First Floor #42 – Unraveling the Mysteries of Publishing, Licensing and Syncs
a.k.a. Gigs aren't the only way for artists to earn a living.
|Jun 23, 2020|
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to the newsletter by clicking the button below.
ON MY MIND
In the face of a global conversation about structural racism and white supremacy—and how to dismantle them—the music industry has been been forced to reckon with its role in perpetuating these problems, particularly when it comes to issues of representation, diversity and fairness. Wanting to engage with that process, one way that I thought I could help would be to shine a light on some of the institutional knowledge that is often inaccessible to those who’ve been locked out of the industry’s often biased power structures.
Last week’s newsletter included a basic primer of how artists and labels can effectively communicate with journalists and promote their music, and today I’d like to focus on an aspect of the industry that’s even more complicated and mysterious: publishing, licensing and syncs (i.e. when someone pays for the rights to use an artist’s music). Truth be told, I could probably devote dozens of newsletters to the intricacies of this topic, but in an effort to provide a simple lay of the land, I called up Donelle Kosch, co-founder of The Collective Studio in Amsterdam. A small booking agency whose roster includes artists like Batu, Jonny Nash and Stellar OM Source, the company has also branched out into (and found success with) publishing, seeking out and coordinating licensing and sync opportunities for a wide range of artists, most of them coming from the world of independent / underground electronic music.
Despite the competitive nature of the music business, Donelle and her co-founder Ron van de Kerkhof are eager to help educate artists about publishing, even the ones they don’t work with. Given that, I asked Donelle a series of questions about what she does, how it works and why artists should start paying attention to this stuff. Our conversation follows below.
Shawn Reynaldo: How long has The Collective Studio been open?
Donelle Kosch: We started conceiving of the idea about two and a half years ago and we've officially been operating as a business since December of 2018.
And had you worked with artists before that, either as a booking agent or in another capacity?
Yes. I'd been a booking agent for about four years prior to that and Ron had been a booker and artist manager for about three years prior.
Did The Collective Studio start as solely a booking agency or did you always have the idea of expanding it beyond booking?
The idea from the beginning was always to be a 360-degree artist agency with the hope that we could help and support artists and find opportunities beyond just bookings, because the majority of the artists that we've worked with—both in the past and now—are also producers / composers outside of the mainstream. I knew there were a lot of other opportunities out there that could provide them with more creative opportunities, challenges and income, and could also balance their schedules and create a more sustainable career as an artist. Too many artists are just relying upon bookings, which is something that takes quite a big toll on them, both physically and mentally, especially if they're doing it often. Relying upon touring can also push a producer in a direction of taking less creative risks to develop ambitious new work and instead focus on making music that fits a (dance)floor. “Experimental” music can be risky for producers, venues and audiences. We want to make sure artists have as much creative freedom as possible and therefore can contribute to as vibrant of a music scene as possible.
At this point, how is your business divided up between publishing and booking?
We officially registered as a publisher last summer, and by this past January, it had become a majority of our business. And that has remained steady throughout the pandemic. In terms of our time, before the coronavirus hit, there was a 50-50 split between the booking and the publishing sides. But now, bookings have come to a standstill. I'm still doing some booking work, mostly admin and conceptual stuff, but these days I would say my time is spent 85% publishing and sync and just 15% booking. (That of course will change when and if bookings come back.)
When both booking and publishing are going at full speed, how do they compare financially?
I don't want to sound arrogant, but we can make in a day with a licensing fee what would have taken months to make in terms of booking fees. That's not to say we're doing a sync every day, but that gives you an idea of how financially disproportionate the two are.
When it comes to like licensing and syncs, I assume you had to learn the basics of how that all works, because it's not something that most booking agents deal with. How steep did you find the learning curve?
It's a very steep learning curve and I definitely still have a lot to learn, not only because there's a huge amount of history behind publishing and licensing, but also because the environment is changing every day with new technologies. Furthermore, publishing and sync has to do with copyright, so everything needs to be done by the book. Small mistakes can have big consequences.
Can you tell me a little bit about what it is that you actually do to help secure licensing or sync opportunities?
I would say that it's sort of a twofold process. One side of what we do as a publisher is just to make sure that all of our artists' works are registered at a performance rights organization (PRO) and that they're collecting royalties. That also comes into play when you get a sync deal or license your track somewhere, as there are also royalties to be collected on that. The other side happens on a day-to-day basis, and involves building relationships with brands, music supervisors and agencies to familiarize them with our catalog and the composers that we work with by sharing our music with them and trying to help place it.
Brands, music supervisors and creative agencies—are you usually talking to all those parties equally, or are you mostly speaking with one particular group?
We speak with all of them, but where we've focused our energy has actually changed a little bit over time. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, we were focusing more on building relationships with music supervisors and agencies. And of course we are still doing that, but now, with the pandemic, a lot of people in those positions have been let go or furloughed. So it actually seems more fruitful to devote our energy to developing relationships with brands directly by connecting with someone in-house at that brand or television studio or video game company.
Electronic music is everywhere—commercials, TV shows, movies, video games, etc. In your experience, are the people responsible for putting music in these different mediums more interested in licensing existing work or commissioning something new?
Well, I should point out that we don't exclusively look after electronic music or electronic artists in our catalog. A lot of it is also electro-acoustic and some of it is also purely acoustic. Regardless, I would say it's about 50-50 in terms of people looking for commissioned (i.e. bespoke) compositions or coming to us with interest in a specific track in our catalog.
When you get a request for a bespoke piece of music, are you sent a brief of what they're looking for? Yes. It's usually a combination of like a half- or one-page written brief along with an actual phone conversation in which they flush it out a bit more.
Do they make artists try out? Does an artist have to send in a sample before the job gets confirmed?
In our experience, there's always been a demo phase, but we make sure that the demo is always paid for; they don't just get free demos. So in a way, it's also a commissioned work, but of course it doesn't come along with the same fees as when a piece of music actually gets synced.
When you're talking to music supervisors or brands or creative agencies, do you find that they're in tune with independent or underground electronic music? Or is the culture like completely foreign to them? It's really been very different between everyone that we've worked with, but I will say that more often than not, I have been surprised by how engaged and aware of underground music these brands and agencies are.
So you're not having to do a lot of like explanation of who artists are or what scene they're from. No, and, you know, often there is very little conversation about the artist and their profile. In the work we've done, the music is for a brand and for a product / service that that brand is trying to push. Of course the artist is credited, but it's not the focus of what they're doing.
You mentioned that there's usually a demo phase. Beyond that, is there an editing phase where artists might be asked to deliver edits or alternate versions of something that they've submitted?
Yes. Whenever we've done projects that require commissioned work, we agree upfront on a certain number of edits or feedback rounds within that fee. And if more rounds of edits are required, then additional fees will be necessary.
If someone wants to license an existing piece of work, are you ever asked to deliver an edit or an alternate version of a song?
We've never been asked for those kinds of edits, but I think those kinds of requests are common. It just hasn't been our experience yet.
How does it work when someone wants to license a piece of music that was released on a record label which still has rights to the music in question?
We are actually quite careful about the music that we either signed to our publishing catalog or that we agree to look after for syncs. Before a label or an artist even joins the agency, we investigate upfront how complicated the rights side of their work is. And because we're such a new, small company, we've tried to really stick with composers or labels that don't have agreements with other publishers; when they own all of the rights to their music, that makes it a lot easier for us to negotiate when a sync comes in. However, we have also negotiated syncs for which the track was released on a label that has its own publishing; in those cases, we are the publisher for the composer independently. It's actually always the responsibility of the party licensing the track to contact all of the various rights holders and to negotiate fees with all of them. So yes, we have negotiated with other labels, but it's been directed by the client who's commissioning or wanting to sync the piece.
I'm sure it varies, but can you give me some idea of how much money a sync or licensing deal can bring in?
It really varies, depending on a lot of factors. One generalization I can say is that preexisting work that someone wants to sync typically gets a significantly higher fee than commissioned work, which might sound backwards. One financial example I can give that might be more relevant to your readers is an Instagram video with music. It depends on the reach of the brand and the term of how long they want to use it, but let's say we're talking about a luxury brand or tech company with a global reach. That could bring in anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 euros. That said, I don't want to mislead your audience. It really can vary tremendously, depending on so many reasons. We have a questionnaire that we send out every time we're working on a sync that asks for duration of use, what territories, etc. There are a lot of factors.
When you're approached for something, who is setting the price?
In our experience, the client always sets the price first, and then we negotiate it.
Do you watch for the usage of work in your publishing catalog that's been used without permission? Do you track people down and then try and collect retroactively?
Yes, we do our best to do that within our capacity as a small, independent company. We have retroactively done licenses for things that were used without permission. And for anyone reading this, I think it's actually a pretty handy to know that a pretty major source of income for publishers and sync managers is to just go after expired licenses. Let's say we had an agreement with a brand that they could use a particular piece of music for one year for this one video. It's really common to then follow up after a year and see they're still using it; if so, they then have to negotiate a new license. So yes, it's important for us to look out for both things that have gone out of license and things that were never licensed properly in the first place.
When it comes to tracking this stuff down, is it on you to just do it manually and rely on word of mouth? Or is there some kind of service that monitors the usage of music in your catalog?
At the moment we do it manually, but as we speak, we're looking into software and subscriptions for services that do it automatically, because they're definitely out there.
When it comes to your company's fee structures, is it the same for both publishing and booking?
No, and I think it's important that artists are aware of that because it might be surprising for them if they're only familiar with a booking setup. There are industry standards in the publishing and sync world that have existed since long before Ron and I started doing this work, and typically the split is 50% for the publishing company and 50% for the master rights holder. In our case, however, the percentage splits vary, as we negotiate on a case-by-case basis with every composer / label that we work with.
In your experience, how much does the average artist know about licensing, syncs and publishing?
Very little. Next to nothing.
Knowing that, when you're working with someone, do you make an effort to educate them so that they understand more about that aspect of the industry? Or do you just ask them to trust your company to handle it?
The former, definitely. We educate all of our artists when we begin working with them and throughout our relationship of working together. A central aspect of our business is trying to educate independent artists and producers more generally, even if we don't represent them. Ron and I feel very strongly that there are a lot of problems in our industry, especially when it comes to royalties and licensing. We think we can make change if independent artists educate themselves and get engaged in these larger discussions that Ron and I are trying to have as a small business with PROs and other organizations.
What can an artist do if they're interested in trying to get educated and know more about licensing, publishing and syncs?
There are a lot of online workshops and courses you can take to educate yourself. A lot of the PROs have an information section on their website, and there are also some non-profit organizations in our scene that try to educate people. So yes, there are resources online, but they are not always that easy to find, and if you do find them, they can still be very confusing. I would say that the easiest thing you can do is if you have someone in your network that knows more about this, just try to just have a conversation with them.
As for The Collective studio, we've put together this infographic that aims to help artists understand the basics of music rights. We're in the process of creating about a dozen more. In the meantime, we've also made contact information easily available on our website. If someone wants to write us an email to ask a question or have a call with us, we try to make time to do that.
SOME OTHER THINGS I WROTE
As you might expect, Helena Hauff’s new Kern Vol. 5 mix for Tresor is a high-intensity screamer. I reviewed it for Pitchfork and somehow managed to sneak in the phrase “it has all the warmth of a threshing machine.”
It’s been 13 years since Pinch dropped a solo LP, and his new Reality Tunnels album on Tectonic is a highly personal effort on which the Bristol bass don partakes in a number of experiments, some of which go better than others. I also reviewed it for Pitchfork.
The delightful new For You EP has made India Jordan one of this year’s breakout acts, and I got the chance to interview this fast-rising UK producer for a profile on Bandcamp.
Bandcamp also tapped me to put together a feature on Dutch producer upsammy, whose sparkling debut album Zoom is a fantastic listen.
A round-up of the week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
NYC’s Dweller, which operates as both as a “festival celebrating Black electronic artists and a blog centering Black perspectives,” has put together an extensive free library of articles, interviews and documentaries focused on techno and its Black history.
The new Dekmantel podcast from Sherelle was the talk of the internet last week. It’s a blazing session that the London-based DJ described as 80 minutes of “pure angst.”
Speaking of rapid-fire rhythms, the perpetually on fire Special Request announced a new EP for the R&S label. Entitled Spectral Frequency, it’s set to arrive on July 3 and the title track is streaming here.
The Whities label has changed its name to AD 93. In a statement, label founder Nic Tasker explained the (non-racial) origins of the Whities name, but added that he doesn’t want the label name to “potentially exclude or offend anyone, or be a topic of conversation at all,” which prompted the switch. He also pledged to address the imbalance of diversity on the label’s roster.
Although her new Healing Is a Miracle album won’t be released until July 10, Julianna Barwick released a gorgeous new single from the LP, “In Light,” which finds her singing alongside Jónsi (of Sigur Rós fame). There’s also a stunning video for the track.
While we’re talking about collaborations, Shackleton has announced an intriguing new joint album with Polish artist Waclaw Zimpel. Scheduled for release on July 31 via Shapednoise’s Cosmo Rhythmatic label, it’s called Primal Forms, and “Primal Drones”—one of the record’s three tracks—is streaming here.
UK label Finders Keepers has put together another archival release from synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani. Music for Denali, which is set to arrive on August 7, was composed in 1973 to accompany a documentary of the first-ever skiers’ decent from the peak of the tallest mountain in Alaska. The record hasn’t yet been posted on the Finders Keepers site, but there’s more info in this news story on The Quietus and the vinyl is available for pre-order through Rush Hour.
Detroit producer Black Noi$e, a talented figure who can be found in both hip-hop and house / techno circles, has become the first signing to Earl Sweatshirt’s Tan Cressida label and has put together a release called Oblivion which will see the light of day at some point in the future. In the meantime, he’s shared a new track called “The Band,” along with a video for the song that you can find here.
Another week means another wave of benefit compilations. These are my favorites of the bunch:
Music for the NAACP was put together by the Running Back label and includes exclusive tracks from KiNK, Tiger & Woods, Katerina, Roman Flügel, Todd Osborn, Bella Boo and several others.
Don’t Turn Your Back on Love is from the Bank NYC imprint and features new music from E-Saggila, Dreams, Nick Klein, Bookworms, Via App, Entro Senestre and more. All proceeds will benefit the McHale Rose Family Support Fund.
Against Police Brutality was curated by Suzanne Kraft and all proceeds will be donated to to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and National Bail Out. There’s music from Nite Jewel, Jonny Nash, Jordan GCZ and Jorge Velez, amongst others.
The Longest Day is a benefit for the Alzheimer’s Association that includes tracks from New Order, Daniel Avery, HAAi, Moby and lots of others.
Against Fascism Trax is essentially a “best of” collection from the Optimo Music offshoot that brings together tunes from Joe Goddard, Fantastic Twins, Auntie Flo, MR TC and more. All proceeds go to No Evictions Glasgow.
Paradigms I comes from Brooklyn label Postseason Franchise and features 36(!) tracks from a wide variety of artists. Sales will be split between the ACLU, the Trans Justice Funding Project and the Nationwide Bail Fund.
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. As the head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
Hello. Just a quick one from me today, as I’m late for work. As of this moment, there is exactly one tape left on Bandcamp of this Nina mix that The Trilogy Tapes just put out. I’m obviously not impartial, as I released a mixtape from her earlier this year, but I recommend you grab it. I only have one week left here in Australia and then I’ll be able to listen to my own copy at home in Barcelona. Hope you are all safe and wearing masks outside.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a rundown of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week or so. Click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
Of all the special releases put together for Bandcamp’s special Juneteenth event, the HOA010 compilation from MoMa Ready and AceMo’s Haus of Altr is the one that feels the most like a statement of purpose. Consisting of 27 tracks from Black artists on both sides of the Atlantic—contributors include Loraine James, Galcher Lustwerk, Martyn Bootyspoon, Kush Jones and many others—HOA010 effectively squashes the (incorrect) idea that modern electronic music (and house and techno in particular) is short on young Black talent. And though it’s usually difficult to maintain quality across such a large compilation, there’s no shortage of heat here.
AceMo kicks off HOA010 with “Heaven (2020 Mix),” an ebullient track that channels the spirit of classic rave with its synth stabs and chopped-up diva acrobatics. “Psychopass” is a brightly colored romp from Maryland producer Amal that combines an anime sound palette with breakneck techno and jungle rhythms. Florida’s Quavius slows things down on “Life Is Sweet,” a swinging tune with ghostly vocal bits and what sounds like a flip of the famous Doctor Who theme, while Atlanta’s Stefan Ringer serves up a hazy, almost psychedelic vibe on the confidently strutting “Mechanical Monster.” These are just a few of my favorites, but a deeper dive into HOA010 is absolutely recommended.
A self-described rapper, producer and performer out of Manchester, Iceboy Violet just dropped a new, name-your-price EP called Down to Float, a collection of strikingly beautiful ambient edits that put an entirely new spin on tracks from artists like Young Thug and Lil Durk. “Eyes Drippin 2 Hard” is a flip of Lil Baby, Gunna and Young Thug, but only haunted echoes of their voices remain, left to float amongst a thick stew of melancholy, reverb-laden melodies. There’s something of a witch house vibe at work, but the music doesn’t feel kitschy; it’s heavy, and sounds like the kind of epic dirge that someone like Tim Hecker or a band like Explosions in the Sky might cook up. However you slice it, this is fantastic stuff.
Bristol’s talent pool runs deep, and Kristian Jabs (a.k.a. Pessimist) increasingly seems like a force to be reckoned with. Although he’s best known for his low-end manipulations and drum & bass deconstructions, his Soft Boi moniker is designed as a sort of meditation on something much more harrowing than the dancefloor: dating. On his new album So Nice, the beats often take a back seat to murky melodies and vulnerable displays of emotion, and “Fais Moi La Guerre” is a clear nod to his hometown’s trip-hop legacy, conjuring the cinematic spirit of groups like Massive Attack and Portishead with its alluring mix of dusty rhythms, lingering strings and smoky R&B.
It’s difficult to accurately keep track of what tunes are truly “hot” when clubs remain shut and most of us have only livestreams and podcasts to keep us feeling somewhat connected to dance music, but I feel confident in saying that “Earth Note” will go down as one of 2020’s best bits of house music. The lead track from Kush Jones’ new EP on Future Times—his first-ever vinyl release—is significantly slower than the 160+ bpm stuff he usually cranks out, but the Bronx producer seems totally comfortable at this tempo, casually serving up chunky bass grooves and spaced-out funk melodies. “Earth Note” sits somewhere between old-school Chicago deep house acts like Boo Williams and the astral-minded efforts of folks like Move D and Juju & Jordash, and I strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy while you still can.
First released in 2018, “Moonspheres” has just been brought back to life on Next Lightyear Vol. II, a compilation on Monty Luke’s Black Catalogue label that highlights the work of South African imprint Stay True Sounds. It’s a diverse collection that includes a variety of ambient, experimental and dancefloor-ready tunes, but “Moonspheres” is an elegant slice of deep house whose soulful undercarriage has been adorned with tinkling piano, gentle melodies, and a bit of subtly ominous crunch. This one is perfect for getting lost in the groove at 5 a.m.
If you’ve already read my Pitchfork review of Pinch’s Reality Tunnels LP, then you already know that I found the album to be a bit of a mixed bag. That said, the record’s highs are very high, and “Back to Beyond” is an unexpected pleasure on which the Bristol veteran steps well outside of his low-end-centric comfort zone. The track is downright blissful, a cinematic piece of ambient with soaring vocal choirs and a distinct sense of devotional majesty. As much as I love Pinch’s skull-rattling bass blasts, it’s nice to know that he also has something like “Back to Beyond” in his toolkit.
A couple things about this incredible tune:
1) I have to credit Philip Sherburne for putting it on my radar, who in turn found out about the song after seeing it on a list of recommendations that Afrikan Sciences put together.
2) The song actually came out back at the beginning of May, but it’s so good that I’m including it in the “New This Week” section anyways.
“Night Echoes” is a hypnotic house gem from Kareem Ali, an artist who used to be based in Westchester, New York, but now calls Phoenix, Arizona home. Apparently jazz was his first love, but he’s funneled that passion into dance music, and his crowded Bandcamp page includes forays into a wide variety of styles and sounds. There’s a lot of great stuff on there, but “Night Echoes” is a true standout with its effortless bounce and incessant (yet somehow soothing) vocal loop. Put this one on repeat.
As long as I’m bending my own rules about what constitutes a new release, I may as well include this track from Los Angeles producer Santiago Salazar. Originally released on a 12” for Rush Hour back in 2008, it was added to Bandcamp just last week, and still sounds great more than a decade after its debut. I’ve written about Salazar lots of times over the years, but this tune is a perfect example of his ability to marry Latin grooves with the sci-fi spirit of Underground Resistance-style Detroit techno. Lush, melodic and flecked with subtle jazz flourishes, it’s a killer track from an artist whose talents are overlooked far too often.
Hieroglyphic Being has always been a wildly prolific artist, but over the past few months he’s been digging deep into his archives—he claims to have 3000 “sound drawings” that date back to 1996—and posting some fantastically raw (but still danceable) sounds on his Bandcamp page. His latest missive is the uniquely titled THE SHITTEST SOUNDS U DON'T EVER WANT 2 HEAR WITH SPIRITUAL NAME TITLES 2 PROVE HOW DEEP I AM VOL 1, and “Black Love on an Early Sunday Morning” is an upbeat (and surprisingly linear) house offering with smacking percussion, playful melodies and some infectiously funky bass licks. The man has a giant catalog, but this is up there with his best stuff.
And so another newsletter comes to an end. If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading, and I do hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Until next time,