Think sync: writing for the small screen

Adverts for hundreds of products grace our TV screens each day, and a lot of them boast music that’s been written to order. While the sync market may be lucrative for composers, it’s also renowned for being highly competitive. Learn how to make your mark with this top industry advice.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 13 Jun 2013
  • min read

Mobile phones, fast food, deodorant; adverts for hundreds of products grace our TV screens each day, and a lot of them boast music that’s been written to order. While the synchronisation market may be lucrative for songwriters and composers, it’s also renowned for being highly competitive and tricky to break into.

We went along to a session at The Great Escape, hosted by the Music Publishers Association and moderated by Music Week’s Tom Pakinkis, to get the inside track from a panel of experts.

Learn from Danny Champion (Peermusic), Jonathan Christiansen (Pusher), Nigel Humberstone (In The Nursery), Rachel Menzies (West One Music) and Kully B (Kully B Productions) as they reveal their top tips for breaking into the industry…

What is it that production companies and advertisers want from the bespoke music they commission?
Jonathan: Brands want to have their own sound and flavour to separate themselves from their competitors. Music is a sure fire way to do that. And so, rather than licensing a song that anyone else can use, they often opt for bespoke music. Whether that be a bespoke cover or remix, or something custom scored, they are looking to separate themselves using that music. They want to be distinct.

Rachel: When clients ask for tailored music they want something tailored to them, something they can get involved in and be creative with.

How important is it for composers to stick to the brief?
Nigel: The whole area of the business is very brief led. It’s not about us being able to sell well, it’s about us being able to meet what we’ve been asked to do. Another big area is budget. Particularly at the moment, we’re finding advert budgets are finite and if you’ve got a small budget you’re not going to be able to afford chart songs so the next best thing is high-quality bespoke music – especially if you’ve got a very specific brief.

Rachel: Sometimes it can be tricky with lyrics – they have got to be totally relevant to the brief so they need a lot of thought.

How much back and forth is there with a piece of music between the commissioner and the composer?
Kully: It depends on the relationship you have with your partner. That relationship matures over a period of time. When they know exactly what you can do they push you and creatively hold your hand and guide you into new areas you didn’t know you could go to. In the beginning there is a lot of back and forth – it can happen three, four, five times – but after a while it only happens once or twice on a project.

Jonathan: Sometimes if it’s band and someone wants to use their music, they’ll say look, ‘This is the song, we’re not going to change it’. But here we’re talking about custom music and you can’t be too precious with it. If they ask for stems and they tell you they are going to chop it up and warp things or speed things up – that’s the world you’re in and you have to remember the customer is always right!

Is there a particular genre that does well in sync?
Danny: It’s definitely led by trends. Everyone wants the big track that’s being played on radio – or songs that sounds like it. The main focus of the advert is to sell the product – simple as that. It’s not about the music. Advertisers are always thinking about the demographic of the product, so it’s worthwhile for the composer to do the same.

Kully: With adverts, music supervisors seem to want intimate music that reaches out to audiences and fits with close-up candid vocals. But with film trailers, execs are always asking for music to be ‘more cinematic’ and dramatic. Music can’t keep getting more bombastic but they ask for it so you have to find ways to deliver. Every month there are new musical gadgets and plug-ins that help you.

If you’re just starting out, how can you improve your chances of breaking through?
Kully: We got involved with organisations like the BPI and went on their sync missions to LA and France. We also got in touch directly with music supervisors to find out exactly what they want. We realised early on that it’s a very steep learning curve and that curve doesn’t stop. You’re constantly learning and trying new things. When people see you making that much effort they start passing briefs your way. Don’t just expect to walk in and get commissions.

Danny: It’s also worth remembering that TV advertising and blockbuster movies aren’t the only areas you can get into. People working in the online world or in the app business often don’t know anything about the music industry so that’s where you can develop long-lasting relationships.

Jonathan: My advice is to establish your own brand, find out what you’re good at and infiltrate one area. Don’t try to go after everything. If you’re starting out, have a goal and stick to it.

How can you get noticed?
Kully: Walk around with your ears open and constantly work on your craft. Capture noises in the outside world that grab your attention. Be thinking about your music all the time.

Rachel: It’s all about being relevant. Don’t just send an email to someone saying, ‘I’ve got really good stuff, listen to it’. They’re not going to. Understand who you are selling your music to. For example, if you think your music would be great on the Channel 4 show Come Dine With Me, understand who is producing that show and find out who is actually in the edit suite putting music to the footage. Contact that person directly and say, ‘I know Come Dine With Me and I know my music is relevant and would work on that programme’. Make it really easy for them to listen to it – send them a Soundcloud link or whatever and don’t clog up their inbox with mp3s.

Kully: Don’t just look at Britain – look at the whole world. If people aren’t taking notice here there is always the possibility to research different markets.

Danny: Also, don’t be afraid of starting small. Everyone has got to start somewhere. There are so many organisations you can hook up with, especially in the UK film industry. Raindance springs to mind, which is made up of collectives of budding producers and directors who are coming up making shorts and independent films. They’re going to need people to make the music for them. Raindance do a monthly networking event that costs a fiver and you can go along and meet so many directors and producers there.

Kully: To find out more about music supervisors, go to IMDB Pro, put their name in and search for the projects they are currently working on. Approach them by email, show you’ve done the research and send them appropriate music.