What Kinds of Songs Work Best for TV and Film Placements — and How Do You Find Them?
Industry experts weigh in on this hot topic
I asked this question to ten industry professionals who have great track records placing music in television shows and films. Their answers reveal some interesting information about the kinds of songs with which they typically have the most success—and the sources they use to find those songs.
1. The songs that I look for are ones that my partner, Position Music (and Kobalt Music outside of the U.S.) can license over and over again. We don’t want to get you one license, we want to get you fifty. What these heavily-licensed songs generally have in common is that they’re very well performed and produced, and stylistically, they’re on par with what is popular today. There are always exceptions, but generally they are upbeat, happy, and fun. Musically, they grab your attention in the first 3 seconds. Lyrically, songs with universal themes (“The Best Day Of My Life” by American Authors, “Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities), or call-to-action hooks (“Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift or “Raise Your Glass” by Pink) that could be used to back the emotional intent of any number of scenes or scenarios are consistently requested by Music Supervisors and Creatives at ad agencies and trailer houses. For us, we want to administer 100% of the rights (for both publishing and the master recording) so that we are the only call a music supervisor needs to make in order to clear the use. Easy clearance is a really important factor in television in particular.
—And how do you find them?
Word-of mouth is a powerful tool. A great source for new talent is our current artist roster. When an artist is consistently tweeting about new placements on TV shows, in ads, films, and movie trailers, other artists ask them how they do it. I’ve worked exclusively with Position for over 10 years now, and Kobalt for almost as long, and both companies have great reputations in this space. I go to music festivals and conventions, I pay attention to opening acts for popular independent touring artists, and I track a number of live venues across the country and see who they’re booking. I scour a ton of music-related blogs, I pay attention to bands my friends are talking about on Facebook and Twitter, and I spend a lot of time on YouTube and Sound Cloud listening and discovering.
—Ted Lowe, President, Choicetracks
2. There’s no particular genre or “kind” of music that you can say works best for TV & Film placements—just GREAT music! Each spot is so different and unique that you can’t stamp a particular style. If the song has true quality and amazing talent behind it, it will find its way into the perfect sync scenario—it’s just a matter of time.
How do I find them? There’s a combination of methods I use to find the perfect fits to add to the Gravelpit Music roster, but I am a big lover of live shows and try to frequent them as much as possible. Whether it’s a hot band buzzing on the blogosphere, recommendation from a friend or an accidental show I stumbled upon—I love to hear the music in its rawest form and see whether or not it strikes a chord and becomes a contender to add to the Gravelpit team with hopes of synchronization magic.
—Stacee Coleman, CEO/Founder, GRAVELPIT MUSIC
3. My success with film and TV placements is tied to the song’s message and style. Super positive, uplifting, energetic messages are in highest demand. My recent placements are titles like “Happy Place” (Nutella), “Good Day To Be Happy” (CBS Promo), “1 4 3” (Mindy Project), “Make The Night Come To Life” (Sears), and “Irresistible” (Ghost Whisperer). Positive themes that celebrate life.
Stylistically, indie-pop, with a quirky element, seems to capture the interest of ad agencies first. Could be the singer’s voice. Could be a unique instrument or melodic hook. Regardless it’s always a fully produced record. American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life” is the gold standard in placements. Its indie leanings and upbeat melodies, chords, and lyrics made it first a hit with advertisers, then movie trailer producers, and now top 40 radio stations.
My placements come through my publishers at APG and Warner Chappell who are amazing at what they do and work hard for me. They have a big roster, so even though I’m signed, I spend a lot of time investing in my relationships with them, understanding what they want, and creating music that’s easiest for them to place.
—Chris Sernel | Oh, Hush!, Songwriter/Producer, Artist Publishing Group
4. Regardless of the genre, there is a quality that a song has that makes it perfect for audio/visual use. It’s really hard to pinpoint but I (or any film/TV supervisor) can hear it in the first 30 seconds. What makes a song a great album cut or radio single may not make it a great film/TV track. At the end of the day, the song has to be a hit, lyrically applicable (universal in nature), have a great hook, masterful production quality and great vocals. Sometimes you get a song that has all but one of any of the above and it kills it. A song has to have energy, evoke emotions and create a mood. It has to support the visual in all matters. A great placement is when a person is moved by the whole visual/auditory experience.
We are fortunate, having been in business over 8 years, great songs find us. Artists submit hundreds of songs to us monthly, and we listen to every track, and pick the ones that we think we can place.”
—Tanvi Patel, CEO, Crucial Music Corporation
5. While every placement is unique and there are exceptions to any rule, you can generally increase your odds by writing and producing songs that sound contemporary — like they could be on today’s charts. Universal lyrics that don’t mention specific names, dates, times, places, brands, or profanity will also dramatically increase potential uses. Lyric themes should underscore a common emotion like, “I feel great,” or “I’m sad, lonely, and lost,” rather than telling a story of their own. “I feel great since I met you,” won’t conflict with a storyline or script. “I feel great since we met on that rainy night at the bus stop on 3rd and Main,” has a very limited number of uses.
Stripped-down, introspective ballads with an emotionally raw, heartfelt vocal often work well for montages at the end of dramas. Uptempo party songs with a dance beat and a lyric about going out to have some fun seem to get used a lot. The instrumentation should typically sound true to the genre. In other words, don’t use a heavily quantized, MIDI-driven synth for a heartfelt ballad. The opposite could be true for a dance-y party song. A good clean recording and a well-balanced mix will qualify as “broadcast quality.” But the song’s genre is part of the equation. Broadcast quality for a Tom Waits-style ballad would be very different from a Miley Cyrus-style pop song.
The best thing songwriters can do is watch a ton of TV and films, and make notes as to what is used. But don’t watch Friends reruns or old films like Top Gun. Watch current movies and TV shows to know what music supervisors need today! And don’t forget that every song has the potential to earn income as an instrumental, so always do a mix minus vocal and cover your bases.
—Michael Laskow, Founder, TAXI Independent A&R
6. That’s a pretty broad question that really doesn’t have a simple answer. First you must consider the music genre that will be appropriate for the story. But as scenes often contain dialog, you need to be aware that very lyrical songs will make it difficult to hear or comprehend what is being said by the actors. It becomes a big problem in the mix, and the music will either get pushed way in the background, or be replaced.
I dig for songs in many places. Initially I put the word out to my publishing and label contacts, and try to define to them the mood or genre I’m seeking. The daily email submissions from independent creators has gotten to be overwhelming. There are only so many hours in the day, and it would be impossible to listen to all of it, but occasionally there’s a real gem to be found. Having done my share of independent films, the budgets generally require the discovery of new talent. Lastly, I have a pretty deep archive of all kinds of music, and I put aside my favorites, waiting for the right opportunity for them. At the end of the day, you have to try the music next to the picture. It’s often a surprise what will work, and what will not.
—Stephen Elvis Smith, President, Abbey Entertainment
7. I’m currently working on a reality TV show for MTV called The Challenge, Battle of the Exes Part 2. It features teams of men and women who all live in a house together that compete in extremely challenging physical competitions for prize money, with two teams weekly facing an elimination round. The show also features the conflicts that may arise during the course of the season, as well as the relationships that develop between the cast members throughout the weeks of living together.
For the physical competitions, we use a lot of heavy, uptempo and aggressive EDM material, as well as club/dance tracks that are used for the club and partying scenes. Super melodic and solidly produced alternative rock is also what we look for in the show, as well as singer/songwriter material. So as you can see, there are many genres covered in the show. But each project is different as to what kinds of songs work best.
—Jonathan Weiss, Music Supervisor for Bunim/Murray Productions, Los Angeles
8. It is hard to codify what genre or style works best for TV and film, but there are some commonalities. First you must consider why the editor, director, or music supervisor wants a song as opposed to an instrumental piece in the first place. That answer is pretty clear when you think about it: lyrics. They are looking for a message to support the production, and that support is “always” emotional in nature. So first, you need lyrics. Not just any lyrical structure but lyrics that promote the mood needed. Mood lyrics are never specific, they do not tell a story, they simply support the story that is already unfolding. For example “I will never forget you,” “I am so happy that you are alive.” “I Will Remember You” or “In the Arms of the Angels” by Sara McLaughlin had huge success in film and TV; why? Because it fit almost any pensive situation.
The next rule is enunciation and mix. What good is a message if no one can understand it? I always put this first. If a song is presented to me and I cannot “clearly” understand the words being sung, I have no use for it. Look at what all the successful bands do. “Drops of Jupiter” by Train is a good example. You understand every word and you can attach a million different meanings to it. Make it generic, and easy to understand and you are in the door and you will go as far as natural talent will take you.
—David Trotter, Executive Producer at Studio 51 Music
9. The music that works best is the music that best works and that the director gives the thumbs up to. In my opinion, there really is no concrete answer to that question.
As far as where I find music, the answer is literally everywhere. My personal library, online, my contacts at various publishers and labels, third-party licensing companies, music libraries, individual artists, friends—anywhere and everywhere.
—Dondi Bastone, Independent Music Supervisor (The Descendants, Sideways, Gattaca)
10. Fervor Records encourage its artists and writers to be true to themselves and focus on the style of songwriting they do best. The marketplace is cluttered with too many mediocre songs and performances. It’s about quality, not quantity. We’ve found that the film/TV landscape is so wide and deep that just about all genres are relevant. We tend to seek mid and up-tempo songs with positive themes like winning, being together, partying, etc. Currently, there is less demand for downers such as drug addition, breakups, etc.
Fervor Records does not accept unsolicited material. We find artists and writers from a variety of sources including managers, producers, lawyers, referrals from other songwriters, artists, and publishers, as well as TAXI, an independent A&R company.
—Jeff Freundlich, COO, Fervor Records/Wild Whirled Music
So, while the “best” song for television and/or film placement is the one that is most appropriate for a particular scene, songs that are current sounding, well-produced, upbeat, fun tracks with great melodies tend to be most in demand. Lyrics with universal, uplifting, positive messages—that aren’t so specific that they conflict with something in the script—seem to be the ticket.
Those who seek out songs for television and film placements scour the Internet, check out bands and artists at live venues, and rely on established contacts. Some accept unsolicited material; some don’t. Good resources for those hoping to place songs in TV/Film include the Film & Television Music Guide, Music Supervisor Guide, Taxi and Taxi Dispatch, and Cue Sheet.
Jason Blume’s songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ it Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more. He studied film and television composing at U.C.L.A., and contributed songs and background score to area Emmy Award winning PBS documentary “Whatever Happened to Childhood.”
Jason’s songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—he authored three of the best selling songwriting books, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting, and is in his nineteenth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s Music World magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s latest books, instructional audio CDs, and workshops visit www.jasonblume.com.
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