Terrorbird Media is a music marketing company. At first, that "marketing" meant mostly publicity and radio promotion, but in 2006, they became one of the first agencies to start licensing music from a roster of indie bands for placements in everything from commercials to video games.
I went to the Terrorbird office in Brooklyn to ask co-founder Jess Caragliano and director of licensing Lauren Ross about how a band licenses a song, who gets a cut of the money, and what kind of music ad executives usually ask for.
Noisey: How do you define a sync?
Lauren: A sync is a synchronization of an audio recording or a musical composition with picture. And that can take the form of a song being placed in TV, a film, a film trailer, an advertisement, a web video, a video game.
How does the process of licensing a sync start?
Well, it has to start with a project that needs music. Where we enter the picture is shortly after a project takes form. For example, with an ad, it has to first start with an ad agency getting hired by a brand to handle their advertising, and then their creative team comes up with the idea for an ad.
They'll say [to us], “We've got this project. Here's what we need musically. Here are the terms and budget that we're working with. What do you have?” Then we have the opportunity to pitch creatively once we know what they need. For example, they may have just written out a general concept for an ad, or they may have already shot it.
Sometimes they send you a version of the ad with no music?
Ideally. We love it when they send us the video, because we can do a better job of making that music fit just perfectly. But sometimes, they don't have that yet. Sometimes, they're just trying to get music so that the editors can edit to the right song.
Once the ad agency accepts the song you pitch, what factors affect the price?
Then we have to figure out what terms they need. That will vary from project to project. For an ad, is it broadcast TV or online only? Is it for a few weeks, or a few months, or a few years? Is it worldwide or a more specific territory? Is it a 30 or 90 second spot? Is it an instrumental song or are there vocals?
So if the client picks an instrumental part of the song, it’s a different rate?
Whenever one of our clients has a new record, we ask them for an instrumental version.
Jess: Instrumentals are extremely important for sync licensing, and it does factor into the negotiation and the pitching.
Lauren: It also factors into the promotional value for a band. If the vocals aren't in there, it reduces the chance of people recognizing who it is.
Jess: It's still a valuable sync, but it won't have the same blow-up impact if they can't Shazam it. Or if it's not obvious.
Lauren: One example where there was an instrumental use but people knew what it was was [the] Starfucker song "Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second" in a Target pharmacy commercial, because the first minute or so of that song already is instrumental.
Jess: And it's so recognizable. There are instances where the music supervisor discovered a track themselves and they want to clear it. That does happen. That's just the beginning, you still have to negotiate the terms and go through all those factors to make a fair deal for the artist. In the ad world, a higher up will get their heart set on a song that they just know won't clear. They'll be like, "Oh I want that—"
Lauren: "—that indie band, the Black Keys."
Jess: Right, something that just won't clear. Then you get searches all the time like, "I need something that sounds like this, because that's what the executives want."
Lauren: The distinction there is something that's in-the-vein-of versus a sound-alike.
Are sound-alikes pretty much the nemesis of the sync industry?
Jess: We don't work in sound-alikes. They exist and they're extremely frustrating. We've been on that side of it.
Lauren: Where our clients get ripped off.
Jess: It's in a blatant enough way where we're negotiating to use the actual song, and then they're like, "Oh, actually, we went in another direction." Then you see it months later and you're like, "Oh, you did? You went in another direction?" You can't do anything. You get that moment where you're like, "Yeah, we're gonna fight it!" But you can't do anything. There's a whole business of that. They know the holes.
What do you think is the ideal time for a band to do a sync?
The benefits of a sync range from that perfect storm of money plus popularity, but I think both of those things have value on their own. We've had bands that have a record on a small label, and we get them a bunch of TV syncs. They're in the background, not necessarily featured, but you get yourself five, ten syncs in a bar scene on a TV show as a small band, and suddenly they get money to fund their next record, or a tour, or not work a day job.
A band going on tour and having kids come up to them and be like, "I heard you in blah blah blah” benefits everyone. I think it's great when networks promote that. I don't think it's great when networks say, "You're going to get this promotion, so let's knock the fee down." I don't think that's the direction to go.
Kyle Andrews' "You Always Make Me Smile" in a Holiday Inn ad
Can you give me a picture of who gets a cut of the money from a sync?
Lauren: You need two licenses to sync a song to picture: a master license and sync license. The master license covers use of the sound recording, which is generally controlled by a record label. The sync license covers use of the composition itself, which is controlled by the publisher. Most indie bands write their own songs and are their own publishers.
If it's an indie band that's signed to a label, then Terrorbird—or whatever agency—retains its percentage and then sends the remainder half to the label and half to the band if they are their own publishers. The master and sync licenses are generally paid the same amount.
Jess: On the master side, [the label] splits the fee with the artist per their record deal. To get a true picture of "Then what does the artist end up with?" there are other hands in the pie, everyone wants to make money from sync licensing. After we send out the payment, it can get split further. The band might owe a percentage to their manager, or to their lawyer, or whoever is involved at that point. It is possible, if a band has a manager, a lawyer, and a bigger publisher involved, that pie gets split up pretty small. And a pretty large sync could end up as a small take-home for a band. On the flip-side, if that's not the case, and a self-released artist gets a huge sync, then it's like, "Oh, we're sitting pretty."
It used to be that licensing was so taboo. People were way more cautious if they were going to do it or not. If you were going to get a cool band, maybe you did have to pay more, because they were risking their fans, because "what if they sold out?" That doesn't exist anymore. No one's selling out. Well, it exists for some bands. We have some artists that won't license to ads no matter what the fee is.
The Meemies' "Porch Song" in a Google Chrome ad
No matter what the ad is for?
Jess: Yeah, we had an instance where a brand was like, "We will pay anything." It was a handwritten note from the director to the band about how they're a fan of the band and they're not abusing the song, and we'll pay everything. And the band was like, "We don't want to let our fans down."
Lauren: I think that for bands that are sensitive about licensing, it's that their songs mean something to them and means something to their fans, and they don't want to potentially take away from what their fans' relationship to their songs might be.
Jess: We never force bands to do anything, but as someone who works in licensing, this is funding your art. But people get into their art for different reasons, and not everyone is financially motivated in that way. I do worry that everyone's eagerness to say they have placements could drive prices down and devalue an exciting opportunity for up and coming bands. It's important for everyone to be cautious and not assume it's an endless waterfall of money and fans.
Is there a blacklist of products that it's hard to get bands to agree to?
Oh yeah definitely, all the obvious ones. Some of our clients ask things like, "Does the company provide healthcare for domestic partners?"
Lauren: I've also seen the exact opposite, where bands are like, "That would be hilarious if our music was in a commercial for this thing that we’re so clearly not in line with."
Julianna Barwick's "Anjos" in Levi's ad
Do you notice trends in what music supervisors are asking for?
Jess: There are trends like you get asked to replace the same song a lot.
Lauren: One year, it was, "What do you have that's like Feist’s '1 2 3 4?'" The next year was, "What do you have the sounds like the Black Keys? Or the Heavy?
What's the story of the first sync that Terrorbird ever did?
Jess: [An agency] brought us on board and said, "We're doing a series of Playstation ads set in three cities, and we want cool up and coming indie bands from L.A., New York, and Chicago." It was so much fun. [Now] all those labels are snatched up by different licensing agencies like ours, but at the time, that wasn't the case. Everyone didn't have a rep. We ended up with three amazing spots. To me it was so eye opening. After that we were like, "Okay, let's do it."