A synching ship: how to navigate the currents of modern music consumption

“Baba baba, I’m lovin’ it”.

For many people this will instantly trigger memories of the all present McDonalds commercials from the 00’s, and for some even Justin Timberlake, who sang the jingle and the subsequent single that was released. It is an excellent example of synchronisation, a process in which music is placed under TV-shows, films etc, currently a very hot topic in the music industry. And it is not just for commercial artists either, anyone from Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac to Metallica have enjoyed the (financial) gains from synchronizations. For some artists, such as The Dandy Warhols or Moby it has even effectively launched or amplified their existing career. But is having your music synchronized beneficial for your career?

First, it is important to understand what exactly a synchronization is. The process is called as such because music is synchronized to a different medium. This could be anything ranging from movies, TV-shows, commercials, video games, and more (Berklee, n.d.) 

To synchronize a particular song it is up to the production company of said medium to contact the appropriate rightsholders. If they are using a ‘cover’ version of a song, they will only need to get a license from the publisher of said composition. However, if they are using an existing recording, they will need a license both from the record label (master recording owner) and the publisher (composition owner or administrator) (Resnikoff, 2020). 

Music supervisors are responsible for these synchronizations and oversee all aspects of music in a production project (Lowry, 2019). This means they have to select and license songs, negotiate fees for said songs, prepare budgets and contracts, in addition, they need to have creative input on where to place each song (Mediamatch, n.d.). At the end of the day, it is their job to help realise the musical facet of the vision the producers and the director have (Masterclass, 2021). They require a broad knowledge of music, media, licensing laws, negotiating, and they need to have an extensive network within the music industry.

An example of an artist who has gained substantial exposure and subsequent success through synchronization is British born Michael Kiwanuka. He has been active as a musician since his 22nd year (Kentishtowner, 2014) but did not experience a breakthrough until his song,‘Cold Little Heart,’ was used as the theme track of the HBO series ‘Big Little Lies.’ Consequently, the track, and the then 29 year old artist, experienced succes in the US. After the show debuted, his social media following spiked and his US tour sold out instantly (Lynskey, 2019). Figure 1 showcases the Google activity for the song, and one can see two distinct spikes, both corresponding with the premiere and finale of ‘Big Little Lies’, respectively. The album containing ‘Cold Little Heart’, ‘Love & Hate’ rose to No #1 in the UK (Douris, 2019) and Kiwanuka’s other songs started appearing in other TV-shows, such as ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Empire,’ ‘When They See Us,’ and more (Lynskey, 2019). Besides the financial benefits (the master and copyright license for one, but also performance royalties which are generated every time an episode is aired), it seems that the ‘Big Little Lies’ sync came at an opportune time for Michael Kiwanuka. However, there is the danger of only being known for one song, according to Kiwanuka himself; “I don’t want to be an ungrateful, entitled artist, but I do have other music.” (Lynskey, 2019). 

Figure 1

Worldwide Google trends for ‘Cold Little Heart’ by Michael Kiwanuka since 2004

Note: Google Trends, n.d.

In some cases, a synchronization can not only boost an artist’s career, but even save it. Such was the case for the American alternative rock band The Dandy Warhols. Back in the nineties 1995 and 1997 they had released their first two albums, after which little was heard from the band. In 2000 they released their new single, ‘Bohemian Like You.’ It did not perform well, coming in at #41 on the charts (their lowest charting single yet (Simpson, 2019)), and the band toured heavily for the following year (Independent, 2005). Fortunately, Vodafone chose the song for their new advertising campaign in 2001, which resulted in the song charting at #5 again (Independent, 2005). This gave them the financial freedom to keep experimenting, creating a documentary and multiple successful following records. Their drummer has been quoted saying: “As far as I’m concerned, Vodafone saved rock’n’roll.” (Independent, 2005). In Figure 2 the continued interest in the song can be seen, even years after the sync placement.

Figure 2

Worldwide Google trends for ‘Bohemian Like You’ by The Dandy Warhols since 2004

Note: Google Trends, n.d.

Some songs have become so entwined with a series that it is hard to imagine a scene or intro with a different song. Such is the case with ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. The song was used in the series second season finale, and the very next day ‘Chasing Cars’ had become the #1 most downloaded track on iTunes (Harrington, 2006). Within a week one of Snow Patrol’s other singles, ‘Open Your Eyes’ was used in the season finale of ‘ER’, another TV-show (Harrington, 2006), and since then, their music has been used in countless other shows, such as ‘The Vampire Diaries’ (Tunefind, n.d.), ‘One Tree Hill,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (WhatSong, n.d.), and more. But there is no show they have had more placements than in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, counting 14 in total (WhatSong, n.d.). The album containing ‘Chasing Cars’ charted at #27 on the US Billboard charts (Billboard, n.d.) as a result of all the sync placements. One can assume that while the band had a steady fanbase in their home territory, the UK, their sync placements have given them a foundation in the US as well by increasing their audience exponentially. Figure 3 shows how much interest the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ placement has done for ‘Chasing Cars’. A couple of months after the song had been first used (May 2006) in the series it gained massive traction online (Tunefind, n.d.).

Figure 3

Worldwide Google trends for ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol since 2004

Note: Google Trends, n.d.

When looking at the success these 3 artists have enjoyed after their successful synchronisations, the method of music discovery by audiences across the globe can be studied. One can assume that before the advancement of the internet, people’s main sources of music discovery would be whatever channels they had access to; This meant radio, television, local record stores, and of course friends and families. One example of this was MTV, which screened music videos 24/7 (Mixable, 2016). What set MTV apart from other channels was the fact they named each artist and song. Without access to this information, it was very hard to find out what song you had heard on your favorite TV show or radio station and to subsequently purchase the record. Therefore, when Shazam was founded in 2002, it soon became easier than ever to identify each song (Gillies, 2015). The application can identify what song you are currently hearing and in combination with websites such as Tunefind, who would compile what songs were played in all movies and TV-shows (Siddique, 2019), people can be redirected to purchase or stream said songs within seconds from their favorite retailers or streaming platforms.

Different media can influence people’s music discovery methods, and perhaps even influence what music is popular. According to the Siddique (2019) music use acros major on-demands platforms has increased 238% between 2014 and 2019. 

All in all, one can assume that acquiring a solid synchronization, with a fitting audience, and format fitting to an artist can result in a serious boost to both their career and their finances. Therefore,  to answer the question if it is a good thing having your music synchronized, one can expect  most artists would say: “I’m lovin’ it.”


Berklee (n.d.). Career Communities. Music Supervisor (Film, TV, Video Games). https://www.berklee.edu/careers/roles/music-supervisor-filmtv

Billboard (n.d.). Chart History – Snow Patrol. https://www.billboard.com/music/snow-patrol/chart-history/TCL

Douris, R. (December 20th, 2019). Michael Kiwanuka On Embracing His Name And How ‘Big Little Lies’ Changed His Life. https://www.npr.org/sections/world-cafe/2019/12/20/789744957/michael-kiwanuka-on-embracing-his-name-and-how-big-little-lies-changed-his-life

Gillies, T. (June 14th, 2015). Shazam names that tune, drawing in money and users. https://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/14/shazam-names-that-tune-drawing-in-money-and-users.html 

Google Trends (n.d.) Chasing Cars – Snow Patrol. Retrieved on May 22nd, 2021. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=%2Fg%2F1q5jz9g4_&date=all 

Google Trends (n.d.) Cold Little Heart – Michael Kiwanuka. Retrieved on May 22nd, 2021. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=%2Fg%2F11cmh888_j&date=all 

Google Trends (n.d.) Bohemian Like You – The Dandy Warhols. Retrieved on May 22nd, 2021. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=%2Fg%2F1q5jgfh38 

Harrington, R. (September 20th, 2006). “Grey’s Anatomy” exposure boosts U.K.’s Snow Patrol. https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/greys-anatomy-exposure-boosts-uks-snow-patrol/

Independent, The (November 23rd, 2005). How to get ahead in music: Make an ad! https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/how-get-ahead-music-make-ad-516535.html

Kentishtowner (April 29th, 2014). Ich Bin Kentishtowner: Michael Kiwanuka, singer-songwriter. https://www.kentishtowner.co.uk/2014/04/29/ich-bin-kentishtowner-michael-kiwanuka-singer-songwriter/ 

Lowry, R. (August 8th, 2019). So You Want to be a Music Supervisor? https://tidal.com/magazine/article/music-supervisor/1-55978

Lynskey, D. (October 6th, 2019). Interview Michael Kiwanuka: ‘I’m living my dream. And I was wasting it with thoughts of inferiority’. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/oct/06/michael-kiwanuka-interview-love-hate-cold-little-heart

Masterclass (May 5th, 2021). What Is a Music Supervisor? Understanding the Role and Responsibilities of a Hollywood Music Supervisor. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-a-music-supervisor#what-is-a-music-supervisor

Mediamatch (n.d.). Music Supervisor. https://www.media-match.com/usa/media/jobtypes/music-supervisor-jobs-402744.php#:~:text=Responsibilities%3A,organize%20music%20orchestration%20and%20copying

Mixably (May 31st, 2016). How the internet changed our music discovery. https://medium.com/the-world-is-playlisting-the-official-mixably-blog/how-the-internet-changed-our-music-discovery-ed79b98d551 

Resnikoff, P. (January 30th, 2020). What Is Sync Licensing? A Look at the Music Industry’s Fastest-Growing Sector. https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2020/01/30/what-is-sync-licensing/

Siddique, H. (October 18th, 2019). ‘Golden age of TV’ gives boost to music industry. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/oct/18/tv-streaming-services-revitalise-music-industry-netflix-amazon-prime-video 

Simpson, D. (January 22nd, 2019). The Dandy Warhols: how we made Bohemian Like You. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jan/22/how-we-made-the-dandy-warhols-bohemian-like-you

Tunefind (April 7th, 2011). The Vampire Diaries Soundtrack. https://www.tunefind.com/show/vampire-diaries/season-2/7424

Tunefind (n.d.). Snow Patrol Sync Placements. https://www.tunefind.com/artist/snow-patrol 

WhatSong (n.d.). Snow Patrol. https://www.what-song.com/Artist/3235/Snow-Patrol

Latest articles

Writing Splits

Contracts: Record Labels

Fender: An acquisition analysis

Related articles