For musicians, selling songs to corporate interests used to mean selling out. That notion has been replaced by a new one. These days, licensing songs for TV shows and ads is simply smart, 21st-century business sense, a way for artists to earn extra cash - and find more listeners from a single 30-second ad than an entire year of touring can attract.
"Having a song play over the credits of Grey's Anatomy can make a band," explains Scott Pauli, whose Madison agency Art & Sons has produced clever marketing schemes for hip local restaurants like Umami. Increasingly, Art & Sons is producing short commercials for nationally based corporate clients.
To score several of those ads, Pauli has hired local musician David Skogen, whose upbeat sound is versatile enough to provide a captivating yet inconspicuous soundscape for clients as diverse as Planet Bike and TomoTherapy. "Yeah, our music is sparkly, but not shimmery," Skogen laughs. "It is compelling, but stays in the background."
Skogen is in two bands, the 10-piece Youngblood Brass Band, which plays what Skogen calls "riot jazz"; and the more subdued, atmospheric Cougar. Traditionally, he says, musicians gathered fans either by "touring your balls off" or by grabbing round-the-clock radio play. That work led to record deals and sales.
But Skogen has patched together a different business model. It includes album sales and touring as well as scoring ads - another one is for a hospital in Texas - and occasionally landing a clip on a mainstream TV show.
During the 2009 Rose Bowl, the University of Southern California marching band covered a Youngblood song. That paid $800 from the TV rights. Skogen's music has played on Law & Order. Three years ago, a 12-second Cougar clip was heard on a CSI episode.
The music provided texture for a quick montage of an autopsy and medical technology. Skogen doesn't specify the exact payout, but estimates it was worth about a month of regular CD sales and downloads.
"It's a great way to make ends meet," Skogen says. He points out that licensing songs simply has become part of a musician's portfolio, singling out cow-punk darling Neko Case as an example of a well-known musician who relies on licensing songs.
"She sells a fair amount of records," Skogen explains, "but a lot of these artists everyone knows are not really making a ton of money from selling records. There are a number of well-known bands that stay alive from videogames, TV ads and movie songs."
Madison-bred band Locksley has also had luck with licensing. The band has a catchy sound - "doo-wop punk," they call it - that is instantly likable without being overly intrusive. All four members graduated from West High School, and they have maintained a heavy touring schedule since forming in 2003. They've made unique appearances, including a halftime performance at Lambeau Field on Christmas day 2011, when the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears.
Equally important to the band's success has been a steady placement of songs for TV ads and shows. Within two years of their first performance, Locksley already had placed one of their songs, "Don't Make Me Wait," on major ad campaigns for Payless Shoes and the cable channel Starz. The band followed that with the theme song for The Good Guys, an oddball buddy-cop TV show on Fox. The show was canceled after a season.
More recently, Locksley's song "The Whip" has scored major placements, including car ads and spots for American Family Insurance. That song - a jazzy, catchy anthem - briefly received Top 40 airplay, but its legacy will be licensing agreements. It recently was added as the "score song" for several professional hockey teams, including the Colorado Avalanche, the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A watershed moment for this latter-day business model came in 1999, when electronica DJ Moby released his breakout album, Play. Short on lyrics and standard three-chord progressions, those songs - moody yet upbeat remixes of gospel songs and Alan Lomax Depression-era field recordings - weren't radio-friendly.
Instead of pursuing radio play, Moby took a then-unique marketing and distribution step and licensed tracks on the album for various TV ads and movie soundtracks. The album's sales were sluggish at first, but over the next year his songs landed on dozens of high-profile campaigns, including American Express and Nordstrom commercials, as well as soundtracks for indie documentaries. These songs opened a lucrative revenue stream for the musician, and the exposure kick-started record sales. Over the next two years, the album sold 10 million copies.
Since that time, the music industry has changed radically. In 1999, record and CD sales were nearly $15 billion. A decade later, those sales barely topped $6 billion, as revenue hemorrhaged thanks to digital downloads. The diminishing of record labels' power and influence has left many musicians to fend for themselves. It also provided an opportunity for self-promotion and artistic autonomy.
"Instead of thinking, 'Where is the radio signal?' artists are starting to ask, 'Where is the licensing song?'" says Leo Sidran, who grew up in Madison and has strong music-business connections. While still in high school, he was taught to play drums by R&B legend Clyde Stubblefield. Leo's father, Ben Sidran, is a prolific jazz and rock musician who built a career the old-fashioned way, on radio play and tireless touring with the likes of Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs.
But the younger Sidran's career has unfolded in a very different business environment and in a very different manner. In 2004, in his apartment on Madison's near east side, he recorded the Uruguayan artist Jorge Drexler's enchanting song "Al Otro Lado del Rio." It landed on the soundtrack for the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Sidran points out that while his father has had a successful musical career, his grandfather was actually a copywriter for a major Chicago ad agency. The grandson has blended those careers. After the Oscar win, Sidran moved to Brooklyn and has landed songs for high-profile clients like Dove soap. "My first Super Bowl ad was really a strange experience," he says. "More people heard those 30 seconds than will ever listen to my solo records."
This development in the music industry is welcomed by Sidran, who says it's an opportunity for lesser-known musicians to get a foothold. The current trend in advertising, he says, is moving away from using recognized songs by the likes of the Beatles or Black Keys. Less familiar music is favored instead, because viewers haven't already assigned it emotional significance.
Although the new business model is a financial opportunity for musicians, that doesn't mean they have artistic autonomy. "Rather than labels holding all the cards," Sidran says, "now the ad agencies do."
Sidran has bolstered his career by working with Madison Avenue ad men. On the other coast, another Midwestern transplant has found success in Los Angeles. An Iowa City native, Kelly Pardekooper spent four years living in Madison while his wife completed her residency at UW Health. He worked at Isthmus in the sales department.
Pardekooper enjoyed modest success as a singer-songwriter. "It was mostly tour, record, repeat," he says. Pardekooper had his last tour in 2007, playing to 200-person venues in the Midwest and southeastern U.S. He was 39. He and his wife didn't consider his career when they moved to L.A. He had recorded five albums, but "for all intents and purposes, those albums were dead."
Yet the move has proven fortuitous. Shortly after moving to the West Coast, Pardekooper met a manager for a music licensing company and slowly warmed to the idea of placing his songs on TV shows. "One thing I was always conscious about," he says, "is that I copyrighted my songs and maintained the rights. I didn't realize at the time that was one of the key things for me to retain."
With echoes of surfer-crooner Chris Isaak, Pardekooper's singing voice is low and gravelly. It's a mood-setter that has proven a good fit for shows like True Blood, where he has placed two songs, and Cold Case.
"I didn't know how big of a deal True Blood is," Pardekooper laughs, "until my 14-year-old niece thought that her uncle was cool again."
Pardekooper points out that there are two types of placements for TV shows - background or featured songs. He is particularly proud that his song "Crazy Girl" played a central role in the plot for a Cold Case episode. "The music director liked how the lyrics went along with the crazy bride in the storyline," he says.
Shows like True Blood and Cold Case will head into syndication, adds Pardekooper, and will continue to pay royalties. Often he doesn't even find out that his songs have been used in a TV show until he receives a quarterly report and paycheck. He has been embarrassed when songs ended up on shows like Jerseylicious, the trashy reality series about salon workers.
Pardekooper says the licensing has not affected his artistic sensibilities. All of the songs that have been placed on TV shows were already recorded, he points out. "There are a lot of people who write for spec," he says. "Like, 'We need something for a show that sounds like the Allman Brothers, but needs the words "gold" and "sunshine" in it.' That's a little soulless for me."
Last year, Pardekooper released his sixth album, Yonder. It was his first studio album since 2007, and the first he's recorded since he started placing songs on TV shows.
"If my music publisher had his way, he would have had me record in a way that would have been good for TV," Pardekooper says of Yonder. "But I actually went the other way. I recorded with a band so that they can't take the voice out of the mix" - a common practice to provide an unintrusive backdrop.
"Instead I made the album the way that sounds the best," Pardekooper says. "If someone wants to use a song [for a TV show], they will need to use it exactly as we created it."