The 54th Super Bowl is now in the rear view mirror, with the Kansas City Chiefs victorious; but the after-effects for music will still be felt for weeks and even months to come.
America’s biggest sporting day of the year is also, arguably, music’s biggest day of the year – a calendar fixture where mega-acts get to perform in the halftime show. But it is also advertising’s biggest day of the year, where ad agencies and brands showboat about their creativity as well as their budgets and, within that, music synchronisation plays a huge role.
Standout syncs this year included: MC Hammer (along with a soundtrack of ‘U Can’t Touch This’) appearing in an ad for Cheetos; Sonny & Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ being used in a Jeep Gladiator ad where Bill Murray recreates his turn in Groundhog Day; Arti Huisman’s ‘Departure’ in a Kia ad; Lil Nas X’s performing ‘Old Town Road’ in a Doritos ad; Maisie Williams doing her rendition of ‘Let It Go’ in an Audi ad; Missy Elliot and H.E.R. covering ‘Paint It Black’ for Pepsi Zero Sugar; ‘Aymo’ by Gramatik, Balkan Bump and Talib Kweli in a lengthy ad for Porsche; and ‘All People Are Tax People’ by MC Walker soundtracking a spot for TurboTax.
The NFL itself also found a new way to place music front and centre by creating the Super Bowl LIV Live audio and visual album as the day’s spectacle unfurled. (The fact that LIV – 54 in Roman numerals – was a near-homonym for “live” was clearly too good an opportunity to pass up.) As each musical performance happened – Demi Lavato singing the National Anthem, Yolanda Adams (with The Children’s Voice Chorus) performing ‘America The Beautiful’ and Shakira and Jennifer Lopez pulling out all the stops in a hits-packed halftime show – the video and audio was added to an unfolding album on streaming services.
“This visual and audio album is the first of its kind and will allow fans to experience the greatness of the artists’ performance on Super Bowl Sunday at their fingertips and across multiple platforms anytime they choose so,” said Brian Rolapp, chief media & business officer of the NFL, ahead of Sunday’s game.
Here, then, is an explicit acknowledgement not just of music’s importance to the Super Bowl but also the NFL’s huge role as a marketing partner for the music industry.
“Not only do people have huge gatherings and parties to watch the game, but the media pays a great deal of attention to the adverts,” says Josh Rabinowitz of consultancy Brooklyn Music Experience. “The audience is thus seismically focused on the commercials and this is a rarity in American culture with the rise of streaming and cable television. Thus for the music used, the consumer and mass media’s combined auditory and cultural faculties are at full steam.”
“The audience is seismically focused on the commercials and this is a rarity in American culture with the rise of streaming and cable television. Thus for the music used, the consumer and mass media’s combined auditory and cultural faculties are at full steam.”
– Josh Rabinowitz, Brooklyn Music Experience
On a business level, riding the wave of media focus around this cultural moment can often be both a powerful showcase and a significant revenue driver for recorded music and publishing assets.
Universal Music Publishing describes its multiple syncs around the 2020 Super Bowl as “a banner year”. Among its placements are the above-mentioned Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road (Billy Cyrus Remix)’ in a Doritos ad and a re-recording of ‘Let It Go’ (from Frozen) for Audi as well as ‘Philia, Storge, Eros, Agape’ by Max Richter for New York Life Insurance and ‘RNP’ by YBN Cordae (featuring Anderson .Paak) for Coca-Cola Energy.
“Having a song in a Super Bowl commercial is an amazing opportunity for the writers and artists,” says Tom Eaton, SVP of music for advertising at Universal Music Publishing Group. “The Super Bowl is event TV, with over 100m people watching, many of whom have tuned in specifically to watch the commercials. The advent of Shazam has allowed viewers to instantly learn what song is in the commercial they are watching, subsequently followed by an increase in people listening to that song online.”
The advertising synchronisation opportunities are enormous here and publishers can be pitching for several months in advance – but sometimes things have to be a lot more fluid and responsive.
Dan Rosenbaum is the VP of commercial licensing at BMG US and secured major placements this year in the ad break that included MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ (for Cheetos, as noted above), Usher’s ‘Yeah’ (for Amazon) and Warrant’s ‘Sure Feels Good To Me’ (for Walmart). He explains, from BMG’s perspective, how things work.
“Sometimes the spot is built around a song,” he says. “More often, the choice of song is dictated by the creative and comes towards the end of the process.”
Rabinowitz says that because ads are now often teased in advance online and via social media ahead of their big reveal on the Sunday, if music is used in them the deals typically have to be signed off far in advance. “Planning happens typically three months, or longer, pre-game,” he says.
The best-laid plans of mice and men (and music licensing) can, however, go awry. Just how close to the wire can these things go? Incredibly close, it appears.
“Super Bowl licensing requests can certainly come at the last minute,” reveals Rosenbaum. “A few years ago I received one at 5pm on the Friday of Super Bowl weekend!”
Being such a major TV event – that rare moment in an age of multi-channel and on-demand media where the whole country watches as one, with around 100m viewers – the scale of the deals for ad spots (and the music that goes in them) can be staggering.
A feature in Variety last year laid bare the economics here. “CBS has sought between $5.1 million and $5.3 million for a package that includes a 30-second spot and some digital inventory, according to people familiar with negotiations,” it said. “Those figures represent an approximate 96% hike over the average cost of $2.7 million for an ad in the 2008 broadcast of Super Bowl XLII, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending.”
Another Variety piece, in the wake of last year’s Super Bowl, suggested the fees to publishers for use of music in ads around the event ranged between $100,000 for lesser-known songs with limited usage rights all the way up to $750,000 for what would be deemed “iconic songs” and longer usage terms.
A third Variety piece (this one from 2018) stated that sync revenue at the four leading publishers grew by upwards of 25% year-over-year during this time due to the licensing bonanza around such a major TV sporting moment.
Rosenbaum prefers not to be drawn on the price tag on rights for ads during the Super Bowl, but does explain that the end deal will depend on a variety of variables.
“While we choose not to comment on specific fees, suffice it to say there is always a range of fees for the big game, determined as during the rest of the year by factors including recognisability, whether the artist is also featured in the spot, and the usage,” he says. “Will it be TV broadcast for just the game and then online? Or a longer TV term in addition to online?”
“There is always a range of fees for the big game, determined as during the rest of the year by factors including recognisability, whether the artist is also featured in the spot, and the usage.”
– Dan Rosenbaum, VP of commercial licensing at BMG US
Obviously the blockbuster fees will be for songs by the biggest acts – the classics and evergreens that appeal across all demographics – but, as more and more ad spots are made available and bidding wars erupt around the most famous of songs, it is not always about the hits of particular eras. Or even about the hits within particular genres.
Two years ago, Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony/ATV, told Music Week that adverts were starting to think outside of classic rock and pop hits to draw on wider genres.
“It’s nice to see that urban and hip-hop artists are being recognised by major brands, and being put in commercials,” he said. “You wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago, so that’s really exciting.”
While a more eclectic approach is starting to happen at the periphery, Rabinowitz still believes that certain genres remain dominant at the top level. Asked if music supervisors are broadening the genres they work with, he said, “I’d say yes, but classic rock and pop standards seems to hold court during the Super Bowl.”
He adds that advertisers still want the safety of the familiar and instantly recognisable in their music choices for synchronisation. For now, this is a huge opportunity for deep catalogue rather than frontline. Such ads are often about reviving songs rather than launching new careers.
“Most brands are relying on the associative power of something well known, rather than something percolating and/or brand new,” he says.
For Rosenbaum, the familiar is a factor, but not always the determining one – and both the old and new can co-exist.
“It’s across the board,” he says of music choices in Super Bowl ads. “Sometimes a brand wants the recognisability and comfort of a classic song; other times they want the new or unusual; and sometimes it’s both in, say, a contemporary cover of a classic song or a hidden gem of a classic artist.”
Eaton adds an interesting point about how the meshing of the music with the creative idea underpinning an ad is a major factor in deciding what songs can be synched here.
“Generally, Super Bowl commercials are much more story-centric than your typical ad,” he says. “To assist in the storytelling, agencies will utilise recognisable songs regardless of the genre or era from which they come.”
“Generally, Super Bowl commercials are much more story-centric than your typical ad. To assist in the storytelling, agencies will utilise recognisable songs regardless of the genre or era from which they come.”
– Tom Eaton, SVP of music for advertising at Universal Music Publishing Group
As noted above, ads (and the music in them) are now being teased ahead of the Super Bowl in bite-sized chunks to set the scene for the full bells and whistles ad on the day.
The involvement, too, of famous artists in the ads themselves can also amplify their impact. This, Eaton suggests, has been a powerful trend in ads in recent years.
“Contemporary artists are much more than just voices on the radio in today’s world,” he says. “Most have a strong presence on social media, and by including them in their commercial, a brand automatically reaches an avid and potentially new fanbase.”
This role of social media (even without the added ingredient of a famous pop star) to generate interest in advance is changing the very architecture of these ads where, like summer blockbuster films, they are getting their own trailers and viral teasers. Social media – as well as YouTube – also means that the audiences for these ads are no longer domestic US ones. They can, in theory, impact globally now. (This is something that will shape the final fee and use terms for a licensing deal.)
The Super Bowl is an enormous collective cultural moment in the US each year but it is increasingly resonating around the world.
“I think the focus for certain brands has become more global for advertisers that run campaigns during the Super Bowl,” suggests Rabinowitz. “It really depends on the brand, its relevance, its brand purpose and its messaging. Many brands that advertise on the Super Bowl are huge international conglomerates and they seek and pursue the global social marketplace with vigour. Some are just trying to make a distinctive statement with one big splash.”
This also feeds into the halo effect on streaming services for a song that was tied to a standout ad during the Super Bowl, with streams on leading DSPs jumping up over 1,000% in some instances. The money from sync deals is significant, but streaming has meant a significant secondary source of income can happen.
These spikes do not always just drive revenues in the hours and days after a Super Bowl sync. By shooting up so sharply, they can have a knock-on effect at DSPs on both an editorial and an algorithmic level that means songs can break into – and bed in on – major playlists that perhaps they were previously excluded from, thus benefitting from the virtuous circle of being a popular song on a popular playlist. It can all become a self-perpetuating position of luxury.
External factors, however, can have an unintended and profound impact on ads that were designed to just stand out amid the razzamatazz and huge national focus on the Sunday game and a short, sharp spike on streaming.
In 2016, the NASA-referencing ad for the Audi R8 used David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ as its soundtrack and was hailed as one of the most affecting ads run that year. It had been planned and shot long in advance of its transmission on 7th February but took on an added poignancy as Bowie had passed away the month prior.
BMG co-published the song and it was originally only intended for broadcast in the US. The timing, however, combined with its phenomenal impact with the audience saw the ad transcend its original spot during the Super Bowl.
“The commercial became a powerful and unexpected tribute to a musical icon on a day normally devoted to sports,” says Rosenbaum. “And the attention it received was such that the brand ended up extending the spot to a worldwide campaign.”
The Super Bowl ad inventory is among the most coveted on American TV, with suggestions that a 30-second spot this year was going for as much as $5.6m. With that sort of heft behind the ads, one would naturally expect the impact to be phenomenal.
Huge celebrities may be elbowing their way to the head of the queue to appear in these ads – with Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Murray, Molly Ringwald, Chris Evans, Chris Rock, Jonathan Van Ness, Bryan Cranston, Tracee Ellis Rossand Winona Ryderall popping up in different ads this year. There were, however, a number of pop stars front and centre in ads – among them Lil Nas X, MC Hammer, Missy Elliot and H.E.R., John Legend and Post Malone.
Despite the Hail Mary pass of including household names in Super Bowl ads, it is still the ones that deftly use music that prove the strongest formation.