in touch and – with a bit of right time right place good fortune – a deal may be forthcoming.

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