Sync music deals: the facts

Catherine Manners provides an expert guide to synchronisation and musicians’ rights

Synchronisation is one of those words that has crept into the language of the music business and now everyone wants – and needs – to know exactly what it means.

Whether you are a performer, composer, manager, publisher or record company, sync now plays a key role in many deals. Sales of recorded music have plummeted, but if you’ve managed to retain rights, a big sync (or more likely a handful of small sync deals) could make up the gap in your income.

For those who don’t know the basics, every piece of music that is synchronised to picture, for example in an advert, film, video game or TV show, two rights needs to be cleared – one for the publishing (composer / writer) and one for the recording (artist / label) – these are called the two ‘sides’ of the sync agreement.

As a music publisher who also represents record labels for sync, we can see the value for both businesses. The core of our own publishing catalogue is built on instrumental works by composers from a classical or media background and include composer / performers Nils Frahm, Tom Hodge, Ben Foster and Poppy Ackroyd. As our media writers also create bespoke work, we can often link sync deals into the commissioning of new music – they don’t necessarily have to be the same artist – it’s all about our relationship with the producers and music supervisors.

The labels we work with complement our own publishing catalogue – One Little Indian from the UK (Bjork, Asgeir), Morr (Sindri), and Sonic Pieces (Moon ate the Dark) from Germany, and our latest collaborator, US label Ghostly International (Tycho). Working with international labels gives us access to a wide range of consumers across the globe. Just recently, we’ve done sync deals for music to a series of ad campaigns in Singapore, a feature film in the Ukraine and a trailer for the Assassin’s Creed videogame in the US (pictured above).

Making sure that the musicians are bought out for sync use is important – it’s a little known fact that if this hasn’t happened, then the musicians have the right to ask for additional fees. I saw this happen on Scorsese’s film Shutter Island starring Leonardo di Caprio – a string quintet recognised their performance in one of the pieces used in the film and then got in touch with the record label to claim the fees to which they were entitled.

Each territory is different. In the US, every piece of music used on television has to be cleared for sync with typical fees of USD10,000 per track. It’s also the most competitive marketplace in the industry – so well worth visiting to build up direct contacts. Here in the UK, the main broadcasters have ‘blanket licenses’ so they can use music without paying for each track individually – but of course there are lots of rules and regulations attached. Bureaucracy is rife in the world of sync!

Catherine Manners
Catherine Manners

We once received a letter from a US lawyer threatening legal action over an alleged copyright infringement. His client, a young American composer swore blind that she wrote the theme to a big TV series over here in the UK. Not only had this poor student composer paid a lawyer, but also a musicologist who sent a report comparing the two tunes.

I’m classically trained and so are most of my team, so we just wrote a much longer report back stating that the theme was actually derived from a Bach Cantata and as such was copyright free. We never heard from the composer or the lawyer again.

My advice to those wanting to know more about sync is to read up, arm yourself with the knowledge, and make friends with music supervisors. At least that way, when you see the word ‘synchronisation’ written in a deal memo – you’ll understand what you’re dealing with.

Catherine Manners is director of Manners McDade, a London-based music publisher and composer agency specialising in synchronisation and media music.