There’s the teenagers playing flamenco music on the streets who suddenly had the number 2 song on the iTunes World Music chart.
There’s the wine salesman making music in his bedroom who was able to quit his job and make music his full-time career.
And there’s the established independent artist that was able to actually pay his entire band.
In a music world where artists are struggling more than ever to actually sell their music to consumers, there remains a few customers willing to pay handsomely: Hollywood and ad agencies.
Big Break(ing Bad)
The Taalbi Brothers had never seen Breaking Bad when it set their careers on fire. The brothers, now 21 and 19, play a modern style of flamenco music; not exactly a top-selling genre in the 21st century.
But that didn’t matter to Lip Sync, who discovered them in 2010 and signed them.
“One of my friends from high school who is a total stoner heard them playing on the street,” recalls Harman. “She got them to give him a CD for free by saying he had a friend in the business. These were 13 and 15 year-old kids at the time.”
Harman, whose company was only a year old at the time, set up a showcase for her clients and had the Taalbi Brothers play on top of the London Hotel in LA.
“Maybe five people came to their showcase. It was such a mess. I was so down and out,” Harman says. “But then I got this email back from Tom who works with Breaking Badthanking me for the show. Three months later we get a request for their song to be in Breaking Bad.”
Fans of the show most certainly remember the Season 4 finale in which Jesse and Walter burn down the lab which aired in October 2011. The scene is made all the more epic by the Taalbi Brothers song “Freestyle” being played during the montage.
Their song climbed all the way to the second spot on the iTunes World Chart in the days following the show.
“I was very happy about it, but I was a lot more happy about it when I started watching the show about a year later,” says Bronson Taalbi, the older of the two. “And that’s when I really wanted to tell people about it.”
“Selling Out” vs “Surviving”
Harman says the Taalbi Brothers’ story is one of her favorites to tell, but Lip Sync’s roster of artists runs the gamut from total unknowns to established artists looking to get their music more exposure.
One such artist is LA-based R&B and Soul musician Nick Waterhouse. An established artist with a couple of critically acclaimed albums in 2012’s Time’s All Gone and 2014’s Holly, it’s quite possible you’ve heard Waterhouse wail “Where you think you’re gonna go/when your time’s all gone?” on a Lexus ad that is playing on TV and the internet. The ad even shows the car radio featuring Waterhouse’s name and finishes with Waterhouse and his band playing an outdoor show.
It’s great exposure for Waterhouse who has been featured in a number of ads and shows in his career and has toured the country “probably two dozen times.”
“I told my manager from the beginning that I had no qualms about licensing my music as long as it was being used in a way that wasn’t denigrating to me,” says Waterhouse.
It’s an interesting concept that Waterhouse touched on when it comes to licensing music. Especially considering Rock & Roll culture of old, where licensing seems to have this stigma of “selling out” attached to it.
In today’s music consuming culture it can be a matter of survival for artists. Surviving in the music industry has always been about making art that people will pay for, but in 2015 the only people paying for music are companies that need it for commercials, films, or TV shows.
“I have a respect for artists who don’t want to dilute their art, but the moment you commercially release your recording you are participating in capitalism,” says Waterhouse. “You are doing yourself a disservice by pretending that your narrow window of capitalism is the only pure form of it. You lose control of your work as soon as you release it.”
For Waterhouse, it’s about survival more than a nebulous idea of refusing to “sell out.”
“I have a record that I made with 12 people and I paid all of them. I toured with a lot of those people and made sure they had jobs. It’s really hard to pay that many people when you are an independent artist like myself,” Waterhouse says. “Licensing a song is what kept me afloat for the first year and a half of my touring life. I would have gone bankrupt and would have had to stop touring.”
Harman, naturally, agrees with Waterhouse. She can recall numerous artists who were on the verge of blowing up when she was working with them that decided to turn down major opportunities out of a desire to remain true to themselves. For the most part, it didn’t turn out well for the artists.
“One band got a $300-500,000 request for a sync one time, and that’s a huge number especially for a band that was this new. It was for a gluten-free bread ad, but the ad agency made the mistake of leaving the word ‘corporation’ in the subject line of the email,” laughs Harman…sort of. “The artist immediately passed on it and wouldn’t consider it. We just watched the money go away.”
Getting Out of the Bedroom
Harman’s grandfather is legendary Nashville drummer Buddy Harman who is featured on over 18,000 songs. But she wanted to take a different route and never learned a single instrument. She didn’t even seek to be involved in the music industry until she moved to LA and discovered licensing. So instead of making music, she helps make musicians’ careers.
One such musician is a former wine salesman named Robert Fleming, now known as Sneakout. Fleming was making music in his bedroom before getting in contact with Lip Sync.
“They changed everything for me. They gave me a career,” says Fleming. “I put out a release for fun and the love of it. One of my songs got picked up by the LA music blog Buzzbands and Ezra at Lip Sync saw it and got in contact with me.”
Fleming says he had no idea what licensing was before meeting with Ezra, but soon after signing with Lip Sync his song was on the reboot of 90210. After that he began booking shows and getting some big commercials, including a Microsoft ad.
“Licensing is able to give people like me who record in their bedroom, not only some money, but some hope,” says Fleming. “There’s no such thing as selling out, now it’s just called being a smart musician.”
This isn’t to say that licensing is a sustainable way to boost album sales or tour numbers either. It’s great exposure and sometimes great money, but it doesn’t suddenly make you The Black Keys.
Fleming has played a number of shows around LA and New York, but hasn’t gone on a big tour yet. Waterhouse hasn’t noticed a great uptick in the crowds at his shows, or sustained album sales (although he did say they sold about 1,000 records the first week the Lexus ad appeared).
The Taalbi Brothers saw a huge initial uptick in song sales, but say that if the same thing happened to them in 2015 as it did in 2011 there would have been substantially less sales because of the prevalence of streaming services. For example, they caught another big break when Derek Hough of Dancing With The Stars used their song for a dance number and promoted it on Twitter in 2014. But this time the exposure resulted in huge streaming numbers and little downloads.
The idea that the music industry is changing, or even dying, has been bandied around for a long time. Perhaps this is the most noticeable change though: In the span of four years, the same level of exposure resulted in significantly less sales and money for an artist.
Waterhouse takes a bit of a cynical view when he thinks of the effect of a big song placement.
“In a way the number one thing it’s done for me is that it made what I do credible to my family members at Thanksgiving,” jokes Waterhouse.
Waterhouse, of course, is discounting the amount of money being paid for licensing deals. Harman sees licensing as a way to keep artists in the game that would have had to give it up in the past.
“It’s a lot easier for a lot more artists to be moderately successful,” says Harman. “So many artists are able to make a living now, some make a great living and others just make a decent living.”
The music industry is an expensive and unforgiving one when it comes to finances. Waterhouse was able to employ the people in his band with the money he received from licensing, and he sees that as a hearkening back to the great artists of the past.
“It’s a break-even enterprise. I understand the ‘ickiness’ of licensing your work for something if you’re really attached to it as a pure form of art,” says Waterhouse. “I always think about the difference between the self-serious capital ‘r’ Rock bands and the artists I admire like Sonny Boy Williamson and B.B. King who traveled in a van that was sponsored by a hair tonic.”
In an era in which producing music is easier than ever, having a song gain exposure isn’t nearly as difficult as it used to be, but getting someone to actually pay for that song is nigh impossible. Most artists make their money on tour, but touring is expensive, as Waterhouse mentioned.
Licensing can be a way to help artists get over that barrier. Whether it’s the barrier from the bedroom to the studio, or from local touring to national touring, or even from teenagers playing on the street to burning up the charts (and the meth lab).