In our line of work we occasionally find ourselves asking the question ‘are we compromising our integrity here?’. We broached this topic at our panel at London Sync Sessions at Metropolis Studios last year, entitled ‘Are We Selling Our Souls?’, which started a lot of conversations with rights holders and fellow music supervisors who have had similar feelings and experiences. With the emergence of organisations like the Guild of Music Supervisors, Adgreen, Good Loop etc who are focussed on integrity in production processes, it seems timely to share some more thoughts on the subject of integrity in music supervision; how we feel about placing music in content which we might morally question, and why.

So, are we selling our souls?

Let’s ask a few pertinent questions, touching on various aspects of the creative production processes in music supervision for ad agencies and brands.

At what point (if at all) in our dealings with music in the context of advertising (or to a lesser extent film and TV) are we impinging, or in danger of impinging, on the sanctity of the songwriter / artist’s creative vision(s), and our own inclination as lifelong music lovers to always respect the music we hold dear?

Can this passion for music, this love for the artists, sit uncomfortably with our dedication to client service; which amongst other things involves a commitment to getting the best deal possible for our brand clients and their agencies, especially in an age when more and more struggling commercial artists and composers exist than ever before?

Lastly, to what extent (if any), can we as supervisors involve ourselves in the production of bespoke music inspired by existing commercial tracks? Is it ok to do soundalikes / style-alikes, either for a specific campaign or as part of a production music catalogue? Is it ever ok to re-record a track for the sole purpose of saving money on the master usage fee?

This conversation is reaching critical mass at the moment with the proliferation of branded content in its many forms, the growing need for more affordable music resources, the pressure on artists and labels to achieve syncs as a revenue stream to replace bottomed-out record sales, and the emergence of organisations like the Guild Of Music Supervisors. Not to mention the high profile plagiarism cases that are causing rights holders and musicologists to look more closely at cases for infringement.

It’s time to talk about integrity in the context of music supervision

It’s probably fair to say that every successful supervisor of our (and previous) generations spent many years obsessively digging through music in physical formats, waiting in line outside record stores (remember those?) for a new album release or staying up until 2 am to hit record on their cassette deck to capture the Essential Mix they would otherwise never get to hear. Fast forward a few years to a time in which everything is accessible and archived, there’s way too much music coming out to be able to keep up with it all, and we often spend the whole day sitting in front of a Quicktime with headphones on trying to come up with the perfect track for a film that will be shown for a maximum of 12 months. Of course we are now assessing music in terms of how well it would work against a film or to enhance a brand’s identity. This is our professional responsibility, which means it is also how we spend the majority of our time.

So, for many of us our job affects, to a greater or lesser extent, our ability to enjoy simply listening to music for it’s own sake as music fans. But does our immersion in the process of creative supervision and client service blind us to the effect that the content is having on a wider audience? Should we be concerned that our passion for and knowledge of music has been turned into a tool for this marketing machine? Is this even an important consideration within the context of what we do, or does the way in which music is employed by brands reflect a new consumer environment, and if so should we embrace music’s increasingly fleeting nature and continue to monetise as best we can in the short term, both for ourselves and on behalf of the artists we love? Does encroaching age, experience and the inevitably ensuing cynicism enable us to unquestioningly do our work with a clear conscience ?

That’s a lot of questions. Time for some answers. Those of you who know us know we would never deign to evangelise about ethical music supervision, but here’s what we think..

When you choose the career of Music Supervisor (in advertising), and naturally want to be paid well, you make a commitment to service your clients with an understanding of the purpose of these films. Advertising can be nefarious and the aim of the content is either to make people buy things they probably don’t need, or to use PR to improve the public image of companies / corporations.

While we all understand that we’re involved in the production of advertising and are – to a greater or lesser extent – in the service of brands, the important question is whether we should be encouraging our agency and brand clients to interact with the music industry in a more equal fashion by not leaving music until the last minute and allocating unrealistically small usage budgets because ‘someone will do it for whatever’s left over’. Presenting aggressive ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ scenarios to rights holders and artists or commissioning re-records purely to save on master usage fees.

It could be argued that it isn’t our job to hold agencies and brands to account, but surely it is everyone’s job to encourage those that have money and power to use it more responsibly? We believe so, and in our opinion anything we can do to push in this direction is worth doing.

 So, are we sacrificing our integrity?

No, we don’t think so. Multimedia advertising is an essential and inevitable element of the current phase of free market capitalism. It sustains multiple industries, including the music industry, and employs millions of people globally. When approached thoughtfully advertising is actually capable of achieving a lot of good, (as you’ll discover from our panel at London Sync Sessions / Future Music Forum in Barcelona this month), it’s the values we hold as individuals and as companies that make the difference.

As long as we care about how we’re doing the job more than we care about our own bottom line in the very short term, we can make a difference.

Small music companies seeking to establish themselves are unlikely to be able to afford to  reject projects on moral grounds, much like smaller artists / musicians trying to make their way might accept a sync for a ‘petroleum’ brand they would reject on moral grounds at a more advanced stage of their career. Historically we’re not innocent of all these things ourselves, but experience has taught us that there is a better way and that by standing our ground and continuing to work with pride and integrity we can contribute to the greater good.

The difficulty comes in the balancing act between business needs, client service and the desire to work with integrity.

If a client doesn’t respect artistic integrity we still have to be very careful if questioning their creative decisions mid production. Advertising work represents a valuable revenue stream for artists and rights holders as much as it does for us. The income generated here often facilitates the next album to be made, tour to be produced and single to be promoted.

The fact that the money is there to tempt artists to do something that sticks in their throat is the problem, but this particular problem is not ours to solve. It is our job to advise our clients and present the brand / agency’s offers to the music industry. It’s the artist’s decision whether to take advantage of the opportunity or not.

If we approach this with integrity by making sure we are respecting copyright, not pastiching existing work, ensuring that composers and musicians are being paid fairly, not ‘double-dipping’ by charging our client and taking a commission from the rights holder… then we are more than halfway there. If we get together to take the first steps towards fixing the most obvious breaches of integrity then we are making important progress.

Here are five principles we stand by that help us to maintain integrity and authenticity in our work.

1) DO: Make sure rights holders are being paid fairly in the context of the available budget. Be professional when dealing with your client’s budgets and perform your duty to secure the best deals for them, but don’t cut a music usage fee to almost nothing for a smaller artist because you know you can get away with it. At 32 we respect the rights holders’ duty to represent their artists and don’t push them to accept unreasonably low fees. Instead we advise our clients to pay what we believe is fair based on the overall allocation of budgets within the production as far as we understand it.

2) DON’T: produce re-records that are faithful to the style of the original recording purely to save on the master usage fee.

3) DON’T: create very obvious pastiches. At 32 we no longer agree to client requests to create sound-alikes that very obviously pastiche the original copyright purely to save on usage fees. Or more accurately, we will advise the client clearly before starting the production that we won’t be pastiching the work, but instead using it as a close reference for style / arrangement from which we will create something unique.

4) DO: Pay composers fairly. Don’t give them an unreasonably low percentage of a usage fee, and always pay them for renewals. 32 pays all composers and artists fairly and promptly for their creative work on our projects. They always receive 100% of the writer’s share and are always paid for renewals when licences are extended by clients (it might sound obvious but we hear some crazy stories).

5) DON’T: commission or produce library tracks which sound SO much like a commercial copyright that they are immediately identifiable, then tag them as such so your clients can find them by using the original artist’s name as a search term. We are guilty of taking advantage of such tracks in the past and we know they can be bread and butter for production music libraries, but we have heard some real howlers and we can relate to the frustration of publishers in this instance.

We can work together to encourage our clients to place the appropriate value on music

In a perfect world, all commercial AV producers would give due consideration to the value and impact of music at scripting / budgeting stage, but generally speaking this is not the reality we face. We can work together to encourage our agency and brand clients to habitually place the appropriate value on music rather than using what’s left of a budget after the whole production team has been flown out business class to South Africa for a two week shoot. The major labels and publishers are good at holding the value of music by not agreeing to low licence fees, but let’s face it, they can afford to. We know that this is going to be an uphill battle, but it is a worthy one. In the short term let’s make sure that the budgets we do have access to, both great and small, are being allocated fairly, and that the work that we do is something we can present with both creative and ethical pride.