In our ongoing series ‘Show Tunes,’ we discuss the details of music supervision, syncing and publishing with professionals working inside the entertainment industry.
After talking with Garrett McElver about how music supervision works and how songs are chosen for television shows, I started wondering about other places music shows up. What about commercials? Movie soundtracks? Video games? I found someone who had the answers I was looking for.
Kristen Bushnell is the Director of Creative Synchronization at Atlas Music Publishing, an independent music publishing company based in Los Angeles. Atlas aims to provide an individualized experience for its impressive roster of artists and songwriters, which includes big names Eddie Van Halen and Counting Crows as well as lesser known pop writers like Toby Gad. Bushnell’s role is to work closely with each of them, seeking out creative and unique opportunities for their songs.
Bushnell sat down with Behind the Setlist to discuss how the synchronization side of music publishing works and a few of her favorite recent placements. Spoiler alert: synchronization is not magic. It’s complicated, and takes much more coordination than I imagined.
There must be a whole side to this industry I’m not familiar with. I understand how songwriters work. They write songs, publishers acquire them, they pitch them to artists and artists cut them, right? But Counting Crows is one of your clients and they obviously wouldn’t work like that, because they’re presumably writing and recording their own songs.
We work with songwriters at the core. Those songwriters either work together as a band [like Counting Crows], or like you said are writing songs that are being cut by other artists. We have an entire A&R department that pitches demos from some of our writers. For example, Toby Gad is a big pop writer that we have. He’ll write with or for artists, and those songs he writes will be pitched to be cut by other artists. So there is a side of that to what we do.
But the side I work on takes existing catalogs of music and looks for synchronization opportunities. We have Eddie Van Halen and Alex Van Halen as clients, so we have their publishing share of Van Halen’s catalog. My job is to take the Van Halen catalog and look for synchronization opportunities for it in ads, trailers and films. My Atlas teammate Rob Levin pitches our catalog for TV, video games and sports.
In order to take these existing compositions and find new and cool opportunities for them, we have to figure out budgets that work for everyone, which means also checking in with who owns the masters. Supervisors rely on us to be doing that and not just pitching blindly and hoping it works out. I’m not going to be pitching a Van Halen song for something that’s going to be low budget or that I know the masters side is not going to approve. So there’s a lot of working as a team with everyone involved.
If Atlas only owns a percentage of the publishing, how is it that other people own a portion of that song?
Using Van Halen as an example, there are four members of the band. They’ve had different singers over the years and essentially the copyrights are split up four ways, plus or minus a few percentages for different songs. Eddie and Alex Van Halen wrote the majority of songs, so they have a majority of 66 percent of the publishing share. The other writers on those songs, like David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony, are signed to Warner/Chappell.
That means when I’m pitching Van Halen’s publishing, I am not pitching 100 percent of it. I am pitching on behalf of the two guys, Alex and Eddie, who we publish, but I’m also pitching for opportunities that I think would be approved all around. I won’t know for sure though until it gets to the quoting phase and we really talk about making it happen.
But the funny thing is, and the reason I love working at an indie publisher, is that you have everything from iconic catalogs like Van Halen to one-stop indie bands that we can clear everything 100 percent. It’s our job to be able to have something no matter what the budget or project.
Right. I was surprised to hear you say that your experience is all in the indie world and that you’ve never worked for a major publisher. I would not call Counting Crows “indie.” I would certainly not call Van Halen “indie.”
Well, yeah, and with Counting Crows you have a major label involved, but then we’re an indie publisher that has 100 percent of their publishing. So a clearance person will look at that and say, “OK, the publishing will be with an indie but the master will be with a major,” and they’ll have to keep that in mind, depending on what their budget is and what their timeline is. It all just depends on how many people you’re going to have to contact to get something cleared in time.
How does the pitching process even begin? Do supervisors come to you looking for something specific or do you guys have certain songs in mind that you’re actively trying to place? Or is it some of both?
A lot of my job is working with the artists to find out where they would like to see their music placed and how they would like to see it used. A lot of times we ask things like, “What are you a fan of?” or “What directors do you like?” It’s nice to have ammo when you’re reaching out to supervisors. You can say, “Just so you know, Eddie Van Halen is obsessed with your show” or “Eddie Van Halen loves cars.”
We had “Runnin’ with the Devil” placed in an Acura Super Bowl ad. Eddie is a huge car fan, so that was a cool thing. Publishers work a little differently in how they think creatively to get music placed in a new way instead of waiting around for a request to come in. There are so many different kinds of opportunities. Maybe they’re looking for brand partnerships or the right video game to release a song in their trailer.
Wow, I had no idea how any of that worked. It never occurred to me that publishers were involved in ad placement or anything like that.
That’s another thing I love about publishing. I get to work in different media. When you’re a supervisor, you might be limited. Some supervisors work in just film or just television, but when you’re a publisher you get to work in a variety of industries and on different projects, which I think is so interesting. And the process for everything is different. The pace of advertising and their licensing process is totally different than a trailer. Sometimes there are a lot of hoops you have to jump through to actually land the placement.
One example of having to do a lot of coordination was our recent placement in the film Fifty Shades Darker. That was a case of an unreleased John Legend track that our writer Toby Gad had written. It didn’t make John’s album and we found an opportunity for it in that film. Our writer was so excited that we were working closely with the Universal team and found such a great opportunity for a song that otherwise wouldn’t have been released. And it was obviously such a perfect fit for the film. But there were a lot of people involved in making that happen.
So did the song then get a second life after being on that soundtrack?
It got a first life. Literally. Toby and John have written multiple songs together, like “All of Me,” for example. We work closely with Toby, so we knew about the songs that had been written but didn’t make John’s album. For this pitch we worked with John and his manager, and said that we thought this would be a great opportunity.
It wasn’t the easiest process to land, but it was so satisfying when we did. It was such a great tie-in. Our writer Toby was so happy that we were putting in the extra work to make something like this happen. We have the same publishing share as John Legend in this song, but we had to do all the extra checks to make sure it was OK.
Now what about something like when you’re at a baseball game and they’re playing songs. Is that kind of placement handled through publishing, too, or is that a whole other animal?
There are different types of uses. There are ephemeral uses, which is what you’re talking about when a song is played at a sporting event, or during an awards show or something like that. There are many different types of licenses that people may or may not have to clear with the publisher. It depends on the use.
And everything has to be licensed accordingly.
Right, and we’re fortunate enough to have a really great licensing department in New York. Atlas is based in New York and I’m only one of three out here [in Los Angeles]. My job is to handle all of the pitching, the negotiating and the clearing to get the song to the point of handing it over to our licensing person, who papers it and processes the payment.
I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to do all of the papering of the license itself. That’s another way companies can be totally different. Some people are doing it all. In my case, I have a licensing department that does that for me, which is really great.
What’s the craziest pitch you’ve actually pulled off?
Oh my gosh. More often than not, the craziness is actually in the requests we get from supervisors. We get these briefs that are just so funny. I remember this one time Caitlin Haurie, who pitches for ads in Atlas’s New York office, got a brief from a supervisor looking for a song for a faucet brand and the request literally asked for “sexy faucet songs.” We didn’t land anything, because apparently our songs are not sexy enough for a faucet ad. The supervisors even acknowledge it when they’re sending them. Like, “I know that this is ridiculous, but let us know if you have anything.”
We did have this one pitch that was really great. It was a placement for the PBS show The Mind of a Chef. We were working with the supervisors for the show and there’s an entire segment where they talk about chefs and the music they’re inspired by when they’re cooking. One of the chefs said, “I sometimes play Van Halen in my kitchen and it just fires me up. I get so excited.” They had wanted to clear a Van Halen song for this awesome animated montage. Basically, this guy discovers Van Halen as a teenager, puts the tape in his tape deck and then loses his mind. It’s this animation of a mind going crazy, like the most insane animation you could imagine.
We were trying to figure out a song that Van Halen would be comfortable with clearing for the fee, so we knew it couldn’t be one of their biggest songs, and I had the idea to put “Loss of Control” up for it. It’s this out of control metal song and had never had a placement ever. It ended up landing. The animation and the song—it was just one of those combinations that made me so happy. It was perfect. We kept saying the whole time, “I can’t believe this happened.”
It was a case where when you’re willing to get creative and go a couple rounds with the supervisors and find something that really works, everyone’s happy. The Van Halen brothers were happy that we found a placement for a song that has never been placed, and that also just looked cool on such a great program. The Mind of a Chef is a great show we were happy to support. We wanted it to work so badly and were praying Eddie and Alex would be OK with it. And they loved it.
And you said you had “Runnin’ with the Devil” placed in a Super Bowl ad. That sounds like a really big deal. How’d that come about?
That Super Bowl spot with Acura was one of my favorite things we’ve done and is the kind of thing we do that people are probably the most confused at how it happens. I recently did a panel with one of the supervisors from MullenLowe, the ad agency that actually did the placement, and we talked about how it was such a cool opportunity because it was the first ad placement for “Running with the Devil,” one of the biggest Van Halen songs.
For this specific Acura model, the NSX, they were so excited to release it, and they already had some interest in the song. But it was our working with Eddie Van Halen to get his input that made it happen in the end. He knew the NASCAR driver who helped design the original one. He’s such a car superfan. Because of the fact he was so into it, the agency was able to really sell it to Acura and say, “This has to be the song. This is the perfect pairing.”
We were so happy to be a part of it. We were over the moon. It created such a great relationship with the agency, and the Van Halen brothers were clearly happy. They had only joined Atlas a couple months prior, and so being able to make something like this happen was just an amazing feeling. That’s one of the things I’ll always remember.
When something doesn’t come through or work out, is it usually the artists pushing back, saying they don’t want their songs used in a certain way, or is it more often the supervisors with budget problem concerns? How do things fall apart?
Rarely it’s the artist that’s behind it, unless they’re very particular about each use, and in that case we know that when we’re pitching. If I know that a supervisor has a quick turnaround time, which they usually do, and if I know that I have an artist that’s going to need a lot of information for approval, then it’s not going to be an easy clear. I’m not going to put that song or that artist up for everything.
More often than not, the reason things don’t end up happening is because of time and being able to clear it with all necessary parties. So many times you’ll get a timeline that says, “Must be clearable in the next two days” or “This locks in a week.” So we have to make sure everything can be wrapped up. Unless I have an artist one-stop, meaning I can clear 100 percent of their publishing and 100 percent of their master, I’m relying on hearing from the other parties that control the song.
Even if all approval parties are onboard, you’re still competing against other songs. There are times when we’ll have everything pre-cleared and ready to go, and the trailer house gets all the approvals in time, but the studio still gets the final call about what song they want. You can only do so much because it’s in the hands of so many other people.
How do you organize yourself for that, being so dependent on other people and their own timelines?
First and foremost, I think it’s important for anyone doing what I’m doing to know the people you’re working with. It’s simple to pick up a phone and introduce yourself. “Hey, we’re sharing this copyright. We should know each other.” Or, “Hey, where have you been pitching? What success have you been having? Who else do you know?” I think working together in that way is really important for those times when you do have to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, there’s this brief due in 24 hours and I’d like to pitch for it.”
You have to keep track internally with your own systems. That means making notes about how many ways the master is split and recording the contact information for each person. Or knowing that one of your writers is unpublished and his manager clears his publishing. You have to have the back end pretty tied up—your metadata, your clearance information. Everything needs to be accessible within a moment’s notice.
We also have to look at the history of a song and where it’s been licensed before. If a song has landed a trailer before, that’s something to keep in mind if I’m pitching for a trailer that says, “No prior trailer licenses.” Same thing with ads. They’ll ask for no prior ad licensing. It’s my job to keep track of that, and luckily we have a system where we file all of our quotes and all of our uses in this database. Before I pitch a song, it’s on me to check to make sure it meets the specifications of whatever the supervisor’s asking for.
I had no idea so many people and moving pieces were involved.
And there are many people that do what I do with a different title or in a different capacity. A supervisor like Garrett [McElver] is going to trusted sources when he has a music search. A lot of times I’ll be included on a list with labels, managers, pitching companies and so on. Publishers are just one of many different companies that are pitching for all the same opportunities. That’s why we’re such a relationship-based industry. You want to know that you have a relationship with a supervisor where they can call you if something goes wrong and you can fix a problem quickly if need be. That’s so important in what we do. You need to know everyone, especially when people move from company to company.
What would you say the biggest difference is between you guys as an indie company versus a major publishing company? Where’s that line?
I think it comes down to service. It’s signing on for a different type of relationship. I always tell clients, “I’ll be as annoying as you want me to be.” A lot of people are surprised that they’re even able to get their publisher on the phone. It’s not saying anything bad about major publishers, but the volume of work that they have might prevent them from having that sort of relationship where they’re working and speaking to their writers as often as we might be able to.
Of course, as we grow that’s going to be harder to maintain, but like I said, that’s our goal. As we grow and our catalog grows, we grow with it. I have personally loved working at indies because you have less red tape to worry about. You can get creative in the different places you work and not be stuck to one department. You have a little more freedom to try different things. There’s more encouragement to get creative in ways that you may not be able to at a major publishing company that’s a little more structured.
For example, in my department, if I have a better relationship with someone who my TV synchronization guy is pitching to, then we assess who’s got the best relationship with that person and decide who’s best to do the pitch. It’s not like we have to enforce strict laws of sticking to one thing because that’s your job title. You can dabble in a few different areas.
So it comes down to service. That makes sense, because it doesn’t sound like you guys as an indie company have any diminished ability to create major opportunities for an artist.
No, and with an indie, just by nature, you’re going to wear a few different hats. So when you bring on an artist who might be between managers, you might be helping in ways a traditional publisher might not. It’s all part of the service. We can ask, “What do you need from us?” Our deals are not cookie-cutter. We can be flexible with terms in certain ways that maybe a major publisher can’t. All writers are totally different, so the deals can’t be expected to all be the same.
Our relationships with individual writers can’t be all the same, either. Again, “What do you need from us?” If I have a writer who wants to speak regularly about what I’m being asked for in my briefs, then I’m going to build that relationship and be honest—sometimes brutally honest. If they want me to tell them why a song isn’t getting synched, I’ll tell them, “Well, this lyric sticks out and makes it hard.”
One time one of our writers had a really great song that was great for ads, but I received feedback from a supervisor that because they used the word “Disneyland,” it limited where they could pitch it. I told the writer that, and making that change was not something that would change the song in any drastic way. By telling them that, they were able to create a new version, swapping that lyric out.
We’re all coming from a place of wanting to make money for everyone. If writers want our input, we’re here to give it. If they would rather not know, then I’m also here to not give that. Whatever you want. We hear them out when we first sign them and we say, “Where do you want us pushing? Where do you want our input?” And that’s different for everyone.
That flexibility would be a major advantage of working with an indie company.
Totally. And in the case of the artist who’d written Disneyland into a song, when they switched that lyric, you couldn’t even tell there was a change made. It’s cool I was close enough with the supervisor for them to say, “We really love this song, but you should know that changing that word is going to give it longer legs.” That’s the nature of us all wanting to see each other do well.
In talking to you and in my conversation with Garrett [McElver], it does seem that there’s a general collaborative effort of everybody wanting everybody to do well. That surprises me, because the music industry is not known for being friendly.
I think it’s just knowing that the industry has changed. We’re all competing for the same placements, so it’s important for us to all play nice in the sandbox. You have to know that if your co-publisher makes something happen for the song, then you make money too, and vice versa. We want to make everyone’s job easy so we all make money. Everyone wins.
I am curious about your general opinion on how the industry is changing and how those changes affect what you do.
I think the most obvious thing, and this goes across all media, is as a publisher or as a pitcher there are definitely times where we feel there is no room for negotiation or conversation anymore. We never want to over-quote and we never want the supervisor to feel that we’re being unfair. We’re going to be reasonable, but we’re also sometimes met with a reaction of, “You think you can negotiate? You think you can even have a conversation about this? No, you should be lucky I’m even sending you something.”
It’s been toughest for those indie bands, or even some of the ones kind of in the middle. When you’re working with artists that are not on that legendary level, it would be nice to be able to have a conversation and not get met with, “This is what it is. Take it or leave it.”
Why do you think that’s happening?
I think it’s because there’s the opinion that if I don’t get it from you, I’ll get it from somewhere else. Basically, you’re just one of a few people that I could be talking to. Which, of course. We’re not stupid. We know that. But at the same time, we have times where we’re in the quoting phase or giving ballpark fees and there’s no back and forth. If we don’t give the right number up front, sometimes we never hear back.
A more helpful response would be for them to say, “That’s way over what we’re thinking” or “That’s close to what we’re thinking, but how about this?” Or going back and forth. Maybe limiting the media, or maybe limiting some other different things. There used to be more of a way to do that, but now if you don’t have the magic number immediately, they won’t get back to you and give you an update.
Is that because everything is happening so fast nowadays and on such a tighter schedule? Or is it more about oversaturation and the fact that there are more people playing the game?
I think it’s definitely both. Like you said, it’s accessibility. It’s knowing that you can get something cleared in a short amount of time. If someone’s making you wait even a little bit, you already have a couple songs waiting and ready to go. And then of course, oversaturation. Just knowing that there are more artists that could produce a similar sound.
Whenever we’re asked about oversaturation and how we decide what to sign, we have to keep in mind that we’re not signing songwriters just because we can. We make sure we sign the best of the best. Quality music really does rise to the top of the heap. Even though more bands are getting into the industry, at the end of the day if I sign special and talented artists and their careers take off, they’ll get the fees they deserve. That’s what’s important in my position as a publisher—to not just sign an act to be able to check a box, genre-wise. It’s my unique position to seriously consider every artist I’m working with because that will keep the value up.
“We make sure we sign the best of the best. Quality music really does rise to the top of the heap. Even though more bands are getting into the industry, at the end of the day if I sign special and talented artists and their careers take off, they’ll get the fees they deserve.”
Looking through your client roster, you are certainly not genre specific. Are you consciously trying to keep a set balance, or do you trust you’ll have a balanced mix as long as you’re signing the best quality people?
We never want to be known as the blank publisher that only does one thing. When we first got started, Van Halen was the biggest act on our roster. Obviously, people started associating with us as this indie, but with this big artist. Our goal is to round out our catalog and always have a variety, from one-stop indies to more Van Halens, but in different genres, whether they’re legacy catalogs or whether they come from different partnerships we have.
We’re lucky to have partners that give us access to very interesting catalogs. Sugar Music is a record label in Italy. They’re one of our partners, so we get to pitch an incredible Italian music library. Everything from Andrea Bocelli to Ennio Morricone scores. Then in Nashville we work with Combustion Music, and that gives us a ton of country music to work with. So whether it’s through strategic partnerships or growing our catalog in different ways, we’re trying to do it all and round it out.
At this stage, do you have time to go out and see the artists perform? Do you get to go to shows and be involved in the fun side of music still?
When I was at SONGS, I was seeing every show a SONGS artist played in Los Angeles, which sometimes was two to three shows a night. It depends on the company you’re working for. Our roster [at Atlas] is much smaller, so now I look forward to when our bands come through town because it’s not as often. But like we were talking about before, with the general community of this industry, there will be times when I’ll go to a show and it’ll be a band everyone’s freaking out about. You’ll see supervisors and pitching people from all companies there, because it’s the hottest band at the moment that everyone wants to check out.
I definitely still love going to shows. FYF Fest and stuff like that. I still love it, and now I know what I love seeing on my own when I have free time. When I first moved to L.A., I was at every school-night show, all the residencies, and I couldn’t see enough live music. That’s what introduced me to a lot of people I know now.
That’s great you haven’t lost your love for it. I think the day that happens, something has gone wrong.
Oh, yeah. And wear earplugs. Put that in print. The first thing my parents bought me when I got into this industry was custom-fit earplugs. You gotta do it.
I’m learning a lot from these conversations, including the fact that I’ve been woefully ill-informed about this side of the industry.
You are not alone. I think a lot of people don’t know what publishers do, and it varies by publisher. There’s a lot of logistical stuff. A publisher will always register your songs with the performing rights organizations and handle copyright infringement lawsuits and everything, but there’s so much more that people don’t think of. Or they think it might be similar to a label job or a managerial job. The synchronization element of publishing stands on its own. It’s such a great job that I’ve been fortunate enough to do, and hope to do as long as I can.