Licensing switches from the cart to the horse

Music for Screens: Fall 2011

Radio may still be king for many artists and record labels, but high-profile song placements in movies, commercials and TV shows are threatening to steal the crown when it comes to driving sales and profits, especially for mid-level acts.

Ten years ago, licensing revenue was seen as “icing on the cake,” says Karen Lamberton, senior VP of soundtracks, film and TV music and strategic marketing for RCA. “Now, it’s seen as a core piece of the revenue stream.”

So much so that an artist’s sync potential can play into signing negotiations. “Sony’s attorneys will now come to me and (ask) if I think this is a band that (we’ll) be able to license,” Lamberton says. “It may alter how we structure the agreement.”

Indeed, for many label acts, a well-placed sync will propel sales far more than radio play, according to Adam Farrell, VP of Beggars Banquet, which includes 4AD, XL, Matador and Rough Trade. “We always have the (acts) where you’ve sold few albums, but the P&L looks great because you’ve had so many syncs.

“I remember a couple of years ago, Friendly Fires had a song called ‘On Board’ in a Wii Fit ad,” Farrell continues. “That happened before we put the record out. What we had to quickly do was put the song up on iTunes. There was enough momentum that we (also) put the album up on iTunes early. (The sync’s success) reshaped the way we put the album out…The syncs absolutely drove the sales and downloads more than radio play.”

In recent months, acts like Ray LaMontagne and Vampire Weekend have received increased awareness from sync licensing. Lamberton says she has gotten “several hundred” license requests for LaMontagne’s music over the last five years, resulting in dozens of placements, including “House,” “One Tree Hill,” “Bones,” “Covert Affairs” and such films or movie trailers as “27 Dresses,” “Away From Her,” “The Conspirator” and “I Love You, Man.”

The radio campaign for LaMontagne’s “Trouble” was long over when Travelers Insurance picked it up for usage in an adorable commercial with a fretting pooch in 2009. RCA saw digital download sales increase 130% once the spot began airing regularly compared to the period before, Lamberton says. (The commercial was so popular that “The Office” even licensed the song in a plot point that had a pregnant Pam crying as she watched the ad.) While they don’t air as frequently, TV show placements still can have a great impact on sales: Jennifer Hudson’s “I Remember Me” surged 341% in download sales the week it aired on BET’s “Basketball Wives.”

Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday” received tremendous exposure following its usage in commercials for both Honda and Tommy Hilfiger last year, but Farrell says that for all the awareness, he doesn’t look at those placements as “completely vital” to how the label marketed “Contra,” the album that featured the track, in part because “Contra,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, had already been out for months at that point and the band had already broken into the mainstream.

Instead he points to the success that Brit collective the xx experienced after AT&T used a song snipped called “Intro” in its nearly ubiquitous 2010 Olympics commercial featuring Apolo Ohno. “That put them into the mass market,” he says. “That’s when we started getting calls from Target and Best Buy to get them in the store. It put the band on the map…That was as good as getting a top 40 alternative hit.”

Placements may help developing acts the most, but even a massive radio smash can benefit from a stellar partnership to lift its already soaring profile higher. LMFAO’s breakthrough hit “Party Rock Anthem” had already reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (as well as on the U.K. charts) when Kia premiered a new commercial during August’s MTV Video Music Awards for the Soul brand that not only prominently played the song but featured Kia’s famous hamsters shuffling to the “Party Rock Anthem.”

“The song certainly had a lot of heat going into the campaign, but the KIA spot extended the reach,” says Jennifer Frommer, Interscope Records senior VP of brand partnerships. Not only was the song given a new life through the TV commercials, but the deal included a $20 million ad buy in theaters, with the spot often airing before movies targeted at kids.

The strategy expanded the demo for the song beyond what Frommer calls LMFAO’s “sweet spot” of 18-34, to both the younger set including tweens, as well as the tweens’ parents in their 40s and 50s. The result was a surge in digital downloads.

While for many acts any sync is great, increasingly, the key is getting as much exposure for the music as possible. “The modern approach,” says Frommer, “is flipping the model so that the artist is front and center in the ad campaign instead of slapping on the sync at the last moment.”

Music for Screens: Fall 2011

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