Nobody thought the TV synch business would ever slow down. For decades, reality shows, scripted series, sports broadcasts and advertising have been growing, especially in the Netflix/Hulu era, and labels and publishers have beefed up their licensing departments along with them. (A synch deal for a TV show fetches between $500 for a lesser-known reality show and $75,000 for a scripted hit — for master recordings and publishing — according to several label and publishing sources who work in synch.) Then came the pandemic, and Hollywood productions abruptly shut down, delaying synch gold mines like HBO’s Euphoria and forcing music supervisors and label executives to meet via Zoom rather than over drinks at concerts. “It slowly started to get really quiet,” says Wende Crowley, a Sony/ATV synch executive. But reality shows like Love Island were surprisingly resilient throughout the summer, sports have slowly returned and productions have restarted in recent weeks. Billboard talked to 26 synch specialists about how they’re tackling new challenges and opportunities in 2020.
Colin Chambers, director/head of synch licensing Due to the combination of TV productions restarting and locked-down artists sitting at home writing songs, Chambers predicts an artistic boom in coming months — with synchs a key beneficiary. “When we come out of this, there’s going to be as much, if not more, really great music,” he says. “And that’s going to help great storytelling.” He placed Big Freedia’s “Karaoke” (featuring Lizzo) in an HBO promo for We’re Here over the summer.
How do you advise independent artists about placing their songs on TV?
“If you’re choosing to go it alone and not work with a label or a synch agency, you’ve really got to know what projects music supervisors are working on. You don’t want to waste their time pitching your music in a completely opposite direction. Ask yourself if what you’re doing musically is tonally right for synch. Is there production value there?”
Kristy Gibson, vp creative synch, licensing and soundtracks
Issa Rae’s HBO series, Insecure, is one of the most sought-after shows on TV for synch executives — in part due to Rae’s Raedio label deal with Atlantic. Gibson’s team placed several songs in the latest season, including Pink Sweat$’ “Cadillac Drive” and PJ’s “Element.” “[Alt R&B artist] Ravyn Lenae, when she first talked to us, said, ‘I don’t need anything else; I just need an Insecure placement,’” says Gibson of the show, which aired its latest season just as the pandemic began. “Music is almost like a character itself in the series and promotes artist discovery.”
How do you advise artists interested in placing songs on TV?
“Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but be yourself and we’ll pitch them. I wouldn’t try to write thinking ‘synch.’ I would write thinking as an artist.”
Joe Maggini, senior vp/head of global synch
Maggini says the touring shutdown has been “a very productive time,” because he seized the opportunity to school Big Deal artists in adapting their material for use in film and TV shows. “It’s a great exercise to figure out what the connective tissue is between a film and TV song and a great hit song,” says Maggini, who recently placed Boney M.’s version of “Sunny” (Big Deal’s Bobby Hebb is the writer) on The Umbrella Academy and Amber Mark’s “What If” on Empire. “You have to be writing in primary colors and relatable themes.”
How did you come to be interested in synch?
“I grew up on a steady diet of [James] Bond themes, which is what I always talk to my songwriters about: ‘What makes this theme great?’ Currently my favorite is ‘You Only Live Twice’ by Nancy Sinatra, because I’m on a Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazlewood kick at the moment. It’s an amazing lyric that works on so many levels.”
Jonathan Palmer, senior vp creative synch
Palmer expected 2020 to usher in a long dark period for synchs, but instead found one “pleasant surprise” during the recent slowdown: “Sports has managed, to some degree, to safely come back, with the attendant licensing opportunities,” says Palmer, who was a member of the ’90s lounge-pop act Love Jones and started his synch career after the band placed a song on the Swingers soundtrack. The NBA has used songs from Run the Jewels’ latest album, RTJ4, and TikTok star Curtis Waters’ “Stunnin’” appears in an ad (for TikTok, naturally) that has aired repeatedly throughout the NBA playoffs on both ESPN and TNT.
How are you keeping artists busy on synchs during the pandemic?
“We did a virtual synch writers camp right out of the gate, where we engaged writers across multiple cities on Zoom platforms. And we’ve done a series of Zoom showcases, with artists like Aloe Blacc, Margo Price and Rufus Wainwright. We’ve built a nice little community of music supervisors who ask questions on Zoom conversations in a really sweet and profound way.”
Jenny Swiatowy, vp/head of creative synch licensing
As scripted-series production dried up, reality TV rushed in to fill the gap. On CBS, Love Island aired almost every night for six weeks, with songs by Katy Perry, Lewis Capaldi and Niall Horan, while on NBC, America’s Got Talent filmed throughout quarantine and included a Capaldi song as well as German singer-songwriter Zoe Wees’ “Control.” Reality and competition shows use so much music that they tend to have a standard synch rate for labels and publishers, and the results tend to come quickly in the form of Shazam views and streaming plays. “It’s like wall-to-wall,” says Swiatowy. “Reality television is definitely keeping some artists moving.”
Has the use of catalog and current tracks changed during the pandemic?
“It’s pretty much the same. In Riverdale, there’s the diner that uses a vintage-type sound. Grey’s Anatomy needs the songs for people that are in surgery, with the big build, and the fun, opening, Fitz & The Tantrums-type songs.”
Jennifer Frommer, senior vp brand partnerships and licensing
Kerry Hickey, vp film and television licensing
After John Legend’s album Bigger Love came out in June, Frommer’s team decided that its somber, hopeful tone would fit the world’s pandemic mood and started pitching tracks for TV ads — the title track wound up in a Postmates food-delivery spot about ordering local. Similarly, Powfu’s “death bed (coffee for your head)” was a perfect fit for Dunkin’ Donuts ads about essential workers. “That was one we were proud of because it fit thematically,” says Frommer. “We’ve always been aggressive, but you need to be even more aggressive now.” For her part, Hickey sees HBO’s Insecure and Euphoria as premiere placements, with Columbia artist Labrinth composed Euphoria’s score and Jozzy (“I’m Gone,” with Tommy Genesis) and Solange (“Stay Flo”) landing songs on the show. Season two was to premiere this year, but the pandemic has paused production. I’ve been doing licensing for 16 years,” says Hickey. “For the first time, there isn’t as much opportunity. Production is completely at a standstill.”
What is the range of revenue for TV advertising synchs?“It can be anywhere from $10,000 to $1 million — I’ve seen things as high as $750,000.”
Kelly Austin, director of synch marketing, recorded music
For Austin, one 2020 bright spot has been the massive stay-at-home TV audience. After the third season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why premiered in June, Shazam views for St. Vincent’s “Fear the Future” spiked in one day from 1 to 613, or 61,200%, and Health’s “Strange Days (1999)” went up from 1 to 380, or 37,900%. In normal times, she says, “For an impactful TV synch, we would be so excited and happy for a 500% increase. During COVID, there are more eyeballs on TV. It can lead to greater exposure and music discovery. The increase leads to more streams and income.”
How do you advise artists who want to place a song on a TV show?
“‘Your album and single are great, and we’re going to try hard for that, but give us [as much] ammo as possible to go out to all the different projects; it would be great to have some covers or remixes, maybe some holiday songs.’ Now, artists have home studios and they can sit down and go, ‘OK, we have time to do these covers.’”
Kourtney Kirkpatrick, vp synchronization
Broadcast networks reportedly dropped their pilot orders for the 2020-21 season by 58% compared with last season, which has made Kirkpatrick’s job far more challenging. For now, she’s working on trailers, network promos, and Netflix and Hulu sizzle reels with this kind of message: “Here’s everything you can watch while you’re home.” When the glow of pre-pandemic placements — like Judith Hill’s cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” used in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere — wears off in coming months, she’s preparing herself for a leaner landscape. “There may be fewer opportunities in the coming year,” she says. “It’s hard to know.”
How do you advise songwriters about the Hollywood production slowdown?
“That’s a hard conversation, especially for artists who do really well in film and TV, having to say, ‘Hey, you just have to be patient. If shows aren’t being produced, there’s not a place for our songs — but things will pick back up and you have to continue working.’ Everybody’s relying on that income.”
Anna Lenuzza Ross, senior director for creative synch licensing
In March, when Elektra sent its employees home, Ross saw an opportunity. Streaming, she knew, was about to be a bigger part of everyone’s lives. She approached HBO Max with Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” and scored a synch for the new streaming service’s promo spots in April. “We landed on something super-recognizable and upbeat and happy to be a light in all the darkness.”
How has the pandemic changed your work life?
“Part of the fun of our job is bringing clients to shows and doing showcases for them at our offices. The lockdown has forced us to take everything digital. We’re doing a lot of virtual meetings and catch-ups and Zoom showcases.”
Michelle Belcher, vp film and TV music
Reality TV and sports have thrived during the production shutdown — and that’s about it, says Belcher. Her team has placed numerous songs on Love Island, including Mimi Webb’s “Before I Go” and Captain Cuts’ “Summertime Love,” but she’s especially proud of Fiona Apple’s “Under the Table” appearance in an upcoming episode of Netflix’s Grand Army. “That was my personal pitch,” says Belcher, a former heavy metal guitarist who moved to Los Angeles and wound up in the music business instead. TV synchs, she says, range from $500 (mostly for reality shows) to $20,000 (for scripted hits).
How do you advise artists who want to place songs on particular shows?
“Be open to covers. This is a good time to do that now that artists aren’t touring. And know what the needs of the shows are. Everyone loves Stranger Things, but Stranger Things only uses music from the ’80s.”
Brigitte Greene, vp film and TV creative licensing
After the police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the summer, Greene noticed more interest from music supervisors in political, soulful “voice of a generation”-type artists like Michael Kiwanuka, whose smoldering “Solid Ground” landed in a promo for HBO’s Perry Mason in May. “That was a beautiful use and done during the shutdown,” says Greene. “There was a creative shift that mimicked what we were going through.”
What shows have required the most music throughout the pandemic?
“One of the shows that, funnily enough, figured out how to do it during the pandemic was Love Island. We have at least two songs each episode — Lady Gaga’s duet with Ariana Grande, ‘Rain on Me,’ X Ambassadors’ ‘Boom,’ Billie Eilish, Imagine Dragons and Selena Gomez.”
Kat Basolo, vp creative synch
Love in the Time of Corona, which premiered in August on Disney’s Freeform cable channel, was a rare commodity for labels and publishers — a non-reality show that came out during the pandemic, earned critical acclaim and emphasized music. Kobalt placed over 10 tracks on it, including Phoebe Bridgers’ “I See You” (which also appeared in the promo) and Noah Cyrus’ “Young & Sad.” “There are a lot of shows that are considered little gems when it comes to music,” says Basolo. “Insecure uses music really well, and people like to be associated with that show. Dear White People uses a lot of up-and-coming artists.”
Can you give a sense of the scope of TV synch opportunities during “normal times”?
“There is so much TV out there — over 530 scripted shows aired in 2019 alone, and that does not even include unscripted shows like game shows or talk shows or reality television. It’s a giant playground. There’s room for every type of music.”
Jim Leavitt, director, synch and licensing
When the pandemic kicked in, Leavitt was fearful synchs would trail off for the first time after years of growth. It didn’t happen that way. “I thought everybody would want to close out and it would be the end of the day,” says Leavitt, who started his career working with the catalog of ARC, the music publishing division of Chess Records. “But we’ve been staying pretty active.” He recently placed a track from the solo debut of Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek, “Hit Me Where It Hurts,” in the HBO documentary series The Vow about the NXIVM cult.
How do you advise artists who want to place songs on TV shows?“Be patient, send your songs out, promote as best you can, and constantly create. That’s all you can do — especially now; you’ve got more time.”
Karen Lamberton, executive vp film and TV music and soundtracks
Just before the world shut down, Lamberton hired three new employees for her six-person team, and they’ve had to not only adapt to new jobs but figure out how to succeed without in-person pitch meetings or showcases. “For the deals we are doing, there has been more negotiating going on,” she says. “The deals right now are harder to come by.” The range for TV synchs is from $1,500 to $25,000, according to Lamberton — plus an identical fee, usually, for publishing rights. For film, she adds, it’s “significantly higher.”
How has the ratio of catalog vs. current synchs changed during the pandemic?
“Catalog becomes more of a focus, because the recordings are trusted chestnuts and they invoke trust and serenity and calmness. People are looking for that.”
Wende Crowley, senior vp creative marketing, film and TV
In April, before the shutdown, Crowley placed an instrumental version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” in NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, performed in sign language by actress Sandra Mae Frank with the Deaf West Theatre company. Since the pandemic, she has placed some catalog classics on Hulu’s Mrs. America, including The Temptations’ “Hum Along and Dance” and Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate.” But she notes that, overall, her 2020 has evolved from “celebratory” songs to softer pandemic-era synchs about “togetherness, hopefulness, getting through a really hard time together.”
To what extent are synchs coming back after TV production shut down in the spring?
“I’m getting asked for a variety of different things. We’re starting to get back to where we were. It’s a matter of, ‘How can we do this safely?’ I feel like there’s going to be this rush to open stages and shoot again when we’re really on the other side of this.”
Paula Erickson, executive vp licensing
Erickson’s team dominated ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, placing 10 tracks, including The Alan Parsons Project’s ’90s Chicago Bulls theme, “Sirius”; Pearl Jam’s “Present Tense”; and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” “Because there were so many eyeballs at home watching,” she says, “we saw phenomenal spikes in consumption on all of those tracks.”
Has the ratio of catalog and current tracks changed during the pandemic?“I have not noticed a difference, but in the first couple of months of the pandemic, producers were much more mindful of the type of music they used. In commercials, you saw many more somber ballads. Fortunately, as the economy has opened up, they’re using what I call ‘real music.’”
Tom Rowland, executive vp film and TV music
Rowland says TV advertisers wanted to respond to coronavirus troubles with spots that had “a feel-good, we’re-all-in-this-together kind of tone.” As a result, “We’re handling many more searches in the ad world as brands try to hone their messaging.” That has meant opportunities for catalog classics like The Band’s “The Weight” (Sam’s Club) and Johnny Cash’s “We’ll Meet Again” (Bud Light) as well as hopeful newer songs like Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces” (Facebook).
How do you advise artists interested in placing songs on TV shows?“I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but I say, ‘Have you watched TV? What do you like?’ For the most part, they haven’t watched some of the shows they want their music on — the tone is wrong or the genre is wrong. [So,] see if it lines up with what they’re doing.”
Brittney Ramsdell, senior vp East Coast label shared service
Singer-songwriter Shallou was so aggressive about getting his songs on TV that he sent Ramsdell a list — with HBO’s image campaign at the top. Ramsdell sent Shallou’s list to the cable channel, which chose his track “Magical Thinking” for its 2020 “What’s New” clip in March. “Some artists are really on point,” says Ramsdell, who handles synchs for the Island, Def Jam, Republic and Verve labels. “[Artists] used to think ads were cheesy and didn’t want to do them, but suddenly brands were cool when Apple did the iPhone. Same thing with TV — we’re definitely getting more interest than we used to.”
What is the range of revenue for TV show synchs?“For a major network, it could be anywhere from $7,500 to $40,000. The sweet spot is probably $12,500 to $15,000. That’s where we get the most synchs. A lot of the successful pitching will be in that midrange.”
Marni Condro, senior vp film and TV
Tom Eaton, senior vp advertising and TV music
Tom Foster, European head of film and TV
Andrea Minze, senior director of music for advertising
Early on in the pandemic, TV producers, music supervisors and advertising agencies were scrambling, reinventing shows like American Idol and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, rushing new seasons onto the air like Killing Eve in Europe and changing the tone of their ad campaigns. UMPG rolled with these shifts, placing Asiahn’s “Higher,” written at a songwriting camp by Asia Bryant, Neff-U and DJ Khalil, as an Intel brand anthem. “We were able to shift our focus and still supply our customers with relevant songs,” says Eaton. Minze, a former copywriter who draws on advertising expertise, notes that Natalie Taylor’s soothing cover of the Steppenwolf classic “Born To Be Wild” — used in a Volvo commercial in July — was emblematic of advertisers’ needs for sentimental pandemic anthems rather than upbeat party music. “Nostalgia can really help boost spirits and make you feel connected,” she says. Adds Condro: “We’ve still been really busy.”
How has the ratio of catalog vs. current synchs changed during the pandemic?
Eaton “From the advertising side, when the pandemic began, the types of songs we pitched changed drastically — brands quickly shifted to wanting those familiar catalog songs. Recently, the tide has shifted back to looking for a mixture of new and contemporary, as well as catalog.”
Jessica Cutri, director of film and television creative
Nashville songwriter Brandon Ray’s soaring “Good To Be Home” was featured in an HGTV promo in May — one of the opportunities created when the pandemic forced a tonal pivot. “People were rebranding and looking for ways to convey messages of hope and uplifting and being home and family,” says Cutri. “You learn how to be flexible during these times.”
How would you advise artists who want to place songs on TV shows?“Listen to what a production or a specific scene is looking for. Be mindful of the kinds of songs they’ve used in the past and ask yourself if it fits the musical landscape of the show.”
Bryan Bonwell, director, film and TV creative, for visual media licensing
Bonwell’s passion project over the last six months has been spelunking Warner’s vaults for potential synchs: His latest finds include boisterous ’50s/’60s R&B singer The Mighty Hannibal, ’90s pop insurrectionists Shampoo and neo-soul singer Sebastian Mikael. “When we come back to normal, it’ll make me better at my job, as far as pitching,” he says. “We’re close to that turning point, hopefully.” He’s also working with Warner’s international teams to find songs, placing Japanese singer-rapper Chanmina’s “I’m a Pop” in Amazon’s Making the Cut.
How do you advise artists interested in placing songs on TV?
“‘Be ready. Have your instrumentals ready. Have your a cappella versions ready. More times than not, your song’s going to be edited or cut to picture, and if you have a dirty version, make sure you have a true clean version — because those bleeps fight dialogue and don’t make sense.’”
Robyn Booker, vp film and television music
The huge captive TV audience of the last few months paid off for Wale’s “Sue Me,” which landed in the season finale of Showtime’s The Chi in August and cracked Shazam’s top 10, hitting No. 1 in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. “This led to a spike in sales and airplay,” says Booker of the track featuring Kelly Price, which is up to 3.7 million Spotify plays and 1.5 million YouTube views. “Production has slowed down, but we’ve been able to see significant traction on synchs. We’re all staying at home. We’re all watching more content.”
How much is the stay-at-home audience during the pandemic boosting interest in synchs?
“It’s a factor, absolutely. We’re all watching more content. We look at that as an opportunity.”