Josh Rosenfeld wants the world to know: "almost nobody is getting rich off indie rock."
It's a surprising statement from the guy whose label launched Death Cab for Cutie, arguably indie's best-documented success story. Despite adoration from TV's hippest evening soap, the Barsuk Records prez maintains, "most bands are poor people, O.C. or no O.C."
Not to shatter the dreams of the 300 to 400 bands submitting demos to the show's music supervisors each week, but getting a song on The O.C., Grey's Anatomy, or another indiefied TV program isn't an automatic ticket to superstardom. For every band that goes from pre-O.C. obscurity to headlining arenas (the Killers) or being on the cover of Spin (Death Cab), there are dozens more that never break out, leading us to wonder just how much coin is in it for bands.
"We are some broke dudes," says Ben Trokan of Robbers on High Street, whose music was featured on The O.C. and Six Feet Under. "The money really helped pay the bills while we were touring."
"It's certainly a good thing," echoes Chris Jacobs of Sub Pop, home to O.C.-approved bands the Album Leaf, Rogue Wave, and Iron & Wine. "This money goes a long way to getting [our] bands in the black."
No one wants to divulge exact figures, but L.A.-based music lawyer Les Watkins estimates a song by an emerging artist could fetch up to $20,000 or $30,000, which is split 50/50 between a "master use" fee—payable to the entity, usually a record label, that owns the rights to the recording—and a synchronization, or "synch" fee, which is split between the songwriter and the publisher (many indie bands—but not all—control their own publishing). Once lawyers, managers, and the rest of the entourage get their piece, the artist may only see a fraction of the payout.
And that's if the show pays a fair price... or any at all. "We work on a gratis license, which means there's no money up front," says Real World Music Supervisor Louis Clark, who says the real benefit is the worldwide exposure. Manager Chris Nilsson disagrees. "A placement on The Real World will rarely, if ever, cause sales or exposure to increase dramatically," he says. "All it really does is allow you to tell your grandmother that your garage band was on MTV."
Though a band will still make a few bucks from royalties, it can take months before those ASCAP checks start rolling in, leaving many to hope for a TV-induced boost in record sales. Sometimes it happens: "Breathe Me," by Australian singer Sia, surged to No. 3 on iTunes after it was used on the Six Feet Under finale, while another Aussie act, Youth Group, recorded a just-for-The-O.C. cover of "Forever Young" that registered more than 5,000 iTunes downloads its first week. Watkins also noticed a spike when his client, Patrick Park, licensed a song to the show.
Others—not so much. "I have never experienced a large spike in record sales as a result of a TV appearance or usage," explains Nilsson, whose company manages Robbers on High Street and Inara George (recently featured on Grey's Anatomy). Rosenfeld concurs: "We have never seen major sales spikes from TV appearances, whether it's music used on a show or the band appearing on Conan O'Brien or Carson Daly."
So what's really in it for the artist? Maybe nothing more than that incalculable quality: buzz. "Bands with regional fan bases might reach a national audience sooner than they would otherwise," says The O.C.'s music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas. "Dedicated websites talk about the music on the show, so it's very easy to get information on a band and be directed to a place to buy."
After the Album Leaf was featured on The O.C., the band's manager, David Brown, hit the chat rooms. "Kids were posting, 'What was playing when Marissa kissed Ryan?' and somebody would say, 'That was the Album Leaf; here's their website, check 'em out.'"
In the end it's up to bands and their handlers to make the most of the buzz that may or may not be generated by licensing music to TV. "[Licensing] is an excellent arm of the overall marketing equation," Nilsson says. "But without press, radio, retail action, touring, and an online presence, I'm not convinced it dramatically raises the overall awareness by itself."
"I get bands all the time saying, 'Get me on The O.C.!" Brown says. "Licensing is awesome, but you have to capitalize on it. You can't just snap your fingers; you've got to work."email@example.com