To say that sync in 2023 is a mixed bag is an understatement of significant proportions. There is a lot going on – some positive, some negative and some still fuzzy – and a lot of forces simultaneously pulling the sector in multiple directions.
We spoke to key players in the sync world to better understand all the factors at play, how they are shaping the business today and what this could mean for it tomorrow.
Industrial inaction: the impact of the strikes
The after-effects of the are still being felt, with a multitude of productions – and therefore a multitude of synchronization opportunities – put on hold. The so the US film and TV industry is going to be caught in limbo for the foreseeable future.
While the strikes are dominating the news agenda here, the sync business is finding new ways to adapt and to seek out/maximize new opportunities.
“With the strike, we are just starting to see a slow down in film and TV opportunities, but that doesn’t mean they’ve come to a screeching halt either,” says Jessica Vaughn, head of sync at Venice Music and president of Head Bitch Music. “I am seeing a huge uptick in gaming, advertising and non-scripted requests come in.”
Taylor Amazan, head of sync at Riptide Music Group, says that the strike obviously reduced demand for sync deals in certain areas (i.e. scripted drama), but there was a growth in uses in other areas.
“We’ve seen a general boost in requests for music for reality shows and documentaries, as many of those productions have been able to continue,” she says. “We’ve also found more opportunities in network branding sizzle reels, as networks are trying to market their existing content to keep audience viewerships engaged.”
Amazan is confident that, when the actors’ strike is resolved, there will be a massive swing back into action as the TV and film businesses seek to make up for lost time. In lockstep with this, she believes that sync requests and sync deals will experience a post-strike boom – but this will also come with whole new characteristics as the business looks to recalibrate itself.
“Many of these campaigns will, in effect, have to start over – paving the way for more sync opportunities than what is normally standard.”
Taylor Amazan, Riptide Music Group
“It’s the same sort of growth boom that we saw after Covid restrictions were lifted last year,” she says. “For example, a theatrical release that has been delayed or paused for a few months because of the strike may end up creating additional trailers or extra marketing materials, on top of what they normally would, as a way to pull audiences back into the fold. Many of these campaigns will, in effect, have to start over – paving the way for more sync opportunities than what is normally standard.”
Evolutions #1: new trends, new opportunities
Tim Hayes, VP, Creative Sync at Hipgnosis, says certain parts of the rights business are focused on pushing new releases as a priority for sync deals. The focus, however, at Hipgnosis is on what he terms “evergreens” – the older and established songs that have deep cultural resonance.
These songs open more doors more quickly and more assuredly, he argues.
“Our focus is on iconic songs that have had extraordinary success and are of cultural importance,” he says. “They are the definition of evergreen, so everyone knows them and loves them already. We don’t have to spend time convincing people our songs are great so we can focus on finding the right opportunities. Our priority is finding the perfect fit and servicing sync clients to the highest possible order with our great songs. We spend our time proactively working with media partners to facilitate the pairing of the best songs in the world with media content that compliments them.”
While Hipgnosis might be focused on working older songs, its emphasis beyond its actual catalog is firmly on the new: namely new markets and new use cases.
“As SVOD [subscription video on demand] platforms continue to grow, they continue to create opportunities in territories that previously weren’t as relevant or lucrative for long-form media,” he says. “Opportunities are constantly growing and evolving in non-traditional media and there’s also a big rise in content being created in territories which previously weren’t as active.”
“Opportunities are constantly growing and evolving in non-traditional media and there’s also a big rise in content being created in territories which previously weren’t as active.”
Tim Hayes, Hipgnosis
While covers are a key part of the Hipgnosis business model within sync, Hayes says the market is evolving far beyond the ‘straight’ cover version.
“The trend of licensing covers is still as prevalent as ever and we’ve recently noticed a lot of creatives requesting nostalgic, recognizable [music] to be interpolated in new and innovative ways,” he explains. “Hipgnosis’ songs are prime for these opportunities and we’re constantly seeing new recordings being created, new tracks interpolating our evergreens, and new remixes of our works dropping, inspired by our influential and seminal writers and artists.”
He also singles out artist-centric documentaries as a rapidly expanding area. Documentaries have been a constant in music since the 1960s, but the rise of streaming services has ushered in a golden era for the medium, with big-budget productions around megastars but also a sharp rise in documentaries around niche artists and niche genres. The canvas for documentaries has become incrementally wider and richer in the streaming age.
“One trend that has picked up across SVOD platforms recently are artist-focused documentaries,” Hayes says. “These have been very successful, as seen by the Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now [on Netflix] documentary win at the 2023 National Television Awards recently. We’re actively seeking opportunities like this and other avenues of portraying our catalogs, writers’ and artists’ incredible works and stories via our new Content Creation department, who are partnering with creative minds all over the world to bring these projects to life.”
In 2019, Billboard wrote, “ when it comes to music docs.” It added that the competition is heating up so much here that it is being seen as a “land grab” where producers seek to get major projects off the ground and sign up a multitude of artists.
Four years later, things, if anything, have become even more accelerated as there is a proven audience for music-centric documentaries and no one in the sector wants to see that interest start to ebb away.
Evolutions #2: new challenges, new concerns
Beyond the impact of Covid and then the Hollywood strikes (writers and actors) putting productions on ice, there are wider challenges and worries for the sync business that are becoming more apparent as the business evolves and adapts.
Hayes suggests “the traditional licensing process seems a bit broken” and so companies like Hipgnosis are having to proactively work with new initiatives “to explore alternative ways of streamlining the process to facilitate more opportunities”, all the while ensuring it stays in control of, and protects, its song catalog.
There is, he says, a growing need to work flexibly across deals of all sizes – from the big-money opportunities that bring in revenue immediately to the smaller ones that can have a domino effect and help facilitate opportunities down the line and be an immediate catalyst for streaming.
“Generally, we look to proactive pitching in order to procure high-value opportunities, and we use post-air data tracking across streaming and socials for low-value opportunities to see what tracks, shows and territories are connecting with and are consuming our music post-sync,” he says. “Although broadcast talent shows and TV blanket uses may be classed as low value in regard to fees, they can add huge value in long tail revenue from streaming and socials, also encouraging playlisting and introduction of our catalogs to a new generation of fans.”
This dual high-value/low-value dynamic is something Amazan also highlights as a key issue in 2023 and beyond.
“Focusing on bringing in a mix of sync opportunities has always been key for us at Riptide – the high-value syncs and the smaller budget, higher-volume opportunities are equally important and equally necessary in order to be successful in the sync world,” she says. “We continue to get those shiny, big-budget sync opportunities – and always will push for those higher rates for our artists – but we also understand the importance of the higher volume, lower-budget syncs and look to capture those opportunities as much as we can.”
“We continue to get those shiny, big-budget sync opportunities – and always will push for those higher rates for our artists – but we also understand the importance of the higher volume, lower-budget syncs and look to capture those opportunities as much as we can.”
Taylor Amazan, Riptide Music Group
There is, despite the broadening out of new opportunities, also a growing sense that the sync sector is becoming oversaturated as a snowballing number of companies and songs compete for licensing opportunities.
“The opportunities are growing, the fees are shrinking,” is Vaughn’s blunt assessment of what she sees happening here. This firmly places the onus on companies to work their catalogs smarter, more efficiently and more effectively.
“Another struggle is how oversaturated the sync market has become,” she says. “Everyone wants to participate and get a ticket to the fair, but not everyone wants to do the nuanced work of understanding if they are solving problems or creating them.”
For Hayes there is a downward pressure on fees as the actual use time of music in syncs can get squeezed in certain instances. The net result is that the volume of syncs could rise but the per-sync fee simultaneously declines.
“While plenty of big value opportunities are still there, amongst the key changes we’ve seen for the last couple of years is a large volume of shorter term and limited media branded campaigns, which usually means the licensing fee is smaller,” he argues.
This is a point Vaughn also raises, suggesting that artists need to be realists as they might not experience a gold rush on quite the scale that they perhaps are hoping for.
“I think artists will continue to flock to the space because they think it’s where the money is, which will be a double-edged sword,” she cautions. “I also think we may see a decrease in fees as the fight for equity in creating media carries on, music continues to be extremely important to the content and continues to be left out of the conversation. We will see more frustrated voices adding to the choir.”
“I also think we may see a decrease in fees as the fight for equity in creating media carries on, music continues to be extremely important to the content and continues to be left out of the conversation.”
Jessica Vaughn, Venice Music/Head Bitch Music
Amazan, however, suggests this high-value/low-value dynamic is, from her perspective at least, more nuanced.
“Overall we’ve seen our average licensing fees increase significantly over the last three years across all sectors, most considerably in TV, ads and trailers,” she says. “We continue to see a lot of healthy budgets within the ad world, and there are still plenty of big-budget opportunities in bigger trailer campaigns; but in addition to that we’ve also seen an uptick in more projects with reduced budgets as smaller studios, networks and streamers create more and more content.”
She adds, “We may continue to see smaller budgets in many of these cases, but those bigger budget opportunities aren’t going anywhere, and the quantity of content and opportunities, I believe, will continue to grow. However it shifts, sync is here to stay.”
For Vaughn, pragmatism and long-term thinking should be the guiding principles here, essentially seeing some syncs with smaller fees as a seeding of future opportunities that could be bountiful.
“I believe there is a time and place for both,” she says of smaller but higher-volume opportunities versus lower-volume but high-value opportunities. “I don’t come from the mindset of you have to choose one or that one is better than the other. Sometimes it’s better to collect pennies and create a sync history. Everyone wants a high-profile sync and we always go after those high-value opportunities, but the bread and butter of sync is BGV and BI; and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at. A smaller placement for some could pay the rent and put food on the table. We need to stop gambling with the livelihood of creators as we hide behind our salaries.”
Evolutions #3: areas for improvement
While there are complex external forces – sometimes anticipated, but often not – affecting the sync business that can kick the legs from under certain certainties, it does not follow that the sync business should not have to look internally for ways to improve both itself and its lot. Of course it must. Any business that wants to survive needs the self-reflexivity that ensures it can see where it needs to improve and how those improvements can be carried out.
Hayes says that the industry must speed up response times to sync requests. “Typically under 24 hours,” is what he sees as the benchmark. “Sync clients and our administration partners can trust Hipgnosis’ quick response times and unique set up to benefit them when a fast turnaround approval is required – which applies to the vast majority of sync opportunities. If they pitch Hipgnosis catalog we can guarantee a quick answer on approval, positioning us to receive more opportunities and become a preferred song partner and client.”
Tied to this is a need to be both nimble and global – not always something that is easy to pull off and maintain (especially if companies are smaller operations compared to the heavyweights in the sector).
“Having cross-continent discussions on a daily basis with international clients and partners ensures positive relationships and therefore, more creative opportunities,” argues Hayes. “In the sync landscape it is crucial that we understand the strains and struggles of our clients, thus earning their trust and confidence in our capabilities.”
The idea of being more global will be critical as new markets grow in importance. The US, argues Hayes, will likely remain dominant, but over the next decade the sync market will “spread more evenly across the globe” and “there will be a shift towards a global outlook on media rather than being territory-specific”.
Fortunately technological improvements will help ease and accelerate this process. “In the near future,” proposes Hayes, “there may be a point where a lot of the sync approval process is semi-automated to expedite deals and avoid delays.”
“In the near future, there may be a point where a lot of the sync approval process is semi-automated to expedite deals and avoid delays.”
Tim Hayes, Hipgnosis
He expands on this to say that AI is something that should be tentatively embraced rather than universally feared in the sync business.
“AI may take a while to affect the core of the general sync business, but in the near future I’m sure there will be positive collaboration with AI, content creators and rightsholders to expand sync opportunities for artists and writers,” he forecasts.
For Vaughn, the ultimate focus should be on moving away from just presuming value in a deal – and also reconfiguring how the value of a deal is assessed. “Every opportunity and sync comes with the challenge to create value,” she says. This relates to the point made earlier that some deals that might have smaller fees are actually the first step in the seeding of future opportunities rather than an end in and of themselves.”
She adds that the requests her company is seeing are prioritizing the esoteric/unusual over the quotidian. “Genre-wise, I feel like the requests are getting more niche, authentic and ear catching than ever before,” she says. “People want something different.”
“Genre-wise, I feel like the requests are getting more niche, authentic and ear catching than ever before,” she says. “People want something different.”
Jessica Vaughn, Venice Music/Head Bitch Music
Hayes feels there is a wider, and more profound, shift happening, of which synchronization is a small, but illustrative, part.
“Music is no longer just the soundtrack for a commercial,” he says. “How a product – be it a car, a watch or a phone – allows you to enjoy and consume music is now central to its success and, as a result, great songs play an even bigger role in society than previously.”
2023 has come with many unanticipated challenges, but the sync business – in part out of necessary and in part out of its natural evolution – is showing it can be flexible and seek out new areas of growth.
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