Listen to Austin 360 Radio

More Austin bands making money from licensing to TV, movies and other media

Soundtracks and commercials have become a regular part of the revenue stream for some acts

Patrick Caldwell

MTV is hoping that a few million people will tune in Monday and hear the opening keys of "Lina Magic," a gauzy synthpop song that began its life as a bedroom recording by 21-year-old Daniel Chavez Wright. Within two minutes, Wright who won an online talent search to compose the opening theme song to MTV's high school drama "Skins," a remake of a popular British show will be catapulted from a largely unknown Austin musician to someone with at least a modest national presence.

Wright's story is a particularly dramatic example of what has become a major force in Austin music — licensing for film, television, commercials, video games and other media.

"It's not like five or 10 years ago where licensing was more of an exclusive club. Now the whole landscape is pretty blanketed with bands and managers and placement agencies pitching away," says David Lobel, who manages Grupo Fantasma and has helped land the band some high-profile licenses, such as in AMC's "Breaking Bad." "The competition is now ridiculously fierce to get placement, and to get anything resembling a reasonable fee if you do."

Just last year, the bouncy pop of Oh No Oh My accompanied an Interstate Batteries ad campaign. E! turned to Quiet Company for segues in "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." When the Gwyneth Paltrow- and Tim McGraw-starring "Country Strong" was released in theaters last week, it came with three songs by Austin singer-songwriter Hayes Carll. The music of jazz chanteuse Kat Edmonson helped sell Serta mattresses in a national commercial. Hop online on your Xbox 360 and you can download a pack of Spoon songs for "Rock Band." And yes, that was White Denim's "I Start To Run" making an appearance on "House" in October.

"In the beginning, I think that people looked at licensing sort of as found money. Not all bands would get licensing, but when something came through it was like a gift from God," says Gandhar Savur, business and legal affairs manager for Bank Robber Music, a music placement agency, which works to secure licensing for Spoon, Okkervil River, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and dozens of others. "It hadn't become part of a typical business model of a band that people were relying on quite yet."

In the past few years, licensing has emerged as a major new channel both for revenue and exposure for up-and-coming bands. Michael Friedman, owner and founder of Coda Music Placement, who placed Austin bands Sounds Under Radio on the "Spider-Man 3" soundtrack, has seen the change first hand.

"When I first started my company in 2003, the record business was still in full force. Tower Records hadn't closed down, we were on the cusp of downloading and, as we all know, the music business has taken quite a turn since then," says Friedman. "There's probably 12,000 licensing companies out there now. Every label and publisher has people working to license the music by their bands. This is the way people make money now with music."

Fresh businesses

There are a million ands, ifs and buts — and reams of legalese — governing music licensing. How much money a band receives can vary widely based on the budget of the production and the popularity of the songs, the duration of the song's appearance, its use in trailers or on soundtrack albums, the number of parties involved in placing it and even whether it syncs with onscreen visuals. A song that closely parallels a movie's action — like, say, the Kinks numbers in "The Darjeeling Limited" — commands more than a song that plays in the background.

The process of licensing a song, essentially, works like this: A producer or director will decide what variety of music is needed in any given sequence. They will work closely with a music supervisor. Sometimes music supervisors will work with a music placement agency like Bank Robber Music, which can make recommendations based on the clients' needs; other times music supervisors will go after specific songs directly.

Once a song is selected, it actually needs to be cleared twice. The master recording of the song must be licensed from the record label, which generally splits the accompanying fee 50/50 with the artist. And the song itself — the lyrics and music — also has to be licensed through the publisher. Fees for each tend to be comparable. Some lower-budget film productions might pay small fees, or none at all, with larger kickbacks if the film performs well or receives wide release. Fees paid for commercials vary based on how long and in how many regions an advertisement runs.

It's a complicated, windy, time-consuming process, which can include a lot of players and few rules. But, says Joe Cusello, senior vice president of music integration for MTV Networks, it came from the considerable need for music that film and TV have.

"I'd say that for instance that on MTV, on average, we probably have about 180 songs in a 24-hour period of television. That can vary depending on the programming," says Cusello. "In some cases we can have up to about 50 music queues in a single half-hour episode. But we average around 150 or 200 songs a day."

What it's worth

For bands with dollar signs in their eyes, a note of caution: "It can be really lucrative, on the order of six or even seven figures if somebody really, really wants the song — and the song's a pretty famous one," says Hayes Carll, whose three songs in "Country Strong" haven't made him a millionaire. "But for someone like me — I've never gotten a substantial payday from anything I've done. 'Country Strong' will be nice, but it's like a month's work or two month's work nice."

Though exact figures vary and are generally confidential, fees for a single-song use are often in the low thousands. MTV's Cusello says the paychecks are one part of a modern band's diversified revenue stream — licensing, touring, merchandise sales — to say nothing of the exposure.

Bank Robber Music's Savur, for instance, credits the placement of Spoon's "The Way We Get By" in "The O.C." by renowned music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas as a turning point in that band's mainstream infiltration. Patsavas also has helped elevate musicians to successful adult contemporary status through "Grey's Anatomy" and placed a collaboration between Austin's Black Angels and British electronica duo Unkle in "Twilight: Eclipse."

That exposure can come at a cost, Savur says. Productions sometimes offer a band a lower license fee if they receive an onscreen plug, such as a card naming the band and song at the end of a TV episode. What might be a $10,000 paycheck for appearing in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" might go down to $5,000 with a prominent plug.

But one caveat that few seem to talk about is the notion that selling the use of a song — even in a commercial — still constitutes "selling out."

"People have definitely softened their opinions a lot over the last few years on what exactly constitutes selling out. When I was growing up, if a band we worshiped signed to a major label, we were horrified," says Savur, who worked at Matador Records before moving over to Bank Robber Music. "And that same sort of mentality affected bands taking license for certain brands or ads. These days, not only is everybody accepting of it, but that's how a lot of people are coming across new music."

Kevin Hoetger of Austin garage rockers English Teeth has experienced that change. Hoetger and Set the Control, his publishing company with English Teeth bandmate Kyle Crusham, have a long association with Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay ("Anchorman," "Step Brothers") and their Gary Sanchez production company. They've contributed music to "Talladega Nights," "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard" and Comedy Central's "Big Lake" TV series.

Hoetger, who does marketing and art direction work for AMD, has taken an unlikely trajectory, going from a Wal-Mart protester to someone who's made music for a Wal-Mart ad campaign. English Teeth, his jangly, energetic rock outfit, is an unusual entity, says Hoetger — a band that exists largely to generate grist for the licensing mill and to serve as a fun addendum to his other work.

"I stopped playing and just wanted to do licensing because I couldn't make any money touring. I started focusing on just doing movies and some commercial jingle stuff and really just turned this into a band at Adam's suggestion," says Hoetger. "As a lame response the whole band, to be honest, is based around music licensing. I don't plan to tour; I'll keep putting out records, these little EPs with little overhead where, if we can license one song, we can make the recording pay for itself. It's like putting the egg before the chicken."