Only You Can Prevent Music-Licensing Disasters

Be Prepared! What to Look Out for When Picking That Perfect Song

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Dawn Sutter Madell
Dawn Sutter Madell
Sometimes I feel like a Boy Scout, always shouting "Be prepared!" But, honestly, it's the best way to get what you want in the end, and music licensing for advertising is no exception. Be prepared!

Sure, sometimes the first piece of music you put in your spot will work great, be readily available, and cheap. Other times it won't. First things first: there isn't the perfect music out there. There's the perfect music for your spot. What works for your spot will not just be the music that solves your creative needs, but it will also be the music that fits into your timeline and budget.

Be prepared! Know the challenges that you are up against. The number one challenge is your budget. It's going to be a deciding factor in what piece of music works for you. The sooner you face the challenges of your music budget, the closer you are to being done. And the better you know what you are up against, the easier it is to figure out how to solve the puzzle. We help people navigate these waters all the time, but here are some things to think about on your own.

Pocketbook issues
There are myriad variables that play into the cost of a piece of music. First, there are the basics that most everyone considers -- the number of spots, usage, term and territory. People will also consider whether or not a band is well-known or unknown. These are undeniably very important, but there are many other factors that people rarely stop to consider. For instance, what are the label and publisher's attitudes toward the song? How valuable is this piece to them? It's subjective for sure, but if they feel this is the gem of their catalog, they will probably put a higher price than you might expect on it.

And, similarly, you are not likely to get that one-hit wonder that you thought might solve the client's request for a recognizable, yet cheap, song. If it is indeed a one-hit wonder, that song is that artist's only revenue source. A good rule of thumb is, if people recognize a song, it will come with a price.

Why am I telling you that songs are going to cost more than you think? It's not to sit back and be a naysayer. You can get a long way in negotiating by knowing how the seller values their product. Showing them that you understand what a song means to them, what they think it is worth, can be a huge asset.

Another possible stumbling block is the band. Is this a personal song for the band? If so, they may license the song, or they may choose not to license it at all. Be prepared and always, always have a backup. Especially if you have a very tight timeline. And ask about this right away when you are considering a song. Check in with the label and publisher and ask, is this band particular about licensing their songs?

Also to consider: the band's attitude toward the product. You might be surprised at the number of reasons and products that artists have cited as making them take pause (and raise the price) before licensing their song. Gas-guzzling cars are obvious, but there are others. They are as wide-ranging and varied as the artists themselves. They don't support alcohol. They don't like what they perceive to be a certain company's practices. They don't like that soft drink. They don't like the way those shoes look. You name it, we've heard it. And all of them can drive up the price of a song. Or make an artist say no. Be prepared.

Boy Scout
Photo: AP/Brynne Shaw
Many of the bands who consider and reconsider a license are those who are very up-and-coming. If they are quickly gaining a lot of popularity, be aware that they may be wary of licensing at this time. Many people are looking for the cachet of finding a band on the cusp and also hope there will be a correspondingly small price for that song. I hear this a lot: "We have a very low budget [for music], but this is great exposure for the band."

Bands and labels are very savvy these days. They know that while there is more opportunity for exposure for a small band on an ad than on mainstream radio, rarely does an ad boost CD or mp3 sales in a significant way. Labels do see an ad as a marketing opportunity, but it's just that -- an opportunity -- not something that will definitely pan out. While lots of bands will be flexible, they would also like to be appropriately compensated. The definition here of "appropriate" is the huge variable. Sometimes even the smallest bands can have firm opinions about what their songs are worth.

Avoiding stigma
For bands on the cusp, there is another lingering issue to consider. While many people think that the stigma of licensing a song to an ad is over, it can still be problematic from time-to-time. These are not things that will happen, but they come up often enough that you should not be surprised. Bands sometimes shy away from a license because of a perceived stigma. And if a band or manager voices these concerns to you, and you understand how they feel, you can help quell their fears that much easier. Most artists are ready and very willing to license a track to an ad, but there are those that will consider and reconsider before licensing and setting the price.

The New York Times' head music critic, Jon Pareles, wrote a fairly scathing piece at the end of last year talking about how placing music in advertising diminishes the value of it. And, as one of the main revenue sources available to artists, he speculated that it might change what types of music artists create. He claims the Santigold (then Santogold) song "Creator" went from being "a raw, bohemian manifesto" to the work of "just another shill" after it appeared in two commercials. Music blogs such as Brooklyn Vegan, Pitchfork, Stereogum and others have started to write more about the licensing of music in advertising.

But, with more exposure, there can be a backlash. Perhaps ironically, the smaller the band, the more flack they are likely to get from their fans. Most recently, Joanna Newsom has received backlash for including her song "The Sprout And The Bean" in a Victoria's Secret ad. Sure, she might have gained a few new fans, but she also seems to have alienated a fair number of her preexisting ones. Bands will often consider this as part of the price of licensing. Again, this doesn't mean that they won't do it, but it can make them ask for more money.

Why am I telling you so many things that you probably wish you didn't know? Well, because it may be that therein lies your song. You now know a bit about how the bands, labels and publishers see things. And knowing that will help you negotiate your way to exactly what you need, a song that is perfect for your spot. You can be prepared.

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Dawn Sutter Madell is a co-owner of Agoraphone, a music supervision company that finds and creates music for all sorts of projects including ads, film, and television. She remains first and foremost, a music fan.

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