Alicen Schneider heads up the creative music division and West Coast music operations for NBCUniversal Television, overseeing a vast number of productions for the network as well as the major streaming platforms.
We recently caught up with Schneider to discuss the ongoing explosion in program making and what it means for music rights holders, how budgets for music are evolving, and the challenges associated with licensing and clearance today.
What’s the current state of production now? Are you seeing many delays?
Things are looking really good. The production halts are becoming less impactful. We had more lengthy halts last year, but now everyone has learned how to do production in a pandemic and how to isolate and test regularly. It’s been pretty good.
We’ve seen an explosion in program-making and SVOD platforms launching, as well as a greater demand for content than ever before during the pandemic. Do you think this means that sync opportunities are going to explode?
I do. When you look at the massive quantity of production that’s out there, there are so many more opportunities. We’re all really accustomed now to consuming huge amounts of entertainment and we’re all trying to keep up with that demand. I don’t see that audience waning, even when the pandemic’s over. Everybody’s watched everything, so we’ve got to keep creating content.
Would you say you’re making more programming than ever before?
Oh God yeah. We are making so much that I can’t even keep track of everything! And we don’t just produce for our networks and our streamer, but we also produce for Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, and everyone else.
We don’t have seasons anymore. We’re always in pilot season, we’re always launching new series.
What are the most challenging aspects of licensing and clearance in today’s world?
The biggest challenge right now is that the quantity of content that’s out there is inundating our licensors. It’s trying to get things cleared within our timeframe because they’re not any more staffed than they were prior to the pandemic. They’re struggling to keep up with the demand and that definitely impacts us.
“The biggest challenge right now is that the quantity of content that’s out there is inundating our licensors.”
As far as licensing, we’re finding that there’s probably a life for things that maybe wouldn’t have had a life a few years ago because there are so many platforms looking for content. If it doesn’t work on one network, we have an opportunity to see if someone else would like to pick it up. So, when we’re licensing, we really have to pay close attention to what the response is and if we think it’s going to have a second life.
Rights are becoming more and more fragmented and we’re seeing more and more co-writers and parties involved in ownership and clearance. Is that affecting what you do?
We are noticing it. It used to be in the hip hop world you would see a lot of that, but it does seem to be in the pop realm as well. I don’t know if it’s coming from more proactive writing camps or songwriters getting teamed up, but it’s not uncommon now to have a pop song with seven or eight writers whereas back in the day the average was two or three.
That does obviously complicate things and it takes a lot longer to get something cleared. It also means that they don’t necessarily have all the percentages accounted for so we might be missing 2%. Usually it’s on the other end – we had something the other day where it equaled 101.5%.
And increasing acquisitions means rights are changing hands all the time now.
And every time a company acquires another company, it takes them a bit of time to figure out what it is that they just acquired and to transfer all the information into their databases.
It really does create a lapse in time while people are trying to catch up. Sometimes you lose a lot of opportunities because we don’t have time, especially in TV.
Are you tapping into more commercial music and/or doing more direct deals with labels and publishers?
I think because of the volume of shows that we have, we’re tapping into everything. You could say we’re using more production music, but you could also say we’re licensing more. I would say it’s pretty balanced.
As far as direct deals, we would do that if it was a situation where we knew that a particular label or publisher was going to be our main supplier for a project. Let’s say it was a period piece and they were specific to that genre. But otherwise I think we’re pretty status quo on doing business the way we’ve always done business.
Are you noticing any licensing trends?
The trends come and go. One trend I’ve noticed is that shows aren’t necessarily worried about staying contemporary in what they’re pulling from. I’m watching Ted Lasso right now and I’ve noticed that everything’s from the eighties.
I don’t feel like creators are siloing themselves to particular genres. I just see them drawing upon whatever resonates with them most.
There’s been a lot of controversy over artists licensing music for free as well as royalty-free music and buyouts. Are you seeing anything that concerns you in terms of upholding the value of music?
I’ve always tried to uphold the value of music. It feels like it’s gone in the right direction a little bit more. A few years ago, there were production libraries and a lot of indie artists giving music away for free, but I think enough of us have held the line and tried to educate people to value their art form.
I don’t think it’s occurring as much anymore. We strive to compensate all creatives fairly.
“I haven’t seen it [music budgets] impacted by COVID, I’ve seen it getting better and better.”
How are you seeing budgets for music changing? Have they been impacted by COVID?
I haven’t seen it impacted by COVID, I’ve seen it getting better and better.
I feel like I personally have had a voice within my company and have been able to consult on what I think a music budget should be in the development phase, which has helped considerably because in the past we wouldn’t be a part of those conversations.
With the streamers we have to buy everything outright in perpetuity so you have to make sure those budgets are healthy because you can’t really backpedal.
How are you seeing the role of the music supervisor evolving?
There’s a sophistication and expertise that is coming into play in music supervision that is changing the traditional music supervisor role.
When I started it was basically just finding songs and clearing them. Now it’s like, we want to have a 15-person choir and we want them to do this specific genre. And oh, by the way, you have to have this piece created and we’re going to have an orchestra in the background.
There is constant innovation occurring cross production that requires either re-inventing the wheel or establishing new protocols. On the studio level, we’re all so busy trying to manage across multiple platforms that our expectations for the role of the external music supervisor have shifted. We need them to be well-versed in on-cameras and union requirements as well as clearances and creative.
“There is constant innovation occurring cross production that requires either re-inventing the wheel or establishing new protocols.”
Do you think alongside that, there’s more respect and acknowledgment for the role of a music supervisor?
There’s always been respect, but I think what’s nice now is that many more showrunners see them as important music partners. There is a loyalty there and a real trust in collaboration.
The next generation of music supervisors coming in are amazing and I think they’re going to continue to help the role evolve and hopefully take it to a place where it automatically commands respect and appreciation.
It’s a very complicated job and I don’t think people realize how many nuances there are to it.
A new initiative from CISAC is attempting to “harmonize” cue sheets. What for you are the biggest challenges in this area?
I think a centralized system is brilliant. I think the biggest struggle over the years for different companies is that everybody was operating on different systems and whoever you’re dealing with may be comfortable with some and not familiar with others.
Having a universally accepted way of doing things and abbreviating things and knowing that you can get the info to all the appropriate PROs is so needed. And to make it less time consuming is another thing.
What would you say is your favorite sync of the year so far?
My favorite one just happened a few weeks ago. We got to world premier The Weeknd’s new single “Take My Breath” for the Tokyo Olympics. What I love about that was it came to us so organically.
We got an outreach from the publisher, label and manager collectively because The Weeknd is a huge fan of the Olympics and they were looking for a really big look for his surprise single.
It ended up being this beautiful marriage of both sides really wanting it to happen and we were so honoured that he came to us with it. It was so easy to pull off and a really positive collaboration for all of us.
You’ve witnessed the last 30 years of the sync business and the evolution of music in film/TV. What are your predictions for the future?
I don’t even know what my prediction is for next year. It just changes all the time.
When you look at technology you can’t imagine that we could get any more advanced. It’s amazing how artists have now taken control of their careers and we can hear things from people from all over the world that don’t even have any representation just by chance of discovery. I spent so much money in my lifetime on music and now it sits on my phone essentially for free. It’s mind blowing!
My predictions these days are more about when we may or may not get back into the office.
Are you seeing any fundamental changes in how labels and publishers are running their sync businesses?
The collaboration. It seems that it’s less about making numbers and more about helping their writers and artists create success stories.