The following article on sync licensing is excerpted from the Berklee Online course Songwriting Sync Success: The Art and Craft of Licensing, Film/TV, Advertising, and Production Music.
Early on in my career I often wondered why my songs weren’t being placed in ads. I had some idea that there was money to be made there, and I certainly didn’t have any moral qualms about using my music to sell stuff. I thought I had an album or two with good songs on it (plus other demos, etc.).
A couple of years into my journey I was on a major label. I even had a song on the original platinum-selling Spider-Man soundtrack. Surely I just needed to find “the right person.” I envisioned some sort of magical sync licensing wizard who would put my great song in a great commercial and then I could replace the transmission on my touring van (for the second time).
How Do I Get My Songs in Ads?
Well, now that I have had success with a few big (and many small) ads over the years, I’ve had several people approach me with a similar question about sync licensing: “How do I get my songs in ads?” They have a record or two, or three, with some good songs, maybe even some songs that could have worked well for a specific ad. The very first thing I ask them is “Did you write these songs for ads?” And 100 percent of the time, the answer is “no.”
“BUT,” they say, “I saw such and such ad, and that was just a song off of so-and-so’s record.” Yes, we’ve all seen those ads. Some old song from 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago becomes huge (or huge again) because it was in a car commercial. Or some song from a new unknown artist goes bananas on Spotify because it was featured in an iPhone ad. Well, I am extremely sorry to report that the likelihood of that happening is, let’s say, not huge.
That’s the bad news, BUT the good news is: you can have success in the field of sync licensing. The first thing you should know is that a huge percentage of the songs featured in ads were either:
- written specifically for that ad, based on a brief sent out by the company, or more likely an advertising agency or other intermediary
- written with ads in mind
- happen to have stylistic elements that typically work well in ads
How Much Music Do You Have?
The second question I ask is “How much music do you have?” Usually, the answer is, this record (my first), that record (maybe a second), and maybe some demos that didn’t make the record. So that’s 15, 20, maybe 30 songs. Is it possible one of those songs could work for a specific commercial? Absolutely! Especially if they’re in a genre that ads tend to like. But is it likely? Well, certainly not as likely as if you have 100 or 150 songs, with different tempos, moods, genres, etc.
Winning the Sync Licensing Game
Music for advertising is much like the other types of custom songwriting: if you want to win the game, you must know the rules of that game. Once I figured out what game I was actually playing, I started to have success with sync licensing.
Example: iPhone Commercials
We get more into that game in detail in my Songwriting Sync Success course, but since I mentioned iPhone commercials, let’s listen to some songs that were used in those. Check out the clips on this YouTube playlist I made. And to be clear, I’m focusing here on songs that:
- aren’t old or legacy songs (because you can’t write those now)
- aren’t by fairly big, well-known artists (because if you’re one of those, you probably don’t need to worry so much about sync licensing to make a living wage)
Analyze These Songs:
- What do they have in common musically?
- What do they have in common lyrically?
- How about feel? Tempo?
- What do they have in common in terms of production?
- What do they have in common in terms of instrumentation?
- And what don’t they have in common in terms of those things?
- Why do you think these songs were chosen for these ads?
- Do you think any of these songs were written specifically for the ad?
Commercial Ad Search Briefs
Okay, now let’s take a look at a brief for a commercial ad search, which is a term commonly used to describe a wide search that goes out to publishers, ad agencies, possibly labels, or managers, to find the “right” song for a particular ad. It is very likely that they will listen to 50, 100, or more songs for these searches, many of which will be created from scratch from the brief.
A simple yet unexpected piece of music. It should be fun and maybe a bit quirky. We’re not locked on a genre (it could be jazz or indie or electronic). Should build to a nice place by the end.
We are also looking for some lyrics that work with the theme of our spot: opportunity, your day has come, connecting, we’re with you … things like that.
We’ve already heard a lot in the indie genre (which definitely could work, so if there are more tracks there, send them). But I think we also need some more classic stuff. It could swing (this is the unexpected part?) maybe even music that is reminiscent of the ’60s or ’70s if the lyric is right. It should make our hero seem a bit cool (we had tried a Louis Armstrong piece that did this well but wasn’t quite modern enough).
Common Words or Phrases
This is an ad search that I submitted music for more than eight years ago, but I swear it could be from yesterday! There are several words and phrases here that I see over and over (and over) again.
Can you guess what they might be?
Simple, unexpected, fun, quirky, build, opportunity, your day, connecting, we’re with you, cool, retro/modern
Why do you think we would see those terms used over and over?
Here are some other general words or phrases that you are very likely to see in ad briefs:
In relation to lyrics: all together, my crew/fam/squad, etc., individuality, inclusiveness, a call to action (going for it, leap of faith), movement, newness/freshness, winning, rebel, great/best day, bravery, exciting
In relation to the song: swagger, different, exciting, upbeat, horns, groove
Do you think some of the songs from the iPhone commercials might work for this pitch? Why?
Do you see where I’m going here? Although this pitch is from long before those iPhone commercial songs were ever created, some of them could possibly work were it a brief that went out today! The details of the music may change, what’s “in” and “out,” “hip” or “tired,” but the general things people are looking for stay much the same.
The ONE BIG THING
I like to think of most of the analyzation I do as having two parts: the “ONE BIG THING” and the “many-little-things.” They are both important, but usually if you can figure out what the ONE BIG THING is (or what someone else thinks the ONE BIG THING is!) you’re much more likely to be successful in whatever it is you’re trying to create. Of course, the many-little-things better not contradict or distract from your ONE BIG THING. In fact, they should probably all somehow point right to that big thing. And sometimes, unfortunately, the ONE BIG THING can actually be something very small. Hey! No one said this was going to be easy!
Many artists now understand that getting their music synced into film, television shows, and advertisements can be not only a good payday, but a way to gain more exposure and potential fans. But what some people don’t realize is that a huge portion of the artist-oriented songs used in film, TV, and ads are actually created with the potential needs of those markets in consideration (or at least not completely ignoring them). Much like pop songwriting, there are specific approaches, techniques, and themes that can help increase your chances of getting synced. I like to call it “approaching the market.” You can express your individuality and unique creativity to make “your” music while stacking the deck, so to speak, to increase your potential of getting syncs.
Let’s zoom back to the iPhone commercials we looked at earlier.
Sync Success Story: NVDES
I didn’t put the names of the artists on the links, so you may not be aware that there is one artist who appears SEVERAL times in those examples, and is the only artist to have more than one song featured there. I happen to know that artist: Josh Ocean, who goes by the name NVDES (pronounced nudes).
Based just on iPhone commercials, which are an incredibly coveted and prestigious sync (not to mention lucrative), I would say that NVDES has been very successful at getting his artist songs synced. He’s done four worldwide iPhone campaigns and several other campaigns with Apple, as well as work with Samsung, Google, and Netflix. Let’s check out some of his work on this playlist that I made and try to determine what makes his music so ready for sync licensing.
NVDES iPhone Commercial Playlist
“I think that when it comes to NVDES’ music working really well at sync, and what I do, there are a few key aspects,” he says. “One of them is tempo. For me, it’s all about the energy that I’m capturing while I’m making the song. I tend to gravitate towards more up-tempo type things: 126 BPM is a tempo that I really like, all the way into the 140s. It really depends on what I’m creating, and what best suits the energy to move it forward.”
He also says it’s imperative that the lyrics and the type of vocals have to work with the tempo and the energy of the song.
“I personally like really punky lyrics or vocals that are based around the attitude and the energy of what the vocalist is saying,” he says. “I personally like lyrics that lend themselves to interpretation, lyrics that challenge the listener to create something in their mind. I’ve always wanted to provide an experience for the listener that challenges their own creativity.”
Another thing that sets Josh apart from traditional songwriter types is his approach to composition.
“The editing process is very much the core essence of the DNA of what I do,” he says. “Basically, I view the laptop, and the computer, and the DAW as my instrument, and the way that I play with editing, and editing all of the different samples, live recorded instruments, vocals, the editing for me is the complete musical artistic expression.”
Sync Smarter, Not Harder
We touched upon creative briefs for sync licensing. They are one of the ways that music supervisors and ad agencies will reach out to publishers or musicians, managers, etc. in order to find the music they need for their particular use. Learning how to analyze the important things that are being said in those briefs—what isn’t being said—and asking the right questions of yourself and others can very much help increase your chances of writing/producing a song that will win that pitch.
Now that I have a wife and a kid and a wonderful class of students, amongst my other ongoing music goals, one thing that I am often concerned with is that I’m not wasting my time. That can be a tricky balancing act.
Why Create Custom Music?
Creating custom music on spec (meaning I’m not getting paid to make the pitch) can sometimes feel particularly precarious. By its very nature, I’m being asked to make something relatively specific, with the knowledge that other people (possibly many other people) are being asked to do the same thing. That automatically reduces my chances of winning the ad. Why would I ever want to do that?
Well, for one, the advertising music budgets can be quite generous. Tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes more). So, if I’m using pure statistics (and not accounting for the incredible talent level of the competition: You heard those NVDES songs!), even if I only have, say, a one-in-50 chance of winning a pitch, it still might be worth it, right?
If you’re new to this game it might be a good idea to submit songs just to practice, but there are some other good reasons why you might want to create these custom songs.
Reuse or Repurpose
One is that many of these briefs share at least some similarities. So even though you might not win this particular pitch, you might be able to use that song again for another pitch (or even another sync licensing situation altogether). That’s one thing I’m always thinking about when I decide to create a custom song on spec. The greater the potential opportunities for the song I’m creating, the more likely I am to throw my hat in the ring.
Conversely, if you’re working in this arena regularly, you might be able to reuse something that you’ve already done. If re-working something from your catalog will only take you a few hours, it could be worth the risk. But occasionally the opposite is true too. If a brief comes along that is super specific, and I feel it’s something I could do particularly well, I might take a shot, calculating that my unique plate of spaghetti and meatballs (so to speak) might give me a better chance.
Know Your Odds
Of course, if you happen to know what your odds are, that could help your decision too. If the person sending the brief says something to the effect of “This is only going out to a few people that we trust,” I might be more inclined to submit something. Another thing to keep in mind is that even though you might not win the pitch, a quality effort might impress someone who may come back and ask you to pitch again.
But, of course, the best way to make sure I’m not wasting my time is to make sure that I’m submitting a song that they might like. And, the only way to do that is to successfully interpret the brief!
10 Questions to Ask Yourself about a Brief
- Based purely on the written brief, what are the most important things they’re looking for in this song?
- What are some possibly less important things that they’d still like included?
- Who is your audience for this song?
- What do you think they are not looking for in this song?
- Is there anything contradictory in the written brief?
- If so, which thing should win? OR, how could you marry those things?
- What are they looking for, lyrically?
- Which musical examples relate lyrically to the things they want in the brief?
- Which musical examples relate musically to the things they want in the brief?
- What is the “ONE BIG THING”???
Sync Licensing Takeaways
Music that is specifically licensed for advertising can be very lucrative, in many cases rivaling the money that can be made writing pop songs. The types of music needed for advertising are as vast as there are genres of music out there, but the goal is usually the same—to help sell a product. In some cases the music may be front and center as one of the most important elements of an ad, and in some cases it may be in more of a supporting role.
The music that is used in a particular ad may have already been created, either in the hopes of landing an ad, or written for another purpose, or the music might be written specifically “to a brief,” but in all these scenarios we can notice things that come up over and over again, and the music searches often reflect this.
There’s lots more to talk about in terms of what makes music for ads tick, and we get into it a lot more in my Songwriting Sync Success course. But while we’re still talking, check out the interview I did with Berklee Online’s 4/4 series to listen to me talk some more and to learn more about sync licensing (as well as the most outlandish look I’ve ever gone onstage with).
Want to learn even more about sync licensing? Check out these tips from participants of “Music in Sync,” an expert panel that took place as part of a Berklee Career Jam session.