Over the past two decades, the popularity of ice skating has waned. But this Olympic season, a pair of pop-culture phenomena may change that, with one of them impacting the music industry.
The first, of course, is awards-season bait “I, Tonya,” a reminder of skating’s dramatic heyday. The second is Jimmy Ma, a relative unknown, soundtracking his nimble U.S. Figure Skating Championships routine to DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” “I became an internet meme in three days,” says Ma, who’s previously skated to Eminem.
Lil Jon learned of the homage to his track through Twitter. “I was like, ‘WTF is this?’ So I watched, and I was like, ‘This is really cool. I never seen anyone figure skate to hip-hop!’”
That’s because the International Skating Union, which governs the sport, didn’t allow lyrics in skating programs until just after the 2014 Olympic Games. That makes Pyeongchang a testing ground.
What does it mean for recording artists? Footage of Ma’s Jan. 4 routine went viral, accruing at least 680,000 views across several YouTube channels and trending on social media. It was great publicity for DJ Snake and Lil Jon. But with “Turn Down for What” clocking only roughly 30% more streams the first day it went viral, the exposure didn’t yield much in the way of royalties.
The Olympics, by contrast, draw massive global audiences — 2.1 billion fans reportedly tuned in to the Sochi games four years ago. “There’s an exception to the copyright act that allows for music to be reproduced at live events without a sync license,” says Steve Winogradsky, a veteran music attorney and author of “Music Publishing: The Complete Guide.” “But when music is played on television, publishers can collect broadcast fees. Part of the money that NBC pays as blanket licenses would go to the publishers and writers of the track.” Broadcast fees are less than sync fees. But several countries will have to pony up.
U.S. figure skating national champion Adam Rippon plans to skate to Ida Corr’s “Let Me Think About It” and Coldplay’s “O,” even designing his costume around the latter’s avian theme. “You want your music to be competitive, to have a specific rhythm that goes with elements of what you’re doing,” says Rippon. “Jimmy Ma had the music edited really well, so it flowed along with his elements.” Rippon works with Montreal-based DJ Hugo Chouinard, a former figure skater who specializes in editing music to fit a routine’s choreography.
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Judges who are used to the classical style may take time to warm to other genres, says Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist who’s now an NBC Sports commentator. “I think skaters are still in the phase of ‘How do we use these lyrics? What genre of music do we use?’ If you’re skating to Cardi B, it’s going to be much more difficult to execute those graceful moves that the judges are looking for.”
That hasn’t discouraged Rippon, who’s accompaniment has included everyone from the Beatles to Queen over the past four years. But he’s considered a high-profile disruptor of sorts when it comes to modernizing ice skating. “I like to choose music that nobody else has skated to,” he says. “It kind of gets everybody’s attention.”