Good news, aspiring rock stars: It's now officially okay to sell out. The once-stigmatizing concept has been rendered irrelevant in the last several years as TV and film directors, music supervisors, and advertising creatives search out ever more respectable sounds for their projects. Now an up-and-coming indie band or hiphop outfit is just as likely to show up in a Coke commercial as an anonymous, made-for-TV soundtrack. Consensus agrees that there's no shame in selling your work if it enables you and your bandmates to make a living making music—just be sure that you're not spending your integrity to pay your rent.
So, how do you do it?
"You have to join a performance-rights organization," says John Bahr, marketing associate for the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers—better known as ASCAP. "You can't collect money for performance royalties otherwise." Based in New York, ASCAP is one of the two primary performance-rights groups, along with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). Both keep track of public performances of their clients' songs, collect royalties from venues licensed to play the music, and pay those royalties to their clients.
"You might first think of concert performances," Bahr says, "but it's basically public performance of music—radio, TV, sports stadiums, bus companies, airlines, supermarket chains. Radio and TV are the biggest ones, but if you choose to have music in your large franchise restaurant, we think the music adds something to the experience, just like having readily available napkins. So if a restaurant or radio station plays your song all the time, you can't collect that part of the money unless you're a member of a PRO."
Unlike BMI, ASCAP is a nonprofit with nearly 100 years of history claiming licensing fees for its members. Membership is free, online registration is available, and you can only benefit from joining. "There's no reason not to," Bahr says. "It should be one of the first things you do as a band, before you send out your press kit. As a member, you look more professional."
However, Bahr says ASCAP's main focus isn't musicians and bands; royalties are paid to registered songwriters, not necessarily the person singing the song. "Britney Spears, for instance," he says. "She basically writes nothing of her own. So all the millions of times her songs are played on the radio, she's never earned a penny. Some huge stars only earn a few dollars from ASCAP," he says, while plenty of people you've never heard of make a mint writing for country stars. It might seem idealistic, but that principle applies even to the most small-time coffee-shop balladeer.
"You might think, 'I'm not really a songwriter, I'm just playing this in my bedroom,'" Bahr says, "but it could get out there, even after your lifetime, and it could earn a lot of money."
So you're registered with a PRO and ready to rake in the cheddar from Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Problem is, Grey's Anatomy isn't calling and you're still waiting to hear from Volkswagen. The next thing you need to do is get your music to a licensing agent. These are the people in direct contact with the music supervisors working on TV-show and movie soundtracks and the advertising creatives searching for music that will brand the products they represent.
Jennifer Czeisler is the vice president of Sub Pop Records' licensing department here in Seattle. Czeisler has been with the label for 10 years and has seen the licensing game—and the movies, shows, and commercials that play it—change drastically. "These days people are interested in finding really good music and I didn't always feel that that was the case," she says. "Before, we'd place the most platinum-selling bands we could get. It wasn't about new stuff or interesting things."
Czeisler works almost exclusively with Sub Pop bands—the Shins, the Postal Service, Iron and Wine, the Album Leaf are the most sought after—and has seen licensing become a major component of the label's revenues. "We do so much licensing business it's really remarkable," she says. "It's never been better as far as the amount of requests that come in, and the variety."
She cites the recent placement of a Kelly Stoltz song in a Swedish Volvo commercial as a good example. "People have been very interested in him in the Nordic countries" since the commercial, she says, which will lead to a rerelease of the song as a single there as well as a potential Scandinavian tour.
In direct opposition to notions of selling out is the common denominator Czeisler says music supervisors and ad creatives all look for: "I feel like they're drawn to the entire package. They like knowing that there's a real band, that there's integrity behind it. That has to be there for the music to resonate."
So there it is—integrity no longer equates to poverty.
"If we can sell 20,000 records and do a little licensing," Czeisler says, "a band can make a nice life for themselves. Why is that bad? Otherwise they can't make any more records and they can't keep playing, and that's, I think, a much worse fate than having their song in a commercial."