A 30-year veteran of music rights and sample clearances, Deborah Mannis-Gardner has long been on the frontlines of negotiating complex licensing deals, whether it’s clearing samples for songs by big-name artists (Eminem, Lady Gaga, Beyonce and beyond), film music for Oscar-winning directors (Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers) or Tony-winning Broadway scores (Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.”)
So as Mannis-Gardner and her 10-person team at DMG Inc. saw their clients’ revenue from touring, Broadway, syncs and other pre-quarantine entertainment evaporate virtually overnight, they rose to the occasion to ensure music rights retained as much of their pre-COVID value as possible.
“DMG is still very busy,” Mannis-Gardner tells Songs for Screens after wrapping one of many regular calls she’s having with performing-rights organizations. “If anything, we’re trying to give guidance to our clients as things are moving to a different platform.”
Will Smith’s new quarantine Snapchat series “Will From Home” is one of several content pivots where DMG have been involved with music clearances. While “people are moving in the direction of what can be produced or created from home,” as Mannis-Gardner says, artists and social-media platforms alike are learning in real time that the mass transition to livestreamed concerts and DJ sets comes with a thicket of thorny legal issues, which Mannis-Gardner and her team are only beginning to help untangle.
Songs for Screens caught up with Mannis-Gardner to learn more about the best (and worst) practices for licensing songwriting and master recordings on social media, the outlook for syncs and the dangers of free licenses.
The [main] issues that we’ve run into are platforms that are lacking licenses from performing-rights organizations. A lot of these platforms take the position that because they’re licensing third-party programming, it’s not their responsibility to get a PRO license. But it is. If they’re going to make money exploiting music, they should take the responsibility to get a PRO license.
I’m sure people are going to get mad for what I’m saying to you, but we need to take into account how songwriters are being affected by bars being closed, restaurants being closed, clubs, shows, grand rights, Broadway — all that PRO revenue is gone, so if these streaming or internet platforms are not willing to get a blanket PRO license, then they don’t deserve to have music. We need to come up with ways to keep the revenue flowing.
PRO licenses are important because if it’s a livestream, the music will all fall under that. If it’s on-demand, it’s a sync license, and it’s important for the money to flow through the right parties. Granted, budgets are a lot smaller, but some money is better than no money.
Which platforms are compliant and have blanket PRO licenses?
BMI has confirmed that YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and TikTok all have PRO licenses. We know Snapchat doesn’t, and there are a couple others that don’t.
What about the masters’ side of clearances – do you see any improvements coming so DJ sets aren’t getting shut down with takedown notices?
For DJs, it’s a little different. The publishing would be under the PRO, but the master recordings aren’t. We did stuff with Twitch where the publishing was covered under the PRO, then we went to the labels to secure the master side, but the quotes were really high. We need to discuss with the labels how to bring the fees down. They could be charging less and still keep the revenue coming through.
What impact have you seen on the commercial sync marketplace – has the production shutdown reduced the number of campaign briefs for music that you’ve received?
I work with Google, and we just reworked some of the [creative] as to campaign direction. Google put up a great Earth Day spot [a re-recording of Joe Raposo’s “Little Things,” by his son Andrew] that’s an example of that. And beyond that, I really love what Walmart [with health-care workers singing “Lean On Me”] and Target [with Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow”] have done, that’s some really good, smart advertising. And it goes back to music. People are relying on music to deal as a coping mechanism for what’s going on. That’s why it’s so important. We’ve gotta watch our budgets, but we gotta keep the music flowing. I have a lot of music still being worked on, so I think there’s gonna be a lot of product out there.
How much have budgets been reduced from sync quotes you’ve seen?
Look, I’m having to send out letters saying, “My client has lost $1.3 million, my client has lost $5.2 million. So based on this revenue that my clients will never get back, is there any way you can adjust your quotes?” What we have to do to adjust these quotes is, “If you’re working on something that’s going to go on YouTube, you’re not gonna get perpetual rights. But you can limit it to 30 days, or a year. Will it be geo-blocked? Will it have a pay-per-view element?” We’ve been trying to guide clients on what rights they actually need, to keep those fees at a rate they can afford. When you’re doing deals with a Netflix or an Amazon, it’s all media worldwide, or perpetuity, or maybe you get an option for theatrical. You just gotta carve all those rights down so we can keep those fees in check. Again, it’s better to have some money than no money. I just won’t ask for free — I don’t believe in it.
What does the outlook for TV and film syncs look like right now?
We’re all still making sure entertainment can continue. Some of my TV productions have been put on hold. I do think “Saturday Night Live” has done a phenomenal job [broadcasting during lockdown] but still, it’s gonna be this way for the next 18 to 24 months. I’m advising festivals like Afropunk, who recorded most of their previous festivals, to put them out there, documentary-style, and clear the music.
We’re seeing a lot of free music [content and concerts], and we just can’t continue down that path. I think down the road, over the next 18-24 or even 36 months, we’ll see more on-demand, more pay-per-view, and those equations work. The Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” concerts, which were broadcast as pay-per-view, did very well. We did have to clear the music because it was pay-per-view, and a great amount of revenue was derived from that. I think you could take that equation and apply it.
You’re still gonna see a lot of free stuff, but I think that’s going to change to [paid] on-demand. Now’s the time to pull out content, do something with it and find companies to finance it and back it and try to keep the fees down. I think its gonna work. We’re gonna see new [subscription-based content], but it’s gonna take some time.
How unprecedented is this current moment in the context of your career?
You always have to think outside the box. I’ve been doing sample clearances since 1990 — when we were told it was a phase, that the music wasn’t gonna stick around. Every time you’re hit with a curveball, you’ve just gotta hit it back. I was told obstacles make you strong — so I guess I’m bench-pressing pretty high right now.
Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.