How to completely mess up a sync deal

Procuring a sync deal is no easy feat. There are a wealth of gaffes that can result in the demise of contracts worth thousands of dollars.

Egos, pushy broadcasting companies, blanket licenses and PR disasters can make a music supervisor’s life hell. (Just ask Universal, whose Volkswagen deal, through no fault of their own, has just turned toxic.)

But there’s much as stake: securing a lucrative sync deal can pay for an artist’s album or tour and it’s become an important revenue stream for the music industry in recent years.

Getting a track placed in a film, TV advert or series can make anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000.

But being associated with the wrong brand or falling victim to overexposure can harm a credible artist’s career.

It’s a tricky balancing act.

Sometimes when things go wrong, it’s not the music supervisor’s fault: the BBC, for example – thanks to blanket licensing deals with MCPS and PRS – is free to use any music it clears in instances without specific permission from creators. (The Beeb reportedly pays PRS upwards from £30 million a year for such a deal.)

A track can be retracted from a use under a blanket licence, but it’s a lengthy procedure that provides no guarantee it will never be used again, says Alex Lavery, CEO of Pitch & Sync.

At Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg last week, a panel of sync experts were on hand to share their horror stories and offer some words of advice when it comes to stumbling blocks and warning signs.

MBW jotted them down for your education…

1) Assumed co-operation

For tracks that don’t fall under a blanket licence deal, ambitious managers might be quick to assume their act would love nothing more than to have a song featured in the next box office blockbuster, cult TV series or nappy advert, but it’s not always the case.

“It goes wrong when you’ve got a manager that’s sent you a really amazing track that you want to use,” explains music supervisor Peter Saville, founder of Carbon Logic Ltd. and Fairsplit Music.

“You get all these guarantees by the manager and the band that it’s safe to be licensed, and at the last minute, the lead singer hates his band members, is taking them to court, owns all the rights and there’s no way you can license it.

2) “Every time you look for music outside of a blanket license you run the risk of the deal going wrong.”

Darius Justin Rafat, senior manager brand entertainment & licensing at Universal Music Group in Germany, says it’s always important to have a Plan B. And, if possible, a Plan C.

Alex Lavery of Pitch & Sync agrees – noting that, otherwise, you could end up with a Sufjan Stevens scenario on your hands.

A track by the US songwriter was approved by his rep, only for Stevens himself to go missing for three weeks (according to Lavery, “he goes into a cave every now and again”).

Eventually, weeks after the deal began, Stevens said he wasn’t happy with his vocal being used.

“No one could understand why. The client thought we were incompetent, the agency took over and went back to his rep offering three times the money we could to make it work,” says Lavery.

3) Ignoring the elephant in the room

The high-profile Blurred Lines case, where Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams were sued by the estate of Marvin Gaye for allegedly copying parts of the late soul singer’s Got To Give It Up, brought issues surrounding copyright and plagiarism in music to the fore.

But the duo aren’t alone – it’s common for musicians to take inspiration from what’s gone before and isn’t hard to see how you might end up with something that sounds similar.

Add a high chart placing into the mix and you’ve got a potential lawsuit on your hands. Milena Fessmann, managing director at Cinesong, says you can only take the creator’s word that they’ve not sampled excerpts without permission.

Applying the old grey whistle test – where you sing the melody of your work to someone who knows the prior work to see if they identify it as a carbon copy –  is a tried and tested way of finding out if a song sounds overly familiar before it leaves the studio.

Ignore the problem and risk paying out more in legal fees than you earn from syncing a track.

4) Sound-a-likes

Which brings us on to sound-a-likes. That is, when a brand hires a musicologist to advise how much of an expensive track they can get away with copying for their own advertising campaign, without having to pay for the original.

Lavery recently quit a project for a firm in Japan that wanted to use a track that sounded like a song from an Apple advert.

Losing credibility by copying a well known competitor aside, using one reference to create a soundtrack is just throwing money down the drain, he says.

“We have to have three references and a creative brief to send to composers,” says Lavery, “but the client was adamant they just wanted the track to sound like this song.

“They made us use a musicologist to back up what we were telling them and he washed his hands of the project.

“The client then went on to use another musicologist, ended up spending more on lawyer fees than they had to license the music and have now gone with another track altogether.”

5) Doing business with estates

Ever heard of ‘the Elvis right’? The estate of Elvis Presley (pictured main) insists that as well as having to clear the master and publishing for use of the late-singer’s tracks, music supervisors have to get the approval of his estate too.

A most favoured nation (MFN) clause also apparently means all three parties have to get an equal share of the fee.

“We licensed something that went to TV and suddenly owed [an estate] a shitload of money.” says Lavery.

The late Jimi Hendrix is another complicated character in the world of sync.

The rock artist’s music is rumoured to be banned for use on anything relating to drugs, sex or partying.

“It’s always the estate that is difficult,” says Fessmann. “They are not the artist so just want to make money out of it. It’s always longer, more expensive and if you need to talk and write and convince them sometimes you just give up.”

And we all know what happens when you mess with the estate of Marvin Gaye.

6) Ruining reputations

Keeping your cool while film producers demand access to a David Gilmour track for pitiful amounts, fashion directors change their mind on a song one hour before a show, ad clients expect tracks with multiple writers to be cleared in 24 hours and top producers overcharge and under-deliver is vital, concludes Lavery.

“Sometimes your solution to a problem is that someone that will go a bit further because you have a relationship. If you’re nice consistently and have done a good job then people will try and help you out.”Music Business Worldwide

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