Occasionally, however, the label would be thrown a lifeline. A US TV drama wanted to use one of its tracks (known as a synchronisation or "sync" deal), and, thanks to that one-off license, the album the track came from would suddenly turn a profit. "Someone plays 30 seconds of your song and overnight that album recoups," says Cooke. "It's like, 'Woah, how do we get more of these?'"
Getting music sync deals is a lottery. It's not an income stream you can rely on. But, says Dean Muhsin, whose company, Bear.Management, looks after artists like Huxley, Mosca and Ben Sims, the sums involved are so significant that no one can ignore it. "A couple of good syncs in a year can make a massive difference, particularly to independents," Muhsin says. "It sounds crass, but mostly it's financially motivated because the fees are so unlike any other music licence. With compilation advances being so low, it's huge."
Separate to such big pay days, a growing number of electronic artists, whose home studios and relative stylistic flexibility make them a good fit for such work, have taken to supplementing their income with regular work for advertising agencies and film and TV production companies. For instance, the ambient producer Lustmord has worked on numerous films, including The Crow, From Dusk Till Dawn and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. He refers to this work knowingly as "the bullshit," but he takes it seriously. "I do absolutely care about it. It's work I enjoy," he told RA in 2012. "I've always tried to make my contribution as good as possible."
When he's not making techno as Winter Son or atmospheric electronica in worriedaboutsatan and Ghosting Season, the British producer Thomas Ragsdale does a variety of such work. "If it means I can sit in the studio all day with my synths, I'll do your butter advert," he says. "People have said to me that their music is precious and they wouldn't exploit it in any way—dub techno producers are quite grumpy like that—but I don't want another office job. I've got all this kit, I can only make techno for a certain amount of time each week, so I may as well use it. Everyone has a day job."
Meanwhile, film and TV production companies are increasingly appreciating the artistic value that commissioned experimental electronic music can bring to a project, usually for a fraction of the cost of a traditional orchestral score. "That whole generation of incredible HBO dramas helped put the focus on music supervision and what a positive impact it can have on a series," says Cooke, who worked with Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge on the Canal+ series Spotless, and helped get Ben Frost on board for the TV series Fortitude. In particular, Cooke sees electronic producers as being major beneficiaries of this new emphasis on the creative use of commissioned soundtrack music. "It takes a bold director to take that route, but the success of things like Mogwai's work on The Returned or Mica Levi's Under The Skin soundtrack make this an exciting time for score, where people aren't just looking to bring in composers. There's a lot of cutting-edge electronic scores being created."
For Dean Muhsin, the decision to license music to an advertising agency is something that has to be weighed carefully. "Everybody wants to discover records, to have ownership of them, and there's no great feeling of discovery if it's being pumped out at 3 PM on kids' TV," he says. Therefore, when Tesco clothing label F&F asked to use a track by Huxley, it was considered crucial that he was already established and that F&F wanted to use "I Want You," a deeper cut from his 2014 album Blurred. "It was never going to look like a cheap move," says Muhsin.
Nonetheless, it was a long conversation, with Muhsin well aware of the criticism that such syncs can come in for and how difficult it is in the current climate to decline such income. Depending on how many territories it's broadcast in, the platforms it's used on (TV, radio, cinema, online) and the campaign's length, an advert sync will typically generate from £5,000 (UK TV campaign, unknown artist) to over £80,000 for a global six-month run.
By simultaneously pushing sales of the licenced track—some deals will include, for instance, a visible track credit on the advert or an embedded click-to-buy link on YouTube—labels can double the value of such sync deals. According to marketing magazine The Drum, the F&F advert was the sixth-most Shazam'd ad in the UK in the first week of May 2015. "You're given a schedule of when, where and what TVs shows [the advert will air around], and bigger independent labels have digital marketing teams who sync up targeted social media advertising around the high-impact points," says Muhsin.
Sync deals can come through unusual channels—one contributor to this feature bagged a spot on a yoghurt commercial after meeting a friend of his wife's at a wedding—but generally ad agencies send out regular requests to music publishers, labels and management companies. Getting onto those mailing lists is a matter of hustling, good contacts and repeatedly delivering useful material.
Ad agencies are constantly looking for existing catalogue tracks and, less often, they will commission original music. In the first case, pitching is a simple matter of sending over streams via SoundCloud. Where original music is required, ad agencies will sift through potential candidates before asking a small number to pitch a demo, for which the artist is usually paid a nominal fee. The artist may have as little as a day to put that demo together.
In both cases, acting on behalf of its client, the agency will supply a brief. "The majority are, 'We want this track but we can't afford it,'" says Simon Pursehouse, director of music services at publishers Sentric. "I don't mind that because immediately you can get a sense of what they're after." It gets more difficult, says Muhsin, when "an ad exec who doesn't have a clue about music tries to describe the track they've picked, and you get loads of contradictory info. Or you get a poor open-brief, which does no one any favours because they end up flooded with unsuitable stuff."
"One that I did, all it said was, 'It needs to be an artistic statement,'" says Ragsdale, who writes music for clients such as BMW and Prada. "Then you get ones that are ultra specific about what they want to happen at 'hit points' in the visuals, how it should make the audience feel, what the brand wants to achieve, with ten different example pieces of music. It's your job to sift all that and not be overwhelmed by it. I read the notes, digest the references and then take ten minutes to forget it all, start to jam and see what comes out. Otherwise, you end up making some horrible, bastardised amalgamation of everything."
Unlike TV, with adverts artists can often prevent their work from being used. If licensing a pre-existing track, the ad agency must get permission from the mechanical copyright holder (usually the artist or label) and the artist's publisher. This is done on a so-called "most favoured nations" basis, where each party is paid an equal fee. However, standard record label/publishing contracts often allow them to fully exploit the artist's music in any sphere, which essentially pre-approves any advertising usage, unless the artist pushes to include detailed caveats. Unlike standard publishing deals (usually 80:20 in the artist's favour), sync deals are usually nearer 50:50.
Deciding how much time to devote to such work and what to pitch for is a learning process says Fin Greenall, AKA Ninja Tune's Fink, an artist whose work has taken in everything from drum & bass to folk. "Early on, when money's tight, you beat yourself over the head because one 15 or 25 grand TV ad would be a life-changer," he says. Greenall's first sync, with Mastercard in 2006, helped get him out of the serious debt incurred in the recording and touring of his Biscuits For Breakfast album. "Everyone in my team, including Ninja Tune, went, 'Thank fucking god for that.'"
"I did a huge one for Facebook years ago and I was certain I'd got it," says Greenall. "It was perfect: grand piano, string quartet, I threw the bank at it. In the end, they went with the original option. After a few years, you begin to differentiate between the wastes of time and those you have a shot at. Generally, when we get the brief, if it sounds exactly like what I do—say they want an alt-folk, male vocal, gritty with a bluesy edge—my management will chuck it at me. If they want Skrillex-meets-opera, they won't. But ten years ago, I'd have tried it."
While not as rewarding as making your own music, Ragsdale says fulfilling briefs can be satisfying. This is particularly true now that the hipper ad agencies will come to him looking for music on a spectrum from Zomby or Andy Stott to Nils Frahm, rather than the cheesier dance music reference points that used to be common. "The journey from conception to final product is a day," he says. "It's really quick-fire, and if someone is pleased with that—somebody who isn't musical—who is willing to pay you more money than you would ever get gigging, it still gets you. Although, it's rare that someone will like it straight away. The back and forth is crazy. It can take weeks. They might change the visuals, have a complete rebrand. I've even had, 'Thanks for your submission, but we've decided on having no music at all.'"
Be it rejecting jobs where the ad agency wants to write the lyrics, or declining sound-a-likes where he's asked to mimic Cat Stevens or Bob Dylan, Greenall has gradually settled on criteria for ad work that suits him. "Unless you're advertising Halliburton or Monsanto, I don't see a downside to someone saying, 'Can you spend a couple of days, do a track like all your other tracks, and we'll give you 20 grand.' If that's like a year's wages to you, you'd be an idiot to say no. And it's time well spent. If they [reject your track], I've just done two days' awesome studio work that I can recycle in a remix or a Fink track.
"The downside is if you're doing more TV ads than songs. Then, to be honest, you're making music for TV ads. You're not really an artist anymore. That's a slippery slope because every good idea you use for someone else you don't use for yourself. This happened a lot with remixes in the 1990s. We'd all pay the bills by doing mixes, but some acts would just remix themselves out. You've got to be really careful with the TV ad world because it's all about the money. It's not about the art."
From the era-defining use of Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning" on The Sopranos, to the arresting covers that cap each season of Sons Of Anarchy, popular music, from techno to thrash metal, is now an integral part of the dramatic language in most ambitious TV shows. Big US dramas such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Six Feet Under (whose use of Sia's "Breathe Me" launched her career), have, in the way that they utilise music, brought a new dimension of expression to the small screen. Music supervisors such as Iain Cooke, who source that material, are now valued members of the crew. "Creatively," says Cooke, "the most influence you can have is putting songs over scenes. Not every show can take on a music supervisor, but it adds weight."
For years, the CSI franchise has been a generous sponsor of often-unknown artists. Due to the way that US TV licensing works (each music usage must be cleared individually, often for global syndication), CSI is famously well-paid. Ghosting Season received £20,000 for use of their "A Muffled Sound Of Voices" in season 13, which, says Ragsdale, "came about from one email."
The relationship between TV and music is increasingly more complex than simply reusing catalogue material. Sigur Rós's appearance as a wedding band on Game Of Thrones is a recent example of a TV show making an unexpected musical splash, and TV is beginning to spend significant sums on commissioning bespoke tracks, cover versions and original soundtrack music from non-traditional sources. Cooke, who has worked on such UK TV productions as Misfits, Waterloo Road and Luther, recently had a famous band rework one of its early singles exclusively for the finale of a forthcoming series. "This whole world is opening up," he says. "Historically, broadcasters were keen to go with established, classically-trained composers, but even conservative production execs now see the merit in these cool artists. They're thinking we should be bolder and thinking about who we can we bring in that will create a buzz around the series. It's exciting."
Fink's "Warm Shadow" went through several versions (including an unused Bon Iver cover), before Greenall and his band produced a bespoke 12-minute mix for a 2013 episode of The Walking Dead. Was Greenall annoyed that the production company initially intended to go with Bon Iver? "Fuck no. They took one of my favourite tracks and approached one of my favourite artists, and he did a completely brilliant version. If they'd got Sam Smith to do it I'd have been like, 'You bastards.'"
Icelandic neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds has produced music for several films, including The Hunger Games, Another Happy Day and Gimme Shelter, but he's perhaps best-known for his BAFTA award-winning work on British TV crime drama Broadchurch. Here he explains how he approaches such projects and discusses the criticism that the music in second season of Broadchurch was overbearing.
I feel unique scores are appreciated more than ever—I wouldn't be working in this field if I had to write generic jingles—and, I won't lie, there is good money in film music. It has enabled me to do a lot of no-budget passion projects. But this work genuinely attracts me as an [intellectual] challenge, and, also, I love the relationships that are created. Another Happy Day and Broadchurch became products of great friendships and an equal collaboration in good art. Not all film projects are like that and it is hard to tell when you are offered the job whether you will connect or not, because you don't know these people.
My relationship with [Broadchurch director] Chris Chibnall is special. I'm involved from the first step, so I really absorb the material and live in this world. If I'm brought on [to a soundtrack project] early, I start by reading scripts and writing music without the pictures, just with the feeling of the film in mind. At some point I start writing directly to the images, but I like to have time without them first. The perfect movie soundtrack is one that accommodates the picture perfectly but works without it. I really strive for that.
[Regarding the criticism of the second series], the same debate happened around Interstellar. It's very interesting. People are overfed brainless stuff that is no challenge. We decided to go another way and some just couldn't handle it. People complained they couldn't understand what David Tennant was saying because the music was so loud, but we decided that the feeling in the scene was more important than the exact dialogue. This shows how hard it is to do something alternative on mainstream TV.
Much of that work has come about through a network of contacts that Ragsdale has gradually built up, initially by slogging away on £50 jobs for friends or by approaching local production companies with sample work. A lot of placements and sync deals are still done in that informal way. Cooke never sends out briefs but, instead, is constantly filling files with music from his, "inner circle. Music supervisors rely heavily on their core contacts of labels, managers, publishers and sync agents." For most artists, the majority of sync deals will come about in that way.
It should be stressed that, certainly in the UK, standard sync deals—that is, the day-to-day churn of music being used as background on workaday TV shows—are not hugely lucrative nor necessarily great exposure. If an artist's work is registered with three copyright and royalty collection bodies—PRS for Music, the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society and Phonographic Performance Limited—most TV channels and production companies can, unless it constitutes a "contentious usage" (i.e. in certain depictions of sex, drugs or violence), use that music under "blanket licence" agreements, without seeking the artist's permission. The same applies in Germany, where the copyrights are administered by GEMA and the GVL.
Blanket licences stipulate a variety of set fees that must be paid depending on, among other factors, the length of usage, where in the programme the music was used (title or credits etc.), which channel it aired on and when. A 120-second slot on UK primetime TV may generate £800 - £1500 in fees. Given this peculiar situation, where a TV company can use a huge star's music for the same price as an unknown's, it's the job of publishers that focus on sync, such as Sentric, which holds 400,000 copyrights, to properly register artists with all the relevant agencies, and then pitch music to TV companies in constant need of new, interesting material.
Due to blanket licence usage, most artists only find out that their music has been used after a show airs. But some shows (sport shows, for example) provide better exposure than others, and a minority actively encourage featured artists to promote their music's inclusion. "We usually have a track an episode on Made In Chelsea, which, regardless of what you think of it, is the most Shazam'd programme on TV," says Pursehouse. "It's probably the UK's best programme for breaking new music. We have the title music for Sky Sports Saturday night football and for Channel 5's Football League show."
There are instances of artists withdrawing from blanket TV licence agreements (The Beatles are a famous example), but that's incredibly rare. "The brass tacks is that everyone wants to make money," says Pursehouse. "We all know what the shape of the industry is, and the majority of emerging independent artists are significantly less precious than they were." Whether it's a matter of generic TV syncs or lucrative bespoke work, Cooke agrees that most artists are cool with TV. "Barriers come up when you get into advertising," he says. "Acts are uneasy about being aligned with a brand. Generally, with TV and film, they're quite happy in that it seems like a similar media."
"Soundtrack is the Holy Grail, everybody wants it," says Greenall. He has numerous theories as to why. "Imagine if Taxi Driver was the video to your work. It's the only way to win an Oscar as a musician, which is a motivating factor—and I guess more of us watch movies than listen to albums. You have songs associated with moments in people's lives on screen, which have such resonance they become almost like national anthems and stay in the culture for decades."
For electronic musicians particularly, the idea of writing soundtrack music—be it for a real film or an imaginary one—has been a recurring concept, one that's arguably more pertinent than ever. "This is a weird moment, especially in electronic music, where the concept of doing an album is a little anachronistic," says Greenall. "Does making a techno album make sense necessarily?"
Working on a soundtrack gives a producer both a logical, cohesive framework and creative freedom. "The Hollywood stuff is art-to-art," says Greenall, who has recently been working on music for a kitesurfing movie. "I'm writing poems to the sea!" Ragsdale, who has written soundtracks for two low-budget indie movies, Before Dawn and Bait (both of which he subsequently self-released alternative albums versions of), loves how he's able to toy with the viewer's perception using music. "You can get phenomenally deep," he says. "You watch it maybe 60 times over a month and you shape the tension of the film and even the story, in a backwards way. Plus, musically you can really take your time, develop a big motif or write in one genre—say, 1980s synthesisers."
One thing that you don't get into commissioned soundtrack work for is big money. "It is almost pro bono," laughs Greenall. "You could spend six months of your life on it and the soundtrack's not going to sell a million copies. It is a bit of a vanity project." Outside of a minority of Hollywood films, the age of lavish orchestral scores, with all the studio time, manpower and expense that entails, is over. The fees paid for soundtrack work range from nothing to a starting rate of around £10,000 for a reputed musician working on a low-budget indie, up to figures of £50,000 - £100,000-plus for more experienced, sought-after musicians with, perhaps, some soundtrack experience. The fee will also depend on the nature of the production, the timescale, any extraneous costs the composer has to carry, whether the composer will relinquish their publishing, and any plans to release the soundtrack as an album.
"It should always be creativity driving these decisions," insists Cooke. But he also acknowledges that the current trend of electronic film scores (recorded in private studios, usually by one person), may be driven by budget considerations. "Those kind of acts bring added interest, extra press angles, even extra audience, but, if the budget is under pressure, film makers are going to look for a stripped-back score, whether that is acoustic or electronic."
Committing to writing a soundtrack is an involved, lengthy process that can take many weeks, if not months. Electronic producers may be able to work remotely, but most directors will want initial face-to-face meetings to read the script and discuss how the score might evolve (in terms of structure, mood, tone or style). Typically, the musician and director will compile a dummy soundtrack of music, as inspiration for both parties. "The last thing you want is for the composer to feel restricted, like all they have to do is replicate the temp score," says Cooke, who worked on Collide, a forthcoming film with Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley, and the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, "like all they have to do is replicate the temp score."
Some musicians like to write to rough-cut images as filming progresses. Others prefer to produce an atmospheric piece and then mould it as required. "The rushes I've seen are epic," says Greenall, regarding the kitesurfing movie, Chapter One, but he was not writing his music to fit the images directly. "I know they're going to come back and ask me to change it—'At 1:38 can you introduce this sound? At 2:25, can you do this?' So all I'm doing is getting into the mood of it. They want something that starts and builds tension and then, after a couple of minutes, kicks into double-time or goes to 16s on the bass to give it that pace. Then you have this euphoric moment and, finally, splashdown and you're chilling. I'm bearing all that in mind."
Most film makers will ask composers, particularly those new to soundtrack work, to demo their score ideas in full first, working from the script or very early rushes, which can be a thorny issue. "There are purists who won't compromise, who don't have to demo. They're taken on, on merit," says Cooke. "As the episode or film progresses that would be a work in progress."
However it pans out, this is a highly collaborative process, something that musicians must accept. They may be asked to make endless ongoing structural and tonal changes to the work and, although they may attend the final soundtrack mix and edit, they will usually supply the music as stems, which a music supervisor, sound editor or director will manipulate and use as they see fit.
For years, Nils Frahm declined all soundtrack work because of what he sees as the stunted creative process that now prevails. Typically, a composer who wants to use live musicians will have to submit a complete MIDI demo version of the soundtrack before any musicians are hired. "It's a functional business world where everything gets streamlined," he says. "Decades ago, the composer would talk to the director, sit at the piano, the musician would play the main theme for the movie and be saying, 'Imagine the strings coming in playing [hums various sounds]', and the director had to fill in the gaps. Now you have to get everything approved in MIDI first. Which means you can only make the music which the sample library allows you to and, even if there's a million sounds in a sample library, what if the tone you want is not in there? There are lots of things you don't get because real musicians haven't played it yet.
"Most orchestras sound like MIDI strings now, because they have to stay close to the MIDI demo. When that already works in the movie preproduction, the real orchestration shouldn't differ too much. This is essentially wrong, because you take away the possibility of making something which the sample library can't. It's a very limited way of communicating about music."
Frahm only agreed to work on Sebastian Schipper's Victoria on the basis he could work in his normal way: improvising with a group of musicians while viewing the film. "I could do it completely on my own terms," he says. "I simply talked about the music and told them, 'OK, trust me. I'll show you the results. You can choose the best bits from it.' It was basically what we did and it was really fulfilling for everybody. I challenged them to take the risk and it worked. The whole 'how we did it' was really important—it always is. The how something is done is sometimes more important than what it is."
If all that sounds appealing, the only way in is to start small and work your way up, doing favours for people, making contacts, building a reputation in that world. That's why Greenall is working on a kitesurfing movie and Laurent Daumail, better known as the French instrumental hip-hop producer DJ Cam, recently released Miami Vice, an unofficial soundtrack inspired by the 1980s TV series. "This project is like a résumé," says Daumail. "My dream would be to do a real soundtrack, but it's a very hard business. Studios don't want to take risks. They always work with the same people. When I lived in Los Angeles, I saw a lot of agents and they told me, 'OK, we'll work with you, but when you've done your first soundtrack.'"
Most of Greenall's film gigs—he had a track on Ava DuVernay's Selma and wrote songs for William H. Macy's Rudderless—have primarily come about from his personal relationships with music supervisors or the director. For instance, he gave DuVernay a cut-price track for a previous project and they stayed in touch. "It's about relationships," he says, "it's not about managers finding your work."
German producer Robert Koch, AKA Robot Koch, thought he'd caught a massive break when last year, shortly after relocating to Los Angeles, his agent pitched his brooding cover of The Mamas & The Papa's "California Dreamin'" to Warner Brothers, who picked it up for their disaster movie San Andreas. However, Koch's version with singer Delhia de France was used on the first two trailers for the film but then dropped, without notice, for a far more grandiose cover of the same song by the artist Sia.
"Yes, it was frustrating," says Koch, "Because it feels like they must have thought, 'Cool idea with that cover, but we'll have a bigger impact if a big star sings the song.' I feel they kinda stole the idea. Of course, everyone can cover that song, but to switch gear like that did feel like a bit of a rip-off. Gladly there were lots of comments online along the lines of 'Sia's version has no magic, the Koch version does.' Plus, some blogs promoted the Sia version alongside mine, so people could decide which they preferred. The version that ended up on the soundtrack and in the end credits was Sia's though. That's the biggest bummer.
"It's the downside of dealing with big Hollywood companies. I had a song placed on NBC show The Blacklist, and that was bigger in sales terms. It was used in an important scene for almost two minutes, so that gave it really good exposure. It has more than 11 million streams on Spotify. That's almost more important than the financial aspect: that lots of people discover your music who otherwise would not."