New growth for ‘evergreen’ songs

Imagem Music's Natasha Baldwin & Bert Fink give us the inside track on some of their biggest sync deals...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 24 Feb 2014
  • min read
2013 was a big year for Natasha Baldwin’s sync team at Imagem Music UK. Among the many highlights was the massive One Direction perfume ad campaign, the Weetabix TV commercial, the music placement...

But then, 2012 was a big year too, and the year before that...

Since taking over Rodgers & Hammerstein in 2009, Natasha’s team have unpacked an impressive back catalogue of 'evergreen' show tunes and musical hits, repositioning them in eccentric and exciting new ways.

The process has given new life to some of the most iconic compositions from the legendary canon - including South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music – by taking them outside their theatre setting to reach new audiences.

Tracks including My Favorite Things and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' have been repackaged in formats as diverse as Playstation karaoke song packs and chart-topping teenage cover versions, while choice lyrics have been reproduced onto Radley handbags and Yankee candles.

We recently spent some time with Natasha and Bert Fink (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s senior vice president, Europe) to figure out what they’ve learned from the experience and to get the inside track on some of their biggest placements.

You’ve been working with the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalogue for five years now. What has been your strategy?
Natasha: The songs are strong as they are but we’ve been working them into new covers and arrangements to broaden the market. For example, Weetabix wanted quite a slick, slinky sounding version of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' [from Oklahoma!]. It wouldn’t have worked with the original movie soundtrack version or any of the original recordings we had.

Luckily, we’d already done a swathe of covers – in two key styles - of the key songs from all five of the big musicals. This one happened to be a relaxed, laid back cover so we sent it into the client. It wasn’t a case of having three days to record a new version – they wanted a song immediately. If we hadn’t done it already, then too bad.

How did the One Direction advert - which uses My Favorite Things - come about?
N: They had a One Direction song they were going to use but they decided they wanted to open it up to other songs to broaden the appeal for this campaign. My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music was then in the running, but they wanted to re-record it. So Platinum Rye and Imagem  worked with Sony to get Diana Vickers to do it. It needed to be a commercial artist that already had a record out and who had some relevance in the market.

Bert, you were with the company before it joined the Imagem fold. How do you think things have changed?
Bert: I’d like to say we were good but now we’re better. I will very honestly say that at the beginning of our partnership I thought the sky was going to fall in sometimes when Tash and her team allowed certain changes in our music or lyrics that had never been permissible before. But I found out I was wrong. The songs are resilient, and what the sync team was doing was to get our songs out there in new ways.

The 1D ad is a great example – the rework is utterly faithful to the Rodgers & Hammerstein original but it’s also reaching a new generation of listeners. In the last couple of years it’s been really exciting to see the song catalogue grow in the US and Europe. When we were privately owned the emphasis was on theatrical – grand rights, stage productions and films. The small rights weren’t a big aspect of our company. Now the equation has flipped. Our new owners don’t only look at the songs of Oklahoma! as the stories of cowboys and farm girls in the Indian territories. They look at a great collection of timeless songs – like Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. That track was used on the Money ad. It’s been a very interesting five years.

Has it been a hard sell?
N: When we first got to work with the catalogue we went out to see clients and asked them to take the compositions out of the context of the musicals and just listen to them as songs. Lyrically they are so versatile and applicable to so many different things when you take them out of their theatrical context. This is something that a lot of brands hadn’t thought about.

B: You’re right. The songs can be given a new life. But when a song is misplaced, we’re aware that it can be damaging to it – so there are risks. There are a few songs I remember from growing up that I now equate to ketchup, or mashed potato, or cornflakes. I didn’t realise they were actually standards – and that’s not a good thing.

B: Yes, but they should be able to co-exist. The Favorite Things placement with One Direction was successful for them, clearly, but it also helps the song. We need to find matches that complement the product but also enhance the power of the song.

N: It’s about holding back too. We’re not going out to everybody saying use it all, use it now. It’s all about keeping songs back a bit. We want to build anticipation and don’t want to over-saturate the market with a particular song or musical. People get tired of it, so it’s about pulling it back and keeping it fresh.

How do placements affect the relationship with the original musicals?
B: I think the fact that these songs come from musicals is both a strength and a challenge. My Favorite Things is from The Sound of Music and it has a particular theatrical context. We always have to keep that in mind, so that when people come to the theatre they’re not expecting to see One Direction or Diana Vickers – that’s the challenge.

N: We work closely on the approval process because it is about that balance. The musicals  are being performed in theatres all over the world at any given time, with different productions and audiences. We can’t undermine that. It’s quite an intricate air traffic control system.

B: When we have major productions on we need to alert our sync teams. They will take clients to the shows and this may in turn trigger a sync request. They are living and breathing show songs.

How does it work when you’re changing lines or melodies in the songs?
N: It happens very infrequently with lyrics. It’s probably happened for commercials four or five times in the whole history of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

B: They allowed it once in the fifties but never again. A lot of car commercials have wanted to change a word or two and in the nineties the US Postal Service put in a request too. We said no. Under Imagem we can be a bit more open to it but to be honest, it’s only ever happened in extreme circumstances, for a word here and there. Rodgers wrote the music and he was open to reinterpretations – especially from the jazz community. Oscar Hammerstein wanted his words sung the way he wrote them.

N: When we do change them it’s a collaborative process. We did a huge worldwide Dove commercial in 2010 which changed lyrics to My Favorite Things – and that was the first time ever. The agency submitted the scripts to us and we rewrote them with the agency. The meter had to work, the rhymes had to be true and only a certain amount of the lyrics could be changed.

That was a huge thing for us – we all worked closely together. The story of the ad is that Lea Michele, who was massive at the time because of Glee, is getting ready for a show and she’s using Dove. They use My Favorite Things as the jingle. At the same time I was working with 20th Century Fox on a 45th anniversary Blu-ray edition of The Sound of Music film. We were able to broker a sponsorship between Fox and Dove – so there’s a nice little synergy there.

Dove said the commercial was such a success they’d like Lea to sing My Favorite Things. It was incredibly clever - it became hugely successful. We then negotiated between Fox and Sony to put her cover version as a bonus song on the soundtrack CD – all of these things were happening at once. So if you went into any supermarket chain the States you saw a big campaign for Dove, My Favorite Things and the Julie Andrews movie. You saw Lea Michele singing on the advert. The soundtrack CD then sold in huge numbers.

N: Dove also did something like 75 million flyers in US newspapers to offer discount codes so the value added for everyone on both sides was fantastic.

What lessons have you learnt from mining the catalogue?
N: I think that people in my world – the ad, movie, TV, gaming world – underestimate the strength of the composition of these songs. It’s our job to re-educate them. I’ve also discovered how perennially popular these songs are, and it doesn’t matter which song from which musical, they are all globally popular.

I work with a lot of pop music as well andpop often can have a shorter shelf life before   it becomes classic catalogue. With the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalogue, it seems to have an eternal golden period with advertisers always remaining current. It’s consistently attractive and cross-generational so the scope for opportunity is very broad.

Or do you think there’s a particularly large appetite for nostalgia at the moment?
N: It comes in peaks and troughs certainly but I think you’re right. In the UK over the past two or three years there have been a lot more fifties, sixties songs cropping up. But worldwide it’s a phenomenon that’s been going on for as long as I’ve been in the business.

You want consumers to feel safe and comfortable. It’s all about familiarity. There are certain brands that will never go near evergreen songs - they’ll want something that’s charting or cutting edge. But there are huge swathes of brands that want to comfort their consumers: the big car brands; supermarkets; banks; insurance companies; basically the lion’s share of brands.

Where do you see things going for the catalogue?
B: Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals broke moulds and that’s what we’re trying to do with these songs again. Not every project is successful and not every one works but we’re always looking for new ways to adapt.

N: There are opportunities this year around the World Cup. But we’re always thinking about other things we can do apart from straight advertising, TV and movies. Can we look at lyric exploitation? We’ve done print campaigns with Radley handbags, a US campaign with Yankee Candles using song lyrics on products.

Another part of it is actually going out to people to tell them that these songs are available. A lot of people think they’re off-limits – that they’re not even easily clearable.

Also, media is so much more integrated these days so everyone is thinking cross-platform in terms of promotion. There’s much more opportunity to do brand/band partnerships or exploitation deals than there used to be, even 10 years ago. As creatively as you can think of this stuff people will come up with ways which they can distribute it.

How do you approach the re-recording process?
N: There are so many existing versions of songs we own across a ridiculous number of genres but we look at where there are gaps. We concentrate on genres that we know are ad-friendly, movie-friendly, and we have a rolling list of songs that we’re constantly re-recording and reworking. We use commercial artists, bands who are up and coming or classical musicians from the Boosey and Hawkes catalogue.

We have digital label deals with a number of platforms so as soon as we have a recording that’s synched on a big advert, movie etc, we release it onto Spotify, iTunes and the rest. It’s all nicely knitted together. It’s about monetising the catalogue and also getting these songs out to as many different audiences as possible.

B: We’re also very active on social media. For example, we have a Sound of Music page and others, so whenever anything of note happens with those songs we’ll share it.

What genres are you concentrating on at the moment?
N: It tends to be more stripped back, acoustic genres – mainly because that’s the area that hasn’t really been done as much with the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. That was what Weetabix was about.

What’s the worst version of an R&H song that you’ve heard?
B: Some of these songs have been covered by so many artists. Some of them work better than others – some undermine the piece.

N: Sometimes you’ve just got to press delete, but that’s ok, we always need to experiment.

Natasha Baldwin is group vice president of syncs and creative services at Imagem. Her team exploits all theatrical, classical, jazz and pop catalogues across the Imagem Group and throughout the world.  In February 2011, she was given full UK board member status at Imagem. Some notable campaigns she’s been responsible for include the long standing Lloyds TSB For The Journey, Lynx Billions & Johnnie Walker Striding Man campaigns.

Bert Fink is senior vice president, Europe, at Rodgers & Hammerstein, and is responsible for business development and brand management across the UK and Europe. He also works alongside the team at R&H Theatricals Europe, licensing the catalogue of more than 100 musicals across the European market. Bert has served with Rodgers & Hammerstein in its world headquarters in New York City for a quarter century in a variety of promotional, publicity, marketing, archival and production capacities.