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Nets Hum Innovative New Tunes

The television business has come a long way, musically speaking, since filmmaker Michael Mann scribbled the phrase “MTV cops” on a napkin, planting the seed that grew into Miami Vice.

Original programming is proliferating, with emerging series routinely leveraging music to establish a voice (think Girls or The Americans), and of course singing competition shows have become a virtual cottage industry. The iPodshuffling masses are often lured with precisely chosen music cues, some of which deliberately hark back to the three-network era.

This apparent boom has occurred despite budgets for music being tighter than ever. Highend deals remain the exceptions. With season five building toward a telling moment in Don’s apartment, the producers of Mad Men reportedly paid a healthy $250,000 for the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” NBC, Warner Bros. TV and Warner/Chappell created a synergistic deal in a similar ballpark to put Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” into an episode of Revolution last November.

Most transactions by programmers or marketers test the balance of power between the music and TV worlds, resulting in deals of a few thousand dollars apiece. In certain cases, they are even barter deals where no cash changes hands. Good, recognizable (or just plain cool) music can be expensive. But on the other hand, networks can provide bands with unmatched exposure, especially given how many platforms and times the message gets out.

“There are a lot of reasons for publishers to be optimistic,” said Richard Conlon, a senior VP at BMI. “There have been declines in some areas but a lot of growth to offset it, especially with mobile consumption increasing.”

Sync or Swim

When the industry talks music for television (as many execs will during Promax BDA, which runs June 18-20 in Los Angeles) they generally are referring to “sync” licensing, or the securing of rights to pre-existing recordings for programming or promotions. TV represents a large chunk of the roughly $350 million per year paid for sync licenses worldwide, a number that has grown by single digits in recent years even as overall music sales have kept sliding. All rights tend to be included up front, meaning the fees apply to streaming, TV Everywhere or time-shifted instances.

Labels are certainly thankful for this new revenue source, but even more so publishers including BMI, Sony ATV and Warner/Chappell. Publishing rights are fiercely guarded, and dustups with artists are common. Warner/ Chappell famously owns and enforces the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” which means its appearances onscreen are rare.

“When record sales started to falter, labels and publishers started looking to TV as a way to keep revenue coming in,” says Alicen Schneider, VP of music creative services for NBCUniversal. “That often puts us in a priority position to learn about popular music as it is coming to market. We will get tracks three or four months out from release, even before radio has them.”

Domo Arigato, Mr. Promo

A major area of activity for TV music licensing is promotion, especially by broadcast networks that are increasingly eager to break new hits.

“You’ll hear Katy Perry or Bruno Mars or whoever is popular when networks are trying to get attention around a new show,” Schneider says. The Zeppelin deal for Revolution extended to promotion, allowing NBC to marry the iconic band—whose catalog is tightly managed (Zep tunes are kept off streaming sites and are hardly ever licensed for commercial use)—to an emerging-priority show with early traction.

A downside risk of mass recognition, however, is the homogeneity it tends to breed. “If you go to the broadcast upfronts, you hear the same 20 songs the whole week,” says one cable marketer.

Stephen A. Arnold, whose eponymous company has become a mainstay with dozens of TV network clients by emphasizing original composition over licensing, agrees. Promoters see licensing hit songs “as a quick way to build musical equity, by coat-tailing onto an existing song,” Arnold says. “Our view is that often the common viewer gets brand confusion as a result. Which product does the song represent? It can be hard to tell after multiple sync licenses.”

As a niche cable network, IFC can’t spend with the big boys, but its comedy-focused brand aligns extremely well with the music world. Shows like Portlandia (which costars Carrie Brownstein, a guitarist with the powerpop band Sleater-Kinney), Maron and Comedy Bang! Bang! have music in their DNA, and the network often leverages festivals such as South by Southwest and Bonnaroo as promo stops.

“Music for us has always been a signifier,” says Blake Callaway, IFC senior VP of marketing. “Artists will seek us out because they recognize and value our brand.”

On-air, the network is thrifty but able to spend, shelling out a “low-five-figure” sum for a two-month license to the 1980 J. Geils Band track “Come Back” to plug the return of Comedy Bang! Bang! In another instance, having determined that Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” would strike the ideal chord, the network turned to a junior staffer, who recorded a karaoke-style cover of the song. The resulting licensing fee: $0.

Online Dancing

Resourcefulness is especially important in the digital video world. Case in point: Vice Media, a rising force in traditional media with new series on HBO and CNN. The commingling of music and video images has been at the core of Vice’s strategy since it began as a Montreal-based print magazine in 1994. After the Web explosion took hold in the late ’90s, the company cultivated an ultra-loyal online community. It recently launched a music site called Noisey, home to longform, unscripted content revolving around bands, brands and lifestyle topics.

Filmmaker Craig Teper (Vidal Sassoon the Movie) developed and shot a 30-minute film for Noisey about the intersection of hair, fashion and music.

The editorial staff at Noisey helped pick bands for Teper to capture. Clearances were handled by Vice, which had brought in a sponsor, hair-care brand Garnier Fructis. When the film premiered online this spring, the Vice faithful, more than willing to digest such branded content, pushed it to 1 million views in less than two weeks.

Unlike with most traditional projects, the partnership meant “we had access to pretty much every track or piece of footage we needed,” Teper says.

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