Songwriting Tip: The Windup & The Pitch
The basics of pitching songs for licensing
By Eric Alexandrakis
Everyone and their father’s sister’s roommate’s uncle is trying to get into the music licensing game. I started over ten years ago when indies were just starting to realize how accessible it was, given the right methods and avenues. Unfortunately people’s perceptions of how the system works are quite skewed, and considering how most artists are generally lazy by nature (you know it’s true), too many prefer complaining over taking the time to learn how it all works. I mean, let’s face it... it takes a lot of time and expense to perform this type of trial and error, and unless you are a trust-fund kid with ample time on your hands, how are you supposed to do it?
As with everything else in life, if you want it badly enough, you will find a way. I developed my work and contacts while working full-time for someone else. It was pure hell trying to do both, and have a family with a child, but I wasn’t going to be stuck working for someone else for the rest of my life, and I had a dream of independence via music.
I pulled all-nighters, did some free work, invested in quick trips that were necessary, took and continue to take criticism, lived and learned. These notions aren’t indigenous only to the beginning of the building process. They are lifelong commitments, and require constant updating. It’s the nature of the beast. So prior to trying to understand the process, one has to understand oneself. Before you lace on your hiking boots, see if you are cut out for a lifetime of general uncertainty and upward climb.
Pitching songs is quite easy, if you’re willing to go through the process of learning. Obviously I won’t give away all of my secrets, but generally speaking, there is a lot of common sense behind it. It’s a blend of psychology, organization, consistency, persistence, learning when to chill, time, and money. Sound like business as usual? Well, it is—but right off the bat, if you’re sloppy and have the writing skills of Beavis and Butthead, don’t bother. It will come out, and no one, and I mean no one will give you the time of day. This will generally define how you deal with things, and whether you are cut out to make contact with humans in general.
Avoid the wrong route
I remember, as a green and idealistically naïve kid, attending various seminars, guest speaker events (prior to really getting into the belly of the music business), and being perplexed by the amount of totally useless advice that “panels of industry professionals” would provide. I mean if you felt that attempting to break into the music business was futile prior to arriving, upon leaving these panels, a Ph.D. in cement stirring was looking much more appealing. It wasn’t just the reality of how difficult it is to break into the business, it was that combined with the completely useless and ambiguous direction offered by those who claimed to be “authorities” on these important matters.
Some examples. How would a logical person, brought in to mentor, judge music and artists after only allowing 20 seconds of a tune played? After hearing one of my songs, one radio guy on a panel said to me, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” (You can hear the track in question at http://bit.ly/1duuDXH) Is that really constructive criticism? I mean The Monkees’ “Porpoise Song” doesn’t get into the chorus until1:15, and Micky Dolenz is flat on the whole tune... and it’s a masterpiece!
Now I understand how radio works in trying to hook people quickly, but music is never so cut and dried. Little did he know it, but right at that very moment, that little lo-fi Electro piece he was dismissively ignoring had already been included in 200,000 MP3 players from Rio Audio, was being played on college radio, and was the song that put me in the top 10 running to play on the televised American Music Awards, sponsored by Coca-Cola... all at the same time. (But hey, what the heck do they all know?) The first 100 or so tracks I ever licensed to TV were recorded on a borrowed 4-track, while I had cancer, and later while I was receiving chemotherapy. A music supervisor at MTV heard the sound, and licensed everything. These tunes still get licensed and used all over the place even today.
Another artist’s music was also played for the panel, something that sounded like it was from the ‘60s, it was quite cool. A panelist said to him, “What can I do with this? Go back and bring me something that sounds like today.” I was shocked. I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d heard in recent times, and the panelist basically judged it irrelevant.
Here’s the thing. As long as you can objectively stand behind yourself with confidence, nothing these “experts” say matters. A credible person with credible ears would be able to notice something in a certain tune or artist, and make constructive criticism, not “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. So after that I made a vow to never put myself in any sort of “judging” contest again, as I felt it literally had no value or credibility.
Now there are also those other seminars with panels of “professionals” who give other types of advice. I’ve been on several of them actually, and every time I am invited, I think of this one panel I attended as a graduate student. It was a panel on pitching songs for licensing. The job of the panelists was to take questions on what a music pitch for licensing was, but none of them could answer. Their answers went something like this:
“Well, I own a studio. What you have to do is come to my studio, pay a small recording fee of about $5K/per song, get the song recorded, and go out and pitch it.”
Wow, thanks for the epiphany. Pitch it to whom and how?
Upon hearing a song: “Oh yeah, that’s great, you should try to get that in a baby food ad, it has that vibe.”
Thanks for the studio advertisement. So, basically, I have to spend a fortune at your studio to make it. How do I get the music to the powers that be? Can you tell me who to contact for the baby food ad, or any ad?
Choosing the right way
Pitching is not spending $5K to do one song, or randomly picking brands you think the music will fit in. To put it simply, pitching is just like any other business:
~ Make a plan (What is your goal? What is your sound? Are you an artist going for the spotlight, or a behind the scenes person focusing on production music?)
~ Focus on your target market (Music supervisors who deal with certain types of productions/sounds)
~ Organize and personalize your presentation (Which show/network/etc. am I sending this to?)
~ Make a professional presentation (Well written, not over the top, not superlative
nonsense attempting to impress: present yourself as a company, not an artist)
~ Establish your web presence, bio, etc.
~ Get your music perfect—both sonically and in songwriting
~ Network, because your life depends on it
~ Collaborate when it feels valuable to do so
~ Seek out ad agencies, study who they represent and what work they have done
~ Subscribe to IMDB.com, and keep an eye on what’s in production and who the music supervisors are
~ Contact music supervisors (you can find them on IMDB, and in other resources online)
~ Read the credits at the end of movies and TV shows (become acquainted with names in main positions)
~ Watch clips of shows with licensed music on YouTube (and understand how songs are edited to picture, what parts of the songs are used and why)
~ Be persistent (you will find yourself banging your head against a wall quite often)
~ Sign up with as many free (and credible) non-exclusive services as you can find
~ For deeper involvement than free services, hire a credible company to send your music out.
Once you’ve gotten into the groove with this first batch, everything else should come naturally. Just make sure to avoid some of the more obvious mistakes, because those can be your downfall before you even begin...
Avoid these mistakes
So here are five mistakes I see artists make.
1. “Oh man, I have this great rock song. It’s perfect for something like a Transformers movie or a Volvo ad!”
Yeah? Cool, how did you know what the supervisors on those projects are looking for? For all you know, they could be looking for heavy metal reggae, or Chinese polka music played on a didgeridoo. Don’t assume, because as the old adage says, when you assume... If you approach a supervisor like this, I guarantee that they will think you’re an idiot.
Know who you are approaching, know what they are working on, know what they prefer (some supervisors have their own musical style/preference), learn about the brand and its past incarnations. If none of this exists, ask them if they are currently looking for content. A polite request like that can disguise prior lack of knowledge of their work... to a certain degree. This is where a credible company that knows precisely what supervisors want (because they ask rather than assuming) comes in really handy.
2. “I’m going to send them the most amazing package ever, with color photos, a video, T-shirt, etc.”
Free stuff is fun for them, for if they love you, they’ll wear your shirt. Otherwise it’ll go to the interns, who might wear it to feel like they are in the music biz, or use it to line their dog’s bed.
Don’t waste money on extra color photos, fancy paper, etc. All they care about is the music and whether this artist has anything significant behind them, to bring some kind of promo symbiosis/placement value to their company, the show, etc. I would, however, suggest sending your materials in an envelope/package that sticks out from the generic brown envelopes.
When you think about it, if you have a deadline, are very busy, and need to recommend a song to someone right away, what do you reach for? You generally reach for your favorite artist out of loyalty, or something you happen to be listening to during that period of time... if it fits the producer’s/director’s request. So due to this, you have to make sure you beat out all of the rest, and of course, have the best sounding master, song, image, presentation and social networking vibe you can.
Gifts are fun, but don’t go over the top with a Vespa or anything. Make it thoughtful, or a cool promo. I remember a band from the ‘90s called Moonpools & Caterpillars who had yo-yos with their logo on them. I still have mine! Plus, it helped that their album was a pop masterpiece with gorgeous art. Check ‘em out!
3. “I’m going to call this person so many times, I’ll bore them into saying yes.”
The only response you’ll get from that method is either silence, or two words we all know so well.
Approach them like a company, not an artist, and ask them what the accepted followup frequency is. Some will say that they will reach out when they have needs, but generally don’t, so following up once a month is probably fine. If you find that they don’t generally respond to anything, mail them samplers of no more than an EP’s worth of tunes every month or so. Visit the city, alert them to your presence in the city, and try to get a casual meeting in.
Don’t be pushy, don’t give pathetic sob stories (you’d be surprised), and exude confidence, knowledge and speed. That will gain you respect. Send them cards on holidays, keep up with them on Facebook (without being a stalker!), and develop things slowly. It will take time, but persistence, consistency, and professionalism go a long way, whether you are the artist, or you’re representing all of your friends’ bands.
4. “I’m awesome, and the next big thing, and they are going to know it.”
Awesome. No one cares.
Just present yourself properly, and if that is true, someone will notice. You have to be told you are awesome—you can’t tell others that, because then you totally lose credibility. A bio comparing yourself to Bono, Jagger, Bowie, and Thor is not going to convince anyone that you are Ziggy MickThunderGod Hewson. Lose the ego and the leather pants.
I’ve said it for years... an artist’s biggest enemy is not lawyers, not managers, not producers, not labels, not publishers, and not Yoko Ono... it’s the artist himself. I have a song about this called “I Love Me”. I wrote, recorded and played all of the parts in one take on a portable 16-track recorder one evening as a demo, with zero overhead, and it’s been licensed to all sorts of TV and ads. Check it out at http://bit.ly/1580hko
5. “I’m going to pay this company $6K and I’m bound to get a license somehow”, or “That company wanted to charge me a fee for pitching! Screw them, they wouldn’t take a percentage, total crooks.”
I have a friend who signed up with a licensing company that insisted on her paying around $3K for a college radio campaign, in order to be eligible for pitching. After her college campaign, they got her a reality show license, and then told her that she had to pay them an additional fee for them to clear the song. Blackmail extortion! Then on top of that, they told her she had to pay an additional $2K or so to be part of a conference, to further push her music to licensors. Well, she ended up spending over $6K with them, and ended up with nothing. It’s a great example, more so because she then came to my company for a fraction of the price, and ended up with something like 25 songs licensed to 12 shows all at once, in the same month.
The stars do not align every day, but they do when they do. Supervisors want what they want, when they want it. As long as the package fits what they need at that time, and the quality is good, it can pay off sooner than later. The trick, though, in working with a pitching company is to learn via word of mouth who is good—they do exist and they’re out there and you can work with them—and not pay attention to message board trolls with no accomplishments to back up their opinions who play Wii all day and talk smack about everyone.
As for the whole idea of asking people/companies to pitch your music for a percentage: if you’re not willing to do the work, why would anyone else do it for free? There are companies that have an automated program with thousands of tracks in them, who are paid for their service by networks, and can expose artists for free on a percentage basis. The only thing is, you’re part of a huge number of songs, may not get the personal exposure needed, and your song might get licensed for $1, of which the company then takes 50%. Can you still buy a box of Tic Tacs for 50 cents? These companies have devalued songs for licensing like you would not believe. Get into a credible system, analyze the company, and don’t assume that you are entitled to free labor or access to someone’s contacts gratis.
When you have to struggle, you are more appreciative and understanding of what it takes to become truly successful.
I recommend to all artists that they take control of their work, learn the ropes, and appreciate the process, because it turns them into better decision makers. It can take a long time, and yet sometimes it doesn’t. Try it yourself. You’ll learn a lot about how badly you want it, and whether you’re in it for the long haul.
[Permission Reprint From Recording Magazine]
Eric Alexandrakis is a highly successful songwriter, producer, and recording musician. He has had several Top 40 hits on the Adult Contemporary charts, has licensed hundreds of songs for various media, and recently completed a remix of Depeche Mode’s new single “Should Be Higher”.
For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, visit: http://www.songwriting.net