‘Sync in all forms can be a game-changer for artists.’

Chris Jones and Sarah Pickering head up the sync department at Sony Music Publishing UK.

Every year a handful of music business stories break into the mainstream and become part of the grown-up/evening news/Today programme agenda rather than the entertainment sidebar.

It might be Adele-levels of success, a game-changing tech breakthrough, a controversy or, sadly, most often, the passing of another legendary artist.

Far more joyously, occasionally – okay, once and once only – it is the use of a 37-year-old track in a hit TV show that sends a semi-retired artist to No. 1 around the world and introduces a whole new audience/generation to a genius.

Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, as seen in Netflix’s Stranger Things, was, without doubt, 2022’s crossover story and, more importantly, introduced millions of people to the back-catalogue of one of music’s unique talents. In doing so, it prompted the wider world to consider the nature, reach and power of sync in general.

Bush is signed to Sony Music Publishing, and it was that firm’s US team which struck the deal.

The UK team, headed up by Chris Jones and Sarah Pickering (universally known as ‘Pixie’), also had a stellar year, with songs in pretty much every high-profile Christmas TV ad and much more besides.

They took the sync reins at SMP two years ago – Jones as VP, Licensing; Pickering as VP, Creative. 

Here, they discuss sync’s direction of travel, how they work with new artists, heritage artists (and each other) and their ambitions for this year and beyond…

What did your To Do list look like two years ago?

Chris Jones: Tim Major and David Ventura (Sony Music Publishing UK co-MDs) were both extremely supportive of me and Pixie when we took over, they said they’d back us in anything we wanted to do.

We certainly wanted to make sure that both the licensing and creative sides of the business were fully covered in all areas in terms of staff and resource. We wanted to grow the business and continue to deliver for our songwriters.

For example, TV licensing was really taking off at the time because of the growth of Netflix and Amazon, Disney, etc. coming into the market. There was more opportunity to grow there and we wanted to make sure we were poised to take advantage of that, so we hired in that area.

Sarah Pickering: Personally, I really wanted to further strengthen the connections between departments, particularly A&R and catalogue. There’s a natural bond between sync and A&R and I wanted to develop
those relationships.

How has the rise of the television streaming services changed the sync market?

CJ: It’s been huge for sync globally, and the UK has benefitted particularly from the new landscape. There have always been huge, worldwide TV shows, but in the past they were mainly US shows that came
over here.

Now, with Netflix and Amazon, they’re producing content in local markets, which is then exported globally. We can license songs directly to the production companies making content for those platforms.

When I started doing TV licensing all those years ago, it was mainly things that fell outside the ITV and BBC blankets and Channel 4 and Channel 5 productions that were seen only in the UK. Now there’s frequent potential to license songs into a TV show that will be noticed worldwide. That’s a huge benefit to ourselves and our songwriters.

“Music used to be something they’d leave little budget and time for, now it’s pivotal.”

Sarah Pickering

 SP: On a financial level, it’s an avenue for better fees, because it’s not blanket. But also, it’s creatively more exciting. The big [TV] streaming platforms are so hot on their music, it’s so important to them. As a result, the briefs that we’re getting for those platforms now are similar in detail that we would have got in an ad brief previously.

Anything that’s on Netflix, Amazon, etc., whereas music used to be something they would often leave little budget and time for, now it’s pivotal.

They are getting amazing directors and supervisors on board who love music and who are dedicated to finding the perfect soundtracks and finding the next great sync like ‘the Kate Bush moment’, because they all want the next Kate Bush moment…

If that’s the case, how open are they to discussion and suggestion?

SP: Most of the time there is more of a discussion, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have a job [laughs]. There are times when they know exactly what they want.

Other times, they’re looking for creative input: they might have an era they want, or a lyrical theme that they want. Sometimes they’ll want something that maybe no one’s heard of, or has been forgotten about.

When they want something very new, that gives us a lot more creative freedom to suggest ideas, because they probably won’t be aware of those opportunities. That’s when we work closely with the A&Rs and hopefully provide a new artist with what might be an important moment that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

What role does sync play in breaking artists, and has that role changed over the years?

CJ: Probably the biggest change is simply that it’s more important than ever. When I started, it was very much seen as a secondary thing, and artists didn’t pay that much attention to it. Now, for new signings, it’s vital. A key sync can help break a song or an artist. When there’s new music on the way, writers, artists – and management – make sure they get it to us early so that we can start thinking about opportunities; they’re really switched on to that these days.

SP: I’ve seen it first-hand, how sync has either broken an artist, or just really, really helped them along the way.

We will always try to have meetings with artists and managers when they’re signed and establish what they are interested in when it comes to sync – and what they’re not keen on.

Back in the day, that might have been a much longer conversation. Artists would have outlined various things they don’t want to be associated with, be that adverts or video games etc.

I would say at least nine times out of 10, anybody we sign now is interested in all opportunities. That’s partly because of the promotional and economic benefits, but it’s also because they know that it’s going to be something great creatively. They also trust us to pitch things that will be interesting and appropriate to them.

And it’s absolutely not always a money thing. Years ago I used to reference Made In Chelsea, now Love Island is a perfect example: it’s not a massive money sync, but it is huge for recognition, and not even just for new artists; it can also re-ignite a classic song – as can the power of the cover.

Sync in all forms can be a game-changer for artists. 

How has the perception of sync changed even within record companies within the last few years?

SP: It’s changed enormously. The importance of sync now is vast.

COVID also changed the picture, because it helped replace money that wasn’t being made on touring during that period.

As an example, it’s commonplace for some of us in the sync team to meet an artist before we sign them now. Not always, but if they or their manager has said that sync is important to them, we will go into the meeting because they want to know somebody is going to be there working really hard to get them syncs, and that they’ve got a team behind them.

What have been the biggest changes during your time in the business?

SP: Probably the biggest one has been the proliferation of new platforms, be that NFTs or TikTok – and gaming has gone through the roof in the last few years.

There are also more in-depth artist tie-ins, it’s not always a straightforward sync deal now. There are brand partnerships, there are opportunities for bespoke sync work.

There’s much more involvement between our sync team, an agency, a supervisor, an A&R team; it’s a lot more inter-connected and project-based than ever before.

What did Running Up That Hill tell us about where sync’s at right now?

CJ: It certainly showcased the power of sync and what it can do for a catalogue on a global level.

We’re fortunate and very proud to publish Kate Bush, because of course everything starts with her talent and that song. And our US team takes the credit for the actual sync.

I think it was important that it was used throughout the season. There was one episode where it obviously featured prominently, and was central to the action, but it had already been heard a few times before then.

SP: I think fundamentally it reminded us about the power of a great song. I loved it because it was about showing a great song to a new generation.

It’s one of the reasons I love getting our artists to do covers. I know this wasn’t a cover, but it’s a similar principle: there’s someone watching a show who has never heard that song before, and probably never would if not for that sync. Then there are other people, a different generation, who are hearing it in a completely new way. Everybody’s winning and either discovering or being reminded of a great song.

Thanks to this example in particular, there are now 15-year-olds who are going down a Kate Bush rabbit hole – and I can’t think of a much better result than that!

We’ve seen something similar with the Depeche Mode track, Never Let Me Down Again, covered by Jessica Mazin, which was used in the end credits of The Last Of Us. The reaction to that has been phenomenal and, again, it’s helped find a wider audience for a phenomenal song.

What’s the difference you bring as a department to your writers when it comes to winning competitive syncs?

SP: Our artists speak for themselves to a large extent. I love the SMP roster, and I couldn’t go in and fight for us if I didn’t love it and wasn’t passionate about it.

I also think the fact that we have such a diverse roster means there’s always conviction behind why we’re pitching. We’d rather pitch no music than the wrong music. But the make-up of our roster means we will always have something that we believe is perfect for pretty much any individual sync or situation.

Aside from that, I think clients know that we’re a close-knit team, we’re close to the artists, their manager and their A&R, so they will always have someone that can act quickly and solve any issue.

They know that, when they come to us, they’re getting a whole service. Everybody’s going to communicate with them, they’re going to be able to get hold of people and get an answer quickly. From my experience with supervisors and agencies, that’s
really important.

CJ: On the licensing side, it’s about getting the best value for that song and the best deal for our songwriter. It’s looking at what terms they want to license under, looking at how big that song is, evaluating all these different factors, then coming up with a number and negotiating hard, but fairly, with clients. It’s first and foremost all about getting the best deal for our songwriters and catalogues.

What do you see as the most important trends and biggest challenges in sync right now?

CJ: I think the biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going. We had an incredible 2022, one of the best years in sync that I can remember. We need to  maintain the value of our songs.

There’s obviously the risk of a global recession at some point this year, and if that happens, brands will spend less money, which could then affect us, so we need to find new areas of business.

SP: I think a continuing trend is going to be a new level of creativity in TV and games this year.

Musically, we’ve been seeing a lot more requests for UK hip-hop, which is great. Generally, the trends that are coming up in A&R, in terms of songs and artists, will inevitably cross over into sync.

Can you talk a bit about what made 2022 such a strong year for Sony Music Publishing in sync?

CJ: We had a really great Christmas for sure. We had shares in at least 15 of the big ads, mainly the supermarkets and department stores:

In the UK, holiday syncs have become a bit like the Super Bowl. All the brands and supermarkets try and outdo each other with the biggest ads, and music is almost always such a big part of those ads. Personally, the one I was most proud of was the John Lewis campaign. Obviously everyone wants to get a sync on that particular ad, and it was a wonderful version of All The Small Things coupled with a beautiful film.

Credit obviously goes to Adam & Eve, the ad agency behind it, and also Leland Music, the supervisors. We control a third of that song, and we led the negotiations on it and got a really great result for the songwriters against some stiff competition from other publishers and labels who were all pitching.

“In the UK, holiday syncs have become a bit like the Super Bowl.”

Chris Jones

SP: I was also really proud of the Yazoo/McDonald’s/Becky Hill one, because we have a really close relationship with Becky, we worked on the cover [of Only You] and pitched it. It’s always nice when there’s a creative angle and not just a question of licensing something.

And there were a couple of really nice moments when we placed tracks for artists on Match of the Day or Love Island. That might not seem massive, but sometimes we know the artists are big fans of those programmes, or it means a lot in terms of their Shazam numbers.

They can really go a long way – and they’re the ones where you often get a personal thank you, which is always nice!

What are the headline ambitions?

CJ: To continue to grow and find new avenues of business. About 18 months ago, for instance, we started licensing some songs into NFTs, which was interesting. And then, catalogue-wise, Sony has purchased some incredible catalogues over the last few years, like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, and there is definitely some untapped potential in the UK there as far as sync is concerned; it will be amazing to find some opportunities for those incredible songs.

SP: Quite simply, to stay on top of our game and continue to obtain more and more opportunities for songwriters and artists. We’re signing such great stuff, new artists and catalogues, and that motivates us to try and get them on as much as we possibly can.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q1 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.

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