Thursday, 5 December 2013

Licensing songs to be used in film, television and commercials: A response to music piracy?

In his quite wonderful 2012 book How Music Works (much cited on this blog), David Byrne explains how he still sees "more money from licensing songs to films and TV" than from actual record sales. Now, this isn't in a greedy sense. It's in an I'm-a-full-time-musician-and-need-money-to-live-just-like-you-sense.

Going into some depth, Byrne explains that one licensing deal can in fact generate more income than an entire tour.

I'm in two minds about this.

Take one of my favourite songs, The Long Road by Pearl Jam. Really taking the time to think about this, I'm not sure if I've ever listened to it in the company of others. Seldom played live, this non-album track means the world to me and features as the opening track on quite a few of my most-listened to playlists.

Now, if this song were to feature as the theme tune to a new HBO show that everyone was watching, it would instantly lose its magic for me. Now, that's not going to happen. Pearl Jam aren't into that and for good reasons. Frontman Eddie Vedder doesn't want fans perceptions of songs to be skewed (where they rarely even produce music videos). This, is what I'm talking about.

The other me, however, wants my favourite artists to earn a living and enjoy the commercial success they deserve working in a tumultuous industry that demands taking great risks, often making great personal sacrifices in the process. Licensing, cover songs, being sampled (maybe a future blog entry in there somewhere?) all offer great ways to help this along.

Record sales only go so far (where Byrne breaks down a typical $10 album download resulting in $1.40 for the musician/s) and some artists aren't able to sell out London's 02 Arena (nor would they necessarily want to). Money has to come from somewhere in between new releases and tours.

Reflecting on my weak Pearl Jam analogy, I can't recall a time where my love of music has ever been spoiled through licensing (where Pearl Jam in actual fact used their excellent b-side Yellow Ledbetter in the final episode of sitcom Friends to a spectacular effect). In actual fact, music heard in this way can inspire awareness of new artists. Moby, famously licensed all 18 tracks from his acclaimed 1999 album Play. It's hard to judge, but it might very well be the case that had he not done so, someone, somewhere, might not have been to a Moby concert and had one of the most positive experiences of their lives.

In the right context, and to isolate licensing in film,  familiar music used in a movie can be extremely powerful and emotive. Indeed, some of the most memorable scenes in cinema history stem from the successful partnership of sound and vision. Pre-loaded with associations with a particular piece of music, filmmakers can manipulate your emotions, creating memorable cinema experiences.

The problem is the emotional attachment we feel to certain pieces of music. We often don't want that shared. It's the same process that upsets people when a band become 'mainstream' (think: Kings of Leon).

In summary, I don't think it's a bad thing at all. Arguably, it has become necessary.

Perhaps more importantly, we need to stop probing how much musicians make here, there and everywhere. Strangers to you and I, why are we so interested?

When was the last time you asked a friend or relative how much money they earned last year?


Byrne, D. (2012). How Music Works. Canongate: Edinburgh.

Tweets @musicpiracyblog

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