Sync big: opportunities across the pond

The US sync market holds a wealth of opportunities for UK artists, labels and publishers - learn how to get involved.

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 22 Sep 2014
  • min read
The US sync market holds a wealth of opportunities for UK music. Emily Syed discovers how artists, labels and publishers can get involved.

When electronic duo Psapp first made their foray into the music industry, they were fully aware that their manager’s ambition and excitement didn’t necessarily mean guaranteed success. In a world that can be mired by broken promises, they rolled their eyes at his suggestion that a track they’d recorded for a new US TV show was ever ‘going to be big’. However, their skepticism was misplaced. That show is the now multi-award winning medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and Psapp’s Cosy in the Rocket has provided the theme tune throughout its entire 11 series.

‘We were writing our first album - we’d only recently met and were still experimenting with our sound and getting to know each other,’ says one half of the band Galia Durant. ‘Through a strange and rather convoluted set of events, a demo with a few tracks on it had found its way to [US music supervisor] Alexandra Patsavas who was looking for a theme tune for a big new show. When it suddenly really happened, we soon realised it was a much bigger deal than we had initially thought.’

As well as enabling the band to sustain a career, the exposure has brought more mainstream coverage (‘I seem to remember awkwardly playing a plastic snake on Fox News whilst covered in bright orange foundation,’ says Galia), put them in ‘a great bargaining position’ when signing their publishing and label deals and won them 10 (10!) BMI Awards.

‘All we wanted to do was make good records and it had certainly never occurred to me that we would ever make a living from writing music. The [Grey’s Anatomy] sync has meant we have been able to do so many things which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. I don’t really want to get into the money side of things, but of course it has been lucrative - particularly in PRS payments,’ adds Galia. ‘It’s a primetime show that is aired on one of the largest channels in the US and is now shown in many other countries - you get the picture!’

Elsewhere, Brixton band Alabama 3 boast one of the best known syncs around – their 1997 track Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) is the opening music for HBO’s much loved crime drama The Sopranos. The deep vocals and steady beat is lauded for perfectly setting the scene for the show’s gritty gangster theme. Elsewhere, Pete Townshend of The Who has earned 17 BMI Awards for placing songs in CSI. The band’s single Who Are You, released in 1978, accompanies each episode’s title sequence and Pete has since penned original music for the TV series.

Slice of the American pie
The US sync market is worth over $178m (, and, as of 2013, represents a four percent slice of the country’s annual revenue from recorded music, according to IFPI figures. Getting music placed in films, TV series, adverts and videogames has become an increasingly important revenue stream for artists, publishers and record labels over the past few years, thanks to the decrease in recorded music revenue.

For London-based indie label B-Unique, sync has been the biggest growth area over the last decade. Artists on its roster are regularly sent to the US for showcases where one deal could make between $5,000 and $15,000. ‘We’re proactive and go to the source rather than just playing CDs to people,’ says the company’s co-founder Mark Lewis. ‘We sent Benjamin Francis Leftwich out there; Luke Sital-Singh and Kodaline have all been out twice.’

Luke has had two syncs on Grey’s Anatomy, a track in network drama Suits, TV series Beauty & the Beast and historical drama Reign. As well as helping build a foundation for launching his artist career overseas, the cash earned tides him over until his next record label advance. ‘Having syncs is really cool, I used to be a bit of an emo kid so watched programmes like The OC to find new bands rather than listen to the standard Radio 1 stuff,’ he explains. ‘My music is so made for montages - it seems to be wedding scenes. I signed a relatively small publishing deal so hopefully when I start getting more syncs that advance will recoup quite quickly.’

Touch Tones is another company to have fast become prolific in the US sync market. Recent deals include the track It’s Up To You by songwriter Matt Harding, which was placed in drama series Nurse Jackie, while jazz-funk band Melt Yourself Down’s We Are Enough soundtracked an advert for department store Kohl’s dorm sale campaign this summer.

Cash upfront
Upfront fees are generally the norm, but can range hugely depending on the notoriety of the artist or how much the supervisor wants the track. Nathalie Du Bois is Head of North America for music administration firm Conexion. She has placed over a thousand pieces of music in network shows including The Good Wife, CSI and films such as Dallas Buyers Club and Bridget Jones’s Diary. ‘If network shows want an independent artist - someone who hasn’t had a hit song - depending on the budget of the show, upfront fees can be as low as $750 and can go up to $2,500. The studios that pay $2,500 do so because they traditionally have paid more money. That same artist could get a fee of $1,000 with another studio for the same exact song,’ she explains.

Adverts tend to use music written on spec, so will command higher fees, and for independent or low budget movies, payment starts at around $2,500. The upfront fee is only a small part of the story, however, and performance royalties will be paid for as long as the TV series, advert or film that uses the particular track is being shown. ‘For TV shows it’s about $600-$700 per use for a vocal song that’s 42 seconds or longer,’ adds Nathalie. It’s a different story to Europe, where larger production companies and broadcasters typically get their music from broadcast blanket licence agreements that allows them to use any PRS for Music-managed works for a yearly fee.
‘There’s an enormous amount of talent in the UK and there are a lot of opportunities for them here in the US.’

Companies like Conexion act as a middleman between artists, publishers and the key players in the sync industry. Conexion places around two to four tracks a day and clients include Comcast (NBC/Universal), Warner Bros, Viacom (Paramount, MTV), Disney (ABC/Touchstone), 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures. The UK is a market they are currently looking to for fresh talent. Says Nathalie: ‘I want to develop more relationships with UK artists and UK catalogues because that’s an untapped market for us. There’s an enormous amount of talent in the UK and there are a lot of opportunities for them here [in the US].’

TV shows typically look for independent artists that have a similar sound to the kind of music that’s being played on the radio (by commercial artists that they can’t afford) and, these days, supervisors are also interested in what the artist is doing and what kind of following they have, says Nathalie. ‘It’s got much more vocal and artist driven, rather than instrumental.’

Forging links
While using companies like Conexion – which has already built trusted relationships with music supervisors – can be useful, there are more direct ways of pitching music. Every year, the BPI and Music Publishers Association take a group of independent music companies to LA to learn about the sync licensing market and to meet and network with music supervisors and placement executives in the TV, film, advertising and computer games markets. Head of Sync at Cooking Vinyl Verity Griffiths went along this year and has done ‘several deals as a result of following up with contacts’ made while in LA – people met either after panels, at networking events, or by initiating her own meetings. ‘I made sure I asked how they liked to work and be contacted so I could tailor my follow up appropriately and make us as easy as possible for the supervisors to work with,’ she says.

If that LA plane fare is a bit too steep, the National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP) flies over top US supervisors for pitching workshops around every six weeks. NARIP’s Music Supervisor Sessions have yielded over 150 music placements and take place in Berlin, Paris and London as well as LA, New York and San Francisco. Participants get a brief before the session explaining the kind of music the supervisors might be looking for, play the suggestion during the meeting and get feedback on each track.
‘Being able to clear the rights to a track quickly is vital, as companies can sometimes have as little as 10 minutes to make a decision on a song.’

The secret to pitching directly is research, advises Sharon Dean, Director of NARIP in London. ‘Do your homework. If you are going to pitch your music to a supervisor make sure that you try and find out as much about them as you can through IMDb. You’ll get more respect from them if you actually can say, “I understand you’re going into pre-production with this movie, can I send you some music?” If you send an email don’t ramble, and send three or four good songs, rather than a catalogue of 150.’

Also, being able to clear the rights to a track quickly is vital, as companies can sometimes have as little as 10 minutes to make a decision on whether to use a song. ‘They don’t really have time to be faffing about with clearance and licensing,’ adds Nathalie.

While Psapp have since had tracks on Orange, Volkswagen, Absolut Vodka and Powerade adverts, together with music played on The OC, CSI and Nip/Tuck, getting a sync deal isn’t an easy win, and can take months of relationship building, trial and error, or, that one chance meeting. Concludes Galia: ‘There’s a lottery element to it. A demo can become a theme tune, a long forgotten track with a Hoover solo can be snapped up for an ad and there can be long quiet times. I know it’s a cliché and may sound like false modesty but it’s not: we were just really bloody lucky.’