It's clear that the inclusion of a song in a TV show, commercial, film trailer, video game, movie, etc. can help propel a song to success fairly quickly. But how exactly does that song get there in the first place? It's all about music publishing.
Before we get any further and I start explaining how your soon-to-be favorite song will end up on the next edition of Just Dance it's important to start by understanding that this entire process is actually based on copyrights and various musical licenses. I'll save that for our resident legal guru though and just explain it from a business perspective today.
The General Rule
In most circumstances there are a few key people involved in getting a song on to a television show. Primarily, this means a music publisher and a music supervisor. A publisher is an entity or person responsible for administering, and in most cases owning, the copyright rights to a song. They attempt to get the song "exploited" (that has a good connotation here and essentially means to get a song used in some public manner) and ensure the songwriter gets paid when that happens (though this is not true for public performance because ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI take care of that...I sense another post coming). So, a publisher finds a promising songwriter, signs them to a publishing deal, helps to develop their skills and align them with the right opportunities, tries to get the songwriter's songs covered by other performers, "placed" in commercials, films, retail stores, video games, etc., and ensures the songwriter is paid fairly when that happens. It many cases it requires a lot cold calling, great relationship building skills, and perseverance.
A music supervisor works for a television show, movie, or other media organization that regularly uses music and has the job of aligning music with the needs of the project. One of the most well-know and respected supervisors is Alexandra Patsavas who has done supervision for Twilight, Grey's Anatomy, Supernatural, Gossip Girl, and The O.C., among others. Supervisors are usually sent a completed episode of a TV show and given the task of deciding where to add music, where it should stop start and change volume, and what song will best heighten the experience of each scene on the screen. It's a complex job that's part science, part art, and requires a vast knowledge of countless songs and styles of music.
In most circumstances, a song placement is the result of a match between a publisher and a supervisor: a music supervisor finds, knows of, or is sent a song that matches the needs of a current project and the song is available for licensing. This process moves very quickly though and sometimes not responding within even an hour or so to a placement request can cause a song to be skipped over in favor of a similar songwriter whose team is more readily available.
A Few Exceptions
There are of course a number of other ways this process could happen. So, here's a few of the more common methods:
- The music supervisor simply likes the song and wishes to include it without any push from the publisher
- The writer doesn't have a publishing deal and gets the attention of a music supervisor on his or her own through distinct efforts, word of mouth, or otherwise
- The publisher continues to follow up with various music supervisors for a while until finally finding a couple placement opportunities
- An advertising agency, video game, TV show, etc. requests a specific song because it is such a perfect fit or even asks a songwriter to create or edit a song to go with it. Examples of this might be Britney Spears' Pepsi campaign, K'naan's "Wavin' Flag" used by Coca-Cola for the World Cup, the version of Rebecca Black's "Friday" used by Kohl's in their Black Friday advertising campaign, and the current Fiat commercials for which Jennifer Lopez is the spokesperson.
- A manager, agent, record label, or lawyer connects the songwriter with the placement opportunity instead
- A song is essential for the story line or performance and is requested specifically on that basis- this is likely true for things like Glee and So You Think You Can Dance
- A musician wins a contest to have their song used. An example of this is the Folger's jingle contest.