How Music Sync Works: 3 Music Supervisors On How Music for TV, Film & Ads is Selected Plus Tips for Landing A Sync Deal

We spoke to music supervisors and production supervisors who have worked with the likes of Blumhouse, M.Night Shyamalan, Apple TV, Hulu and more in order to paint a clearer image of what is involved in getting your music placed in a TV show, movie or ad.

By Eimear O SullivanMusicngear Editor

Article photo - How Music Sync Works: 3 Music Supervisors On How Music for TV, Film & Ads is Selected Plus Tips for Landing A Sync Deal

Getting your music placed in a TV show, movie or ad could very well change the course of your career as an artist; not only by increasing your revenue, but in the long-term effects of showcasing your music to thousands of new people and opening you up to a much wider audience. However, it is not always clear how you go about doing this (especially as an independent artist) and it can be difficult to find a straightforward answer to this question. 

In order to demystify this and provide an all in one, straightforward guide to this world we spoke to music supervisors and production supervisors, who have worked with the likes of Blumhouse, M.Night Shyamalan, Apple TV, Hulu and more, in order to paint a clearer image of what is involved. We dive into the process behind selecting the music, what makes a song more likely to be placed (and what would make it more difficult), how to pitch your music to a music supervisor, case studies (one of a movie, one of a TV-Show), genres there are some shortages of, the role of Spotify and social media in this process, overall general advice and more. 


Ryan Neill

Music Supervisor and SVP of Spirit Music Collective (Blumhouse (Nocturne, Into The Dark) The Terror, A Pentatonix Christmas Special, Tina Fey hosts: One Night Only: The Best of Broadway)

Article photo - How Music Sync Works: 3 Music Supervisors On How Music for TV, Film & Ads is Selected Plus Tips for Landing A Sync Deal


MusicNgear: Could you run us through the overall process of syncing music for a movie/TV-show?

The first significant factor is the music clearance budget. For example, iconic artists like U2, Beyonce, or The Rolling Stones will likely be out of the question if there is a limited budget. Also, we must look at the types of required clearances. For example, are we clearing to broadcast worldwide, or will this be a limited broadcast?

Films

With film, we often see the director have a song or artists they want for a scene. It is then the responsibility of the music supervisor to negotiate the usage of the music. First, we speak to the song's publisher to clear synchronization rights, permitting us to use the song. Then we discuss with the record label to clear the master recording. This master recording is the version of the song that we hear in the film.

Sometimes the director will look to the music supervisor for song suggestions. Then it is up to me to find creative solutions that meet the director's needs and stay within the scope of the music licensing budget.

TV-Shows

If I am working with the executive producers of a new TV series and coming up with a style and musical sound for the show, I would use Spotify to see the current trends. I like the playlists and find them to be creative and inspiring.

I also will lean on Youtube to discover new music. YouTube is a helpful tool if I need to educate myself on a genre of music. If I want to learn more about music history, I will search Google and Wikipedia and immerse myself. Often, researching the public domain status of musical works is part of the music supervisor's role. I will use all the available resources and even discuss with a musicologist if it seems necessary.

Sometimes as the music supervisor, I use music libraries to fulfill requests. For example, in TV shows, when there isn't a composer, I will use music libraries to source the background music for the show. At our company, Spirit Production Music, users can search through genre, mood instrumentation, tempo, lyric content, which efficiently helps music supervisors, producers, and editors find music that will support the story.


MusicNgear: If an artist was to pitch a music supervisor like yourself their song for an upcoming production - what are some useful tips for them to know before doing this? (e.g things that would capture your attention, useful information for them to include etc)

First, the music quality and production value must be highly professional (well mixed, good production).

I receive many generic PR releases through email; however, these don't do anything for me. My advice would be to make an email personal. If someone has taken the time to sit down and write an email specifically to me, then I will take the time to listen. Again, it will come down to the suitability of the music for said project, but if someone has taken the time to write an email specifically to me, I will take the time to listen.


MusicNgear: Does the social media engagement level of an artist play a role when picking a song? 

If I come across an artist, look them up, and see that their music video has millions of views, sure, that is interesting. However, the most crucial thing regarding social media is having contact information listed (email address, phone number, website, contact), being easy to get in touch with, and updating this if your information has changed. There is nothing worse than having to leave comments under someone's Facebook post asking how you can get in contact with them. Remember,  you are running a business, so make yourself available so people can contact you.


MusicNgear: What are the no-nos that can make an otherwise good song unfit for sync?

It might seem obvious, but poor mixing on a song would be something that would immediately make it unsuitable for syncing.

Next - if you are going to have a song with offensive lyrics - create an alternate version that is clean/censored, and then have a mix available for this. There have been many times where I have come across a song that has offensive lyrics, and there is no clean version available, so as a result, it can't be licensed.

Another thing that can also make a song more challenging to sync is if its theme concepts are too specific. If you are writing a song, especially with the hopes of getting synced, the lyrical content should be as general as possible. For example, have a listen to U2's "It's a Beautiful Day" or Katrina And The Waves "Walking On Sunshine." Those are perfect examples of songs with themes perfect for synchronization.


MusicNgear: Have you found that there are shortages/less of certain types of genres/sub-genres?

There is so much fantastic music in the world. It is inspiring to hear incredible talent every day. That said, I often do hear the request for more positive music. I also see an opportunity for more female-empowering songs.


MusicNgear: What is the difference between signing up for an agency/agent vs a music library?

The primary role of a music agent is to find jobs and opportunities for musicians, artists, and composers.

A music library is a fantastic music licensing solution for synchronization in TV, film, commercials, and media. In addition, working with a music library is a cost-effective approach to licensing great music for a reasonable price.


Matt Nelson

Head of Production at Found Objects (Old, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Servant, Olympic Dreams)

Article photo - How Music Sync Works: 3 Music Supervisors On How Music for TV, Film & Ads is Selected Plus Tips for Landing A Sync Deal


MusicNgear: Could you run us through a case study of a song from a lesser-known/independent artist that was selected for a movie/TV-show you were working on?


Case Study 1: Movie - Olympic Dreams (starring Alexi Pappas and Nick Kroll)

I supervised the music for the movie Olympic Dreams (starring Alexi Pappas and Nick Kroll). In the brief, the director Jeremy Teicher specified that he wanted the soundtrack to be K-Indie Rock or K-Indie Pop ( think Tune-Yards, Cut Copy, etc but from Korea.) When discussing my approach to a project like this; I like to group my thoughts into the following categories; brief, challenge, approach and result.

Challenge

I wasn’t too familiar with this type of music; so I had to fully immerse myself in the K-Indie/K-Folk scene (this side of music supervision being my favourite - as you get to discover and explore a new music scene). Before embarking on a journey like this; it is important to remove your own personality and taste from the process, and ensure that the music you select is going to interact well with the film( as the most important thing is to give the client what they want) Timewise, I had 6 weeks to source and clear 7 pieces of music.

Approach

So, from across the globe, I threw myself into the K-Indie/K-Folk scene; exploring it through Spotify, blogs, social media, and browsing Instagram.  I started talking to artists who were in this scene; asking them who they toured with, who they recorded with. I focused entirely on finding music the director would like, and dealing with clearance later; putting emphasis on the creative side first, which was really rewarding.

Result

After this; I had three weeks to clear the music and contact all the rights holders. It premiered at South by SouthWest on a Sunday; which means, due to the time difference between New York and Korea, I needed all my answers by Thursday night prior to the premier. It was tight but I managed to get everything I needed just in time and I got all 7 tracks cleared after lots and lots of emails ( all the music was by Korean artists), I got to speak at a conference in Seoul, and the film was purchased for distribution by IFC!

This particular project really reinforced how important it is for an artist to be visible - if you are not signed to a label or a publisher, then make sure you have a strong online presence, and that you are easy to get in touch with.


Case Study Two: Ad Campaign

Brief: A tech company was launching a commercial for a new tablet device; and the brief stated that they wanted a cool piece of music for this campaign; one that conveyed the energy of getting up and doing things( the target audience being college students/Gen-Z) They didn't care if there were lyrics etc, they just wanted this positive energy conveyed.

Challenge

The brand wanted to break an artist, and wanted to use an unreleased track from a previously unheard of artist for this campaign. 

Approach

This was not the easiest thing to find; so I reached out to 20 music partners, and leaned on them to find developing artists that were ready to break. I gave a detailed brief, listened to hundreds of tracks, and evaluated their suitability for this campaign (for example, if I found a song that on a personal level I wasn’t responding to, I would get others to weigh in, and give their take; again, this reiterating the importance of removing your own personal taste from the equation, as your primary goal is to find something that interacts well with the ad/scene/movie), and eventually, we narrowed it down to a short list. 

From here, the track was edited, the timestamp provided for where it would work best ( if you were to present the full track, it won’t be a good reflection of how the track is intended to be used; so it is best to present it from the allotted timestamps)

Also - as this was an unreleased track, we had to delve into the field of Musicology; and use music theory analysis to make sure that there was no melody or copyright infringement. 

Result

A previously unknown artist was placed in this Ad; it came out great; the artist released the song on DSPs timed around launch of the spot( the artist is FRANCCI).


MusicNgear: What resources would you avail of the most when trying to find music for upcoming productions?  

Anything and everything. There really are no resources off the table - especially when it comes to the creative portion of music supervision. It also depends on the project. 

In a scenario in which a Director approaches us with a particular song in mind, we then need to establish how it will be used  (for example, if the actor is singing along to this song; or if it is just being played in the background through a speaker (which would be a lot cheaper)).

Now that there is a song in mind, the next step is to go out and clear it; and negotiate the price and paperwork. The main and most important job is researching who owns the rights, contacting them, telling them the use; and confirming that you know everyone involved. You need to ensure that you are speaking to all the writers, and do your due diligence. For this I would use Wikipedia, Discogs, Spotify, writer’s websites, ASCAP/BMI Repertoires. Also - with well known artists, it is generally easy to find out who the label or publishers are - so you can just reach out to them. 

When focused on sourcing options and creatively pitching ideas, other resources I would avail of would be my own personal music library, sync agents and labels/publisher; looking back at mailouts by music partners, Billboard 100 (seriously), music houses, stock music, distributors, and finally, the Sync community in general, who are more than happy to help each other out.


MusicNgear: If an artist was to pitch a music supervisor like yourself their song for an upcoming production - what are some useful tips for them to know before doing this? (e.g things that would capture your attention, useful information for them to include etc)

For me, I think the most important thing is letting the music speak for itself. I'd rather hear something made with skill and attention, that is well crafted and produced, than read a well crafted email. Keep the communication brief, to the point and relevant; sometimes it is helpful to know the inspiration behind the music; or other artists that it vaguely sounds like. 

More importantly - know your splits and make sure that your samples are cleared so that there is no chance of being accused of infringement. 

Since I have no control over the production of the music (unlike my work producing original scores) I need to know that there will be no issues clearing or with musicology, otherwise I will not bother pitching. So overall, make it easy for me.

For advertising, it is worth noting that anything that is aggressive ( e.g explicit language), is much harder to get placed. This is because a brand’s goal is to appeal to as many people as possible; so they tend to avoid anything controversial ( as it could turn off customers) as their main goal for a campaign is to give off positive energy. However, films and TV are more open to taking risks.

Universal themes also increase your chances of getting placed; as they are easier to sync ( e.g talking about love, family, home, heartbreak, etc)


MusicNgear: What are the music genres with the most sync placements ( if any)?   Also - have you come across any shortages of any particular type of genres/sub-genres? 

The hardest stuff to find is vibey timeless vintage music, recorded in a different era (all recorded on a stereo mic, where you can almost hear the cigarette smoke) As we currently record on digital audio systems, this is really hard to recreate; and it is more difficult to clear something from 1930s,  as you are dealing with an estate or widower; some who is distantly connected to this piece of music. Aside from this, there is nothing in particular in which there is a huge lack of or shortage of. 

A trend that I have noticed recently in Ads, is that it is mostly Orchestral music that is being used (so light, friendly, plucked music), or Hip-Hop or Electronic music. There doesn’t seem to be much rock used anymore (although there is a lot of it out there); in the past when you wanted something with swagger, rock would be used; however this seems to have been replaced with Hip-Hop and Electronic. We also track the type of briefs we get, and the genres requested, so that we can notice trends; so that if something is being requested a lot, we will have something original or pre written. For example, we would get a lot of Hip-Hop requests, so in our downtime we would work on Hip-Hop tracks; so that the next time a client comes to us, we would have demos and options ready to go. 

As a whole, the industry is pretty quick to react to trends. Back in the early 2000's, Dubstep had a huge moment; and for a brief window of time nowhere had it; however very quickly every music house started writing it.


MusicNgear: General advice/useful things for artists to know:  

#1 advice: if you are a music creator - then do that. The more you do it, the better you get. In order to ‘Turn Pro’, you need to be doing it, every single day, no matter what. To illustrate this; if you are a fruit salesman, you grow, harvest, and sell fruit. That is your product. As a music creator your product is your IP, so you need to write it, produce it, and then sell or license it. And again, the more you make, the better you get, and the more you have to sell. It is that simple. 

Also - get people working your catalog - you can’t do it by yourself and you shouldn’t. However, don’t give too much away, don’t give away more than you need to, and try to keep as much of the rights as you can. Remember, you should be writing; so get people you trust to do the pitching, shopping your music around and promoting you (sync agents are fantastic, as you retain your rights, they take a percentage, and it is a nice first step). 

Also - unless there is a very obvious and clear benefit to granting cheap or free licenses (i.e. very prominent PR, or a true guarantee of future work) ALWAYS get paid for your work. Opportunity doesn’t buy food, and if you created something of artistic value, that someone wants access to; know that that value has a price, and do not undervalue it.


Jeanette Rehnstrom

Director at Avant Music Port (Miss Scarlet and The Duke, Saving Paradise, Virgin Media, Fáilte Ireland, Striking Out)

Article photo - How Music Sync Works: 3 Music Supervisors On How Music for TV, Film & Ads is Selected Plus Tips for Landing A Sync Deal


MusicNgear: Could you run us through an example of an artist getting their music successfully synced, what the process was and why their music was selected for that specific film/tv show/ad?  

The one that comes to mind right now, as the film is just out, is the artist Conor Ward who’s track Hope was placed in a film called Finding You starring Katherine McNamara (Maze Runner, The Stand, Arrow, Shadowhunters), Jeddiah Goodacre (Legacies, Sabrina) and the grand dame of film and theatre Vanessa Redgrave (who’s been in everything! including Atonement, Howard’s End, the list is endless). 

The placement came about via our at least twice yearly trips to LA where we meet with music supervisors, directors, editors, producers, showrunners and studios etc for a chat. One of the music supervisors was on the lookout for a track for a film she was working on which just happened to be set in Ireland. She gave us the specifics from the script, we sent her a short list of ideas, and this one track hit the spot. The process from there on can be of a variety of lengths. This one took over a year and a half to really come through. Conor is delighted with the outcome, and we’re happy too.


MusicNgear: General advice/useful things for artists to know:

Make sure not to give away any of your rights to your music, or indeed pay out any money for a sync agency, until you are fully certain that they’re kosher, and even then, make sure you have a good relationship with them where they have your interests at heart too. 

Also, remember you don’t have to just go with one agency as long as the agreement you get into is non-exclusive. However, if you want to give your chosen/trusted agency the most clout it does help to give them a good chance to be first out with the goods. Also, remember to keep your agency updated on all new music, videos, interviews, gigs etc. as anything new will bring you and the previous music to the fore again.  And finally, remember that finding sync placements can be a long game. Sometimes it happens overnight, other times it takes years for the right track to get into the right hands at the right time and for everything to go right from there on too. For every placement there are many, many people that have a say, and even if one person is all for it, someone else might have another idea in the last second. However, if you’re not in it in the first place, you can’t win either. 


MusicNgear: As you have strong, existing relationships with brands/studios/production companies - if an artist who was part of your catalog contacted you and asked if their song could be pitched for an upcoming film/tv show /ad, would this be something that could be done? 

Definitely, we have the benefit of already being in contact with most companies, productions and significant people in the industries. In fact we welcome any suggestions from our artists as to where tracks might fit for everything from brands to TV shows, projects or directors of choice - as, although we try to keep on top of most things that are happening, there is such a plethora of brands, shows, films etc. that it is not always possible to be across it all at all times.


MusicNgear: What are you working on right now?

We’ve just got started on the coming season of the period drama Miss Scarlet and the Duke starring Kate Phillips (of Peaky Blinders, Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey fame) and Stuart Martin (Jamestown, Babylon). It should all be done and dusted by December believe it or not! The Covid period put the brakes on a lot of productions but this year has seen it all come back with a vengeance which is more than great. 


Have you ever had your music placed in a movie, TV-show or ad? If so, let us know in the comments!

About Eimear O Sullivan

Eimear Ann O Sullivan is a multi-genre music producer, audio engineer and vocalist. After receiving a Masters in Music Technology from the CIT Cork School of Music, she went on to operate as a producer under the name Blakkheart. Her releases have received critical acclaim from Ireland's biggest music publications, such as District Magazine and Nialler9, alongside receiving heavy commercial radio airplay. She currently works in Cork recording studio Flashpoint CC. Previous clients of hers include the likes of Comedy Central’s Dragony Aunt star Candy Warhol, rapper Darce and Outsider YP. (Photo credit @Fabian Boros)

Contact Eimear O Sullivan at eimear.o.sullivan@musicngear.com

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