Remember playing video games with your friends and discovering amazing new music?
A defining musical moment for me was Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. I’ll never forget listening to AC/DC’s T.N.T. while cruising around and mashing all the buttons in a vain attempt at some in-game objective. It felt amazing and even today, the song is burnt into my brain in connection to Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. The ironic thing is that I don’t even like AC/DC that much, I dig a couple of their songs, but this song will forever stand out for me. And just like thousands of kids every day are building connections with their in-game soundtracks, some of them are actually becoming fans of said soundtracks.
But how exactly did T.N.T. end up in this video game? And more importantly, how can modern day artists get their music in video games?
What are you syncing about?
So first off, let’s clear up what a sync is. It’s short for synchronisation, because a certain piece of music is being synchronized to other media. This could be a video game, but it could also be a movie, a TV-show, a commercial, a trailer, a short movie, an online ad campaign, etc. You get the idea. Any media they potentially need music for is a potential synchronisation.
And don’t underestimate syncs. There have been several acts (more on that later) who have blown up because of a sync. And when you think about it, it’s quite the no-brainer. You get paid money (most of the time), you’ll reach an often brand-new audience that might and most probably will connect with your music, and you don’t really have to do anything extra for it. Even better, sometimes they’ll want the music act to also appear in the specific medium, so think a commercial with a band playing in the background, a cameo in a movie, an in-game character named after a band member, etc. Some of these options are gimmicky but others can really add to the value a sync can bring for you as an artist. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be replicated in a video game?
Who you gonna call?
Well, not the Ghostbusters (although their soundtrack is one of the more memorable ones). And not the person actually responsible for synchronizing music to whatever medium you have in mind. These people are called music supervisors, and as you can imagine, everybody wants to be their friend. And while music supervisors are often looking for music, they aren’t looking to be bothered all day, every day (I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this to be honest). So make sure you’re polite when you knock on their (virtual) door with your brand new EP. And perhaps it’s best not to approach them directly at all. In some situations there’s a middle man for a reason…
Who should you call?
Your publisher, that is who! They will often have established connections with music supervisors and will be able to pitch your material much more easily than you might. At the same time I’ve heard enough publishers mention that sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. For some projects they are looking for a specific sound or specific lyrics, and if you’re on the top of the pile, disregarding why, you just might get the gig. So just remember it takes a lot of luck as well. If you’re an up-and-coming artist with a cool or great story this will also help, basically anything that helps will flesh out the story of your musical act. Additionally, no publisher can guarantee sync placements. At least, not a single one I have ever met was able to make this claim.
It’s also good to keep in mind that not all music is syncworthy. Hard rock, death metal etc. tend to not really do well, and music supervisors are often looking for songs with a very specific lyrical theme. Love, family, friends, breakups, sad situations. Just think back to the last time you felt any emotions watching a TV show, I’m 90% sure there was music accompanying that moment.
But who gets the money?
Alright, let’s talk $$$. Syncs used to be big, big money. Because of everyone’s eagerness in the past years to sign up for syncs the fees have gone down somewhat (supply vs. demand as usual), but you should still be able to get a good payday. And of course, the more well known and (in)famous you are the higher the fee you can negotiate. Added to that is additional usage of an artists’ likeness, name, logo etc. which will come with a higher price tag.
Master vs. copyright
Exactly who gets how much can get a little more convoluted. The general industry rule is that 50% is paid to the master owner and 50% is paid to the copyright owner. Now who exactly owns the master and who exactly owns the copyrights can get a little complicated. In essence, 50% is paid to your label, who will then pay you as an artist whatever royalty rate on syncs you have agreed on in your deal. The other 50% is paid to your PRO, minus your publisher’s share (which goes straight to your publisher). Everything left after your publisher’s share should be paid out to you directly by your PRO.
Of course, this is the way things are supposed to go. Real life can always be quite different from that, so make sure you read any deals or deal memos that come your way regarding syncs.
As the movie is shown more often, the TV show is renewed for 6 more seasons with your song as the theme song, and the commercial with your jingle turns out to be a hit, this all means that you will get more payments from your PRO, if you are the sole writer, or one of the writers, we call these mechanical royalties. This is also the case if you’re the master owner, then these monies are called neighbouring rights. In some countries neighbouring rights are a relatively new concept, so make sure to check locally what the deal is.
If you don’t want to sign up to a publisher, for whatever reason, it’s also possible to collaborate with a sync agent. That agent will work on one of your songs specifically. The trade-off is either a (high) flat fee or they take a bigger cut of your copyrights than a typical publisher would (after they place your song!). But the exposure and flexibility could make up for that. Decisions, decisions…
Honestly, there aren’t a lot of downsides. A sync placement could clash with your brand or image as an artist, but it’s up to you or your manager to make sure that doesn’t happen.
It is good to realise that sync deals are often pitched and finalized in 24-72 hours. This means if you’re too slow you can miss out on a great chance, but again, that is more on you than anyone else.
Unfortunately, if you write all your songs with 4 other people, and those 4 people are aligned with 4 other publishers it’s going to be difficult clearing that particular song quickly. Sometimes publishers will work with quickclaims, which is basically prior approval from the other writers and publishers to speed up the process. Because again, there are not a lot of downsides. The same goes for samples, although these can be harder to clear sometimes. Ideally, you get an allround license when licensing the sample, but this is a little outside of my field of expertise.
So all in all, why not go for that sync? It can help expose you as an artist, it can be a great financial stimulant and it can give you more clout in the industry. You always have to stay vigilant, of course, but that is pretty much the case for all aspects of the music industry. As for AC/DC? I’ve never really been a fan, however, I do play ‘Thunderstruck’ from time to time.
Do you have any great sync examples? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s chat!
The Dandy Warhols – Bohemian Like You in a Vodafone ad
Michael Kiwanuka – Cold Little Heart in the show Big Little Lies
- What Is Sync Licensing? A Look at the Music Industry’s Fastest-Growing Sector – Digital Music News
- What is Sync and Why is it Important? – Anara Publishing
- SYNC LICENSING 101 – TuneCore