By Sarah McMullan
Pop music in its many guises is perhaps the great art form of our age. However, with the fluctuating face of pop evolving into uncharted territories, the old rules to determine musical achievement no longer appear to apply.
Once iconic triumphs such as Top of the Pops were seen to reward – as its moniker promised – the most popular. However, we’re left discussing such successes with notes of nostalgia. Top of the Pops, now obsolete, is akin to many things of a less complicated time. Like when a fish supper could be enjoyed as a fish supper; these days its consumption risks your potential appearance in a heinous Channel 4 programme with Gillian McKeith. Slowly yet surely, modern society is stripping us of our simplistic joys, replacing them with pop politics and obesity.
Most recently, the meltdown of HMV signals the closing of another door, a big fat exclamation mark, a capitalised FUCK for the music biz. How is an artist to reach its audience if even the most conventional means are failing?
One method involves the matching up of songs with television shows, movies, advertising and computer games though a music synchronisation license, commonly known in the industry as a sync.
Glasgow-based Rage Music are a BAFTA award-winning team who provide music for visual media. Their staff compose TV themes and soundtracks to order or act as a go-between for artists who already have a clutch of songs with sync potential. Rage’s music co-ordinator Dianne Stevenson helped me, the artistically challenged, establish the protocol in this fairly modern line of work.
“The projects we get in which require sync are always on very short timelines – sometimes we are pulling tracks to be cleared and sent within four hours,” she says. “Therefore having unsigned/unpublished bands who hold all their own master usage allows us to quickly and easily get clearance. This seems to be the preferred status of a number of music supervisors we deal with.
“We are often sent music from bands and managers, and are approached with CDs at various music festivals and events such as Wide Days and goNORTH. The best advice we can give a band is to have all their tracks, along with instrumentals, lyric sheets, PRS info, biog, etc, in one place online with an easy download, or to send in an EPK (electronic press kit).
“Generally, the music the client/advertising company requires is upbeat tracks with a cool, recognisable hook. We receive quite a lot of requests from bands and artists – asking if their music could be used or added to our roster – whose songs are beautiful, interesting and definitely the type I would listen to, but just not ‘happy’ enough for the kind of projects we get in.
“One of our most recent band placements was a Stanley Odd track for a Marketing Edinburgh TV advertising campaign with The Leith Agency. We had seen the band perform live at the goNORTH festival wrap party. We had suggested a number of possible Scottish artists for inclusion in the campaign, and Stanley Odd’s track Numbness had been trialled as a mood track. As the campaign progressed, the creatives and the band worked together to create new lyrics to suit the campaign.”
It is a fast-paced and intricate process which requires not only a good ear but a mind sculpted by business. From an artist’s point of view, however, such exposure can just as easily be a help or hindrance to their career depending on who or what they are endorsing.
Frightened Rabbit song Swim Until You Can’t See Land was used in a Baxter’s television commercial after being put forward by their publishing company Domino, but the band’s singer and lyricist, Scott Hutchison, explains that knowing when to say ‘no’ is every bit as important.
He says: “When approving an advert to use our music we always ask ourselves, ‘Do we use that product?’ And I do eat Baxter’s soup! We turned down two huge ones last year because they were totally inappropriate. The damage it could do is way more than the benefits of the money. It would totally ruin the perception of the band. I never saw the Baxter’s advert before it aired. If it was anything other than a soup company maybe I would have. I figured it would be fairly innocuous, which it turned out to be. Lots of jumpers and cosy fireplace shots.”
As well as generating revenue, syncs undeniably help artists reach a wider audience in an industry saturated with talent. Music is no longer just art for art’s sake but art for our sake, its place in marketing entirely justified. However, the acceptance of consumerism does not mean the loss of integrity and certainly does not define ‘selling out’.
Glenrothes band Tango In The Attic have enjoyed prosperity stateside through syncs, with tracks from their debut album Bank Place Locomotive Society being featured on MTV’s The Real World and a commercial for Cheer detergent. Their manager, Paul Grieve, who developed contacts with agencies during the band’s appearance at SXSW in Texas last year, provides some grip on the processes.
“There are lots of sync agencies out there, all offering different agreements and percentages,” he explains. “Bands need to see what works for them. We work on higher percentages for non-exclusive agreements which means we are not tied to any one agent and can accept work from elsewhere. These arrangements are still in place over the second and hopefully the third record.”
I’ve never fallen in love with a band on the basis of licensing contracts or the prospects of their income margins, but such behind-the-scenes negotiations illustrate the professionalism required of aspiring artists, reinforcing that it is an integral part of life for any serious musician.
Syncs do not determine success but they are a means to an end. Approached with the appropriate intentions they serve as advantageous on numerous levels. The sponsorship efforts of Dundonian acoustic collective Anderson McGinty Webster Ward and Fisher, for instance, resulted in an advert for Caledonia Best and a reworking of Dougie MacLean’s well-known folk ballad Caledonia.
“The benefits are that you will gain exposure to a wider audience – it only becomes evil if the brand or product is offensive to your audience,” reasons AMWWF’s manager, Grant Dickson. “Johnny Rotten selling butter is a good example of offending your audience.
“Musical success – well, that has its own definition outside of any financial gain, and I’d say that you can only satisfy your own audience with being brilliant, original and having your own message. Syncs can make or break your band, but if you don’t have a solid band with its own fanbase for the right reasons then you might as well ditch it and go on Big Brother.”