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VOL. 126 | NO. 33 | Thursday, February 17, 2011

Licensing Keeps Musicians’ Pockets Lined

JOE BOONE | Special to The Daily News

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As record sales have declined over the past decade, musicians and composers are seeking new forms of income.

The hordes of record-buying teenagers have gone home to stare at their smart phones while producers of film, television and commercials still pay for music.

Local musicians, composers and publishers rely on this income for their survival.

“Publishers and catalogs that once would never license their songs at all or would only license for an exorbitant fee are now heavily competing for licensing opportunity,” said Elizabeth Montgomery Brown, controller at Ardent Music.

For a piece of music to be placed in a film or a show, the producer must secure a synchronization license from the copyright holders. The “sync” license permits the producers to use the song as part of a visual work.

Sync licenses not only pay, they keep paying. Producers pay for the license up front, but when the song is broadcast, the rights holder is paid again for the “performance” as the movie or program is played on television.

Companies such as Broadcast Music Inc. and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers collect the performance royalties on behalf of rights holders and pay out performance. Musicians call this “mailbox” money for the quarterly royalty checks.

“Being approached in 1998 by a TV Show for a song originally released in 1972, 26 years later, is always wonderful,” Montgomery Brown said. “Both the writers and publisher have enjoyed not only the original sync fee, but year after year of public performance royalties. With such a successful show, both past and present, the public performance royalties have totaled more than the sync fee.”

The harsh retail sales environment turned this once-obscure payment mechanism into a musical Yukon as new artists and holders of publishing catalogs chase the opportunities.

One Memphian enjoying sync license success is indie exemplar Alicja Trout, the driving force behind The River City Tan Lines and essential contributor to Mouserocket and The Clears.

Mouserocket’s “Fall Down South” was used on the first season of the HBO series “Hung.” The River City Tan Lines’ song “Black Knight” was placed in SKATE, a video game by Electronic Arts. Yet work is hard to find.

“I’m sad to say that any time I have followed up with a connection and sent them a portfolio of my stuff nothing has come out of it,” Trout said. “But when they find you and your song that’s when you get a deal.”

That placement will continue to pay over time.

Ardent Music holds the rights to Big Star’s music. A cover of Big Star’s song “In The Street” was used for the theme song to “That 70s Show,” a sitcom that ran for eight seasons on Fox. The show was then syndicated and released on DVD. While both of the writers of the song have passed away, their estates still receive income.

The type of production involved determines the payment. Syndicated TV shows and feature films rotate through cable systems all day long. But broadcast TV and commercials come and go. Repetition is the idea. In 2006 Heineken beer licensed “I’m in Love With a Girl” written by Alex Chilton.

“The license fee was much larger than either the TV Show or the feature film,” Montgomery Brown said. “The potential for earning public performance is shortened. Commercials don’t have the longevity of either a hit TV show or a feature film.”

Another Ardent artist pursuing the tactic is Skillet, whose song “Hero” has been used on NBC’s Sunday Night Football promotional ads during the 2009 NFL season and on the WWE wrestling program “Royal Rumble.”

“Ardent is a Memphis-based company which is owned and operated by Memphians,” Montgomery Brown said. “The majority of our artists and song writers are also from Memphis. Being both the label and the publisher for many of the sync licenses, the revenue generated comes to Memphis and stays here.”

Trout’s success continues as she recently covered “Holding Out for a Hero” for Craig Brewer’s upcoming “Footloose.”

“I think just connecting with people who like your music is the best way to get leads,” she said. “People need to follow through and make records and tour. I think people will find you if you stay prolific.”

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