Music supervisors need more than just music to do their jobs. They also need sharp human resources on the other side of the negotiation if they’re going to sync the perfect song.
If they’re lucky, a music supervisor’s search just may lead them to Isabel Arissó, Director, Synchronization, for Concord Music Publishing, North America. In her, they’ll find a savvy pro who’s moved up quickly in her career.
At Concord, Arissó has some of the cornerstone songs of all time in her hands – can you imagine deciding who can license Irving Berlin’s classics “White Christmas” and “Happy Holiday”? That’s just one of the many landmarks under her auspices, among 500,000+ tracks gathered up by her employer, a company that obviously takes sync very seriously.
In this in-depth interview, we chat to Isabel about the recently restructured Concord Music, getting familiar with new copyrights, sync strategies and trends, and adjusting to new media types and platforms.
When you emailed your contacts about your new post as Director of Synchronization at Concord Music Publishing, you had to clear up a little confusion. What were the various corporate strings you had to unravel to explain your current post?
As I’m sure you know, Concord Music Publishing as a full-fledged company really came into fruition last year when Concord bought Imagem Music, and it previously had Razor & Tie and Bicycle under that umbrella.
At that time I was actually at BMG so I wasn’t around for the whole acquisition, but I was at Imagem in prior years, from 2014-2017. So when I started here about a month ago it was a brand new company but still had the familiar ties for me because I was coming from Imagem in the past.
But it really is now like a brand new company and like you said, having to clear up with people, “Where are you? Are you at Imagem? Are you at Rodgers & Hammerstein? Are you at Razor & Tie?” It’s still taking a bit of time for people to fully understand the whole corporate structure of the company, but we’re trying hard to make a unified front that Concord Music Publishing is all of these other smaller companies and now we’re really built out into one big, major player in the industry. Which is really exciting for me because coming from Imagem it was a lot smaller, and now it definitely feels a lot bigger.
What’s the master list of all the publishing companies under that umbrella?
We have what was formerly Imagem Music, which is the pop catalog. That includes Mark Ronson, Phil Collins, Chet Faker (now known as Nick Murphy). We have Rodgers & Hammerstein, we have Irving Berlin, Boosey and Hawkes which is the classical catalog. And then Bicycle Music which has George Harrison, Glen Ballard, all those people, and then Razor & Tie Publishing. All those different companies are now Concord Music Publishing.
How many tracks is that?
It’s over 500,000 – Concord is now the fifth largest music company. It grew by a lot in a lot of different genres that we didn’t have before which is great.
You said you have Irving Berlin, so am I talking to the person who controls, “White Christmas?”
Yes, correct — big, big song. And now we’re seeing Christmas briefs come up, so Irving Berlin is an amazing one to get to have to have. He also wrote “Happy Holiday,” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” We have a lot of giant holiday songs, which is awesome when we get those Christmas in July briefs.
Is this when you start seeing briefs for holiday songs, in early summer?
I actually got two today. So I guess Christmas in June? It seems to start earlier and earlier every year. Actually that’s on my to-do list is to make a giant holiday playlist.
Are you seeing an evolution in a way these touchstone holiday songs are being used? What’s changing about the requests for a song like “White Christmas?”
I guess people always want to take the touchstone songs, then turn them on their heads which isn’t really a new trend. We see that with covers all the time and in the trailer universe that trend is never going to die.
I think that in the ad world we see that a lot too where people like taking these older songs. I’ve seen in the past a lot of remix ideas, a lot of mashup ideas. People want to take the familiar and maybe get SZA to cover it or something like that, something a little funkier, which is always exciting because we’re taking these older copyrights and giving them new life. That’s really exciting for the estate and everybody on our side because they like seeing their father’s legacy really honored, and it’s nice when people do it in a modern way that’s still respectful to the original song.
I’m also seeing a lot of requests for unknown songs and songs not really about the holidays, more just general coming together and, “Here we are. We’re family. We’re home.” That’s always a big thing too.
What are some examples of recent syncs that we can check out?
Two spots the Concord Publishing team is especially proud of are for the same song – “Abracadabra” by our writer Judith Hill. This is a song we all loved and pitched non-stop, but it was one of those situations where it took a while to find a home. But, by the efforts of my wonderful colleagues, they were able to land two great spots for the song this year, for Kohl’s and Blue Moon, which resulted in Judith putting out the track officially. We’re all super happy as this song was at the top of all of our “How-has-this-not-been-synched-yet?!” lists.
On the Team
You said that there’s north of 500,000 tracks that you control right now. How many of those songs would you say you actually have in your head?
That’s a great question. I will say, when I was previously at Imagem I was there for three years. In that time period, not to flatter myself but I feel like I did get a very good grasp on a huge chunk of those songs. It’s impossible for any one human brain to know 500,000+ thousand songs but by the end of my three-year term at Imagem it got pretty hard for people to try to stump me with a song I hadn’t heard.
I think now trying to learn Bicycle and Razor & Tie I feel like I’m at the bottom of the totem pole again which is great. It’s always fun to learn new catalogs. The Bicycle stuff is going to take some time. Razor & Tie’s going to take some time obviously, but the good thing about, I guess, moving a little bit into sync teamwork here at Concord Publishing, we do have a mixed bag of people who came from these prior companies. I have my Imagem knowledge and then Brooke Primont who really runs the creative department here for sync, she came from Razor & Tie. So anytime I have a question about Razor & Tie writers, I can go to her and ask her, “Who are your go-to writers for swagger briefs?” And she knows it instantly. If I have a question about Bicycle songs I go to Michael Pizzuto who came from Bicycle.
It’s a process so it takes a lot of time. I probably won’t be able to pull stuff out of my head for those other catalogs until — I’m giving myself until the end of the year, honestly, because it does take time. But we have lots of great tools. Really the people here are my greatest resource.
How does someone in your position conscientiously add to the knowledge of the songs that are in your catalog? Does that mean literally setting time aside each day to play the music in the catalogs, and from there how do you decide what you actually cue up?
Yeah, I try to. You know what’s really helpful is looking at what prior people had pitched before, so looking at a record of what the go-to songs have been for these people. That’s a good starting point to get to, to familiarize myself with the writers so I do take time to look at the metadata and I’ve listened to a song like, “I really like how this song feels. This could work for empowerment briefs. What else did this writer write?” And then I go down that rabbit hole of seeing what other songs they may have written.
You do put time aside during the day but it’s also daily life as questions come up you just learn. I feel like there is a part of my brain now that just knows how to retain that information and it’s a skill that I picked up working at these companies.
How many years have you been in publishing, total?
I guess this would be my fifth year, which isn’t that long but I feel very fortunate that I’ve worked at such a range of companies, starting at Imagem and then moving to BMG which was incredible. There are millions of songs in that catalog, both on the publishing and recorded side. That really taught me a lot about how to listen to music, how to remember things, and the whole licensing process for big names like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. It taught me a lot about writers and estates, so that was really helpful. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in those five years.
Are there any mentors you want to name specifically?
Sure, I’ll give a shout out to Karen Macmillan, my old boss here. Actually, she got a new opportunity over at Universal so she left Imagem/Concord and that’s how I got this role here. She was really in charge of the ad sync world for publishing, and when she left they were looking to fill this role and she was really the one who advocated for me just because I knew half the catalog so well already, and she knew I could fit right back in here. She really taught me everything I know about how to send music to supervisors, how to go into an ad agency and present music. She was the biggest influencer in my professional career.
Can you walk us through a typical day at your job? What can you expect and what are some of the surprises that crop up?
Let me think about today. What time is it? It’s only 11:46 and I think I have eight briefs I have to get out the door. I work alongside Jayne Costello here. I head up the ad departments but I work really closely with her, so we always try to divvy up the labor between the briefs that we have to respond to. That’s always number one. I never want to let a brief go unanswered and I think anybody in my position would agree that’s always top priority. Got to get the briefs out, making sure people know our music.
When I get those done there are always things on the periphery. The good thing about working at an indie publisher such as Concord is that we get to work really closely with other teams here at the company. We sit right next door to the A&R team so if we have a writer over here, our head of A&R can pop over and be like, “Do you have a minute to just say, ‘Hi,’ to this manager?” Nine times out of 10 it’s like, “Yeah, definitely. I’m working their music, I want to know who these people are.”
I think it’s really important that people know that I’m an actual person working their music. I do care, and there’s a human element to it. I want to know what they want to get pitched. I want to know if they have any objections to certain companies, certain brand categories. I’m very conscious of that. That’s a big part of my day.
Right now actually I’m very concentrated on a sync writing camp that we’re going to next week in Nashville. Razor & Tie used to do it every year and now Concord Publishing rebranded, we’re going to do it every year now. The entire sync team comes from L.A., New York, Nashville, and we have somebody from London coming as well, we’re going to be going down there for a full week and we have, I think, 70 writers coming and six music supervisors. That’s been a lot of prep trying to get example briefs going and trying to figure out which writers we want in the room together.
A week is a huge commitment. What do you get out of that at the end?
We get out about maybe 100 or so songs, something like that from all these writers. They’re writing for three days straight. We lock them in the rooms and we’re like, “Go write.” We have a whole spreadsheet of briefs that we’ve been collecting throughout the year, just vague themes that we’ve been noticing. Maybe the holiday theme will be one, female empowerment, percussive.
So we have all that stuff going, and then the supervisors come down for the week and they’ll be working closely with the writers too. They’ll say, “I just got this brief in for this new Universal family movie, and they’re looking for this song. Write something.” So they get the assignments the day of and then we have a big listening party on the last day.
I’ve never done anything like this before, I’m just speaking from what other Razor & Tie employees have told me. I guess it’s a huge success and it’s a good way for us to get to know all the writers personally. They’ve been doing this for seven or eight years now and in that time they’ve made back $3 million in sync revenue just from the songs written at the camp. It’s pretty impressive.
How do you get the music supervisors to participate?
We invite them down and just say, “You want to come hang out?” We pay their way there, put them up and just all hang out in Nashville for a week.
What makes this a particularly interesting time for you to be doing what you’re doing? How is the sync landscape evolving in a way that’s good for you and Concord?
Everybody wants syncs. I think people are very eager and they want to get involved. Being able to head up the ad world and formulate the creative direction in this landscape where writers are hungry for work is really exciting.
I will admit I am fairly young in my career, so I’m growing with these writers and I’m growing with the team. It’s really exciting for me to see these trends and to learn alongside everybody else. Our artists want syncs and I want to get them syncs. I’m eager and they’re eager which I think is really exciting.
On the flip side, what are the challenges that you face that are specific to this particular point in time?
I think that the budgets are getting lower but the needs are getting higher. Music is so readily accessible to everyone – we all have music at our fingertips. I do think it’s going to take time for that to trickle down into the sync world.
I find it very difficult to give away some of these songs for smaller fees. For some people it’s just a paycheck and I get that, but for other songs it’s like, “I want to do right by our writers.” I have two clients on my side, I have the ad agencies but then I also have the writers, and I need to make sure I do right by both of them. I think the challenge is when people want this super recognizable song but the budgets are low.
I get it. It’s not usually coming from the people that I’m dealing with, it’s coming from up high, it’s coming from bigger decision makers. I just hope that in the future, the valuation of music grows a little bit more in the sync world.
Have you found that the proliferation of content from platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Hulu is resulting in more opportunities?
I think so, and I think there’s a little bit of confusion too. Sometimes we don’t know what these media types are and what they fall under, you know? With Facebook doing all these deals with the major publishers, you don’t really know what’s going to happen with the media landscape in the future. Is Facebook going to start making movies? Who knows? What does that fall under? Is that Internet? Is that film? Is that TV? These traditional media types that we’re so used to on the publishing side, we have to adjust and grow a little bit with that.
It can be a bit archaic on our side just because we’ve been so used to licensing things a certain way and I think both sides need to catch up with each other. It can be difficult, I think that also is a challenge, and who knows with the rise of virtual reality mediums what we’re going to see in the future. I think that’s something that we’re all going to have think about, where music plays a part in all those different mediums.
On top of the Trends
How would you characterize the opportunities and challenges that are faced by the music supervisors that you deal with everyday? We talked about your challenges and opportunities on your side, what are you sensing on the other side of the table?
I’ve never been on that side so I can’t say for certain, but I feel like they are frustrated with budgets as well. I can only imagine when you have a certain creative vision in your mind and you have to run it up a flagpole, especially on the ad side, that song is your baby and then it gets lost up there with budget cuts and the head of whatever company you’re working for is like, “No, I don’t know who that band is so we’re going to go with what I know.” I can imagine that’s frustrating.
We see that on our side too where spots get so close to being done and you’re like, “Yes, yes, yes!” And you got it approved and it’s going to go to license and then it’s like, “No, it died.” That happens a lot of time and that’s disappointing, but that’s just the nature of the business world. I don’t hold anything against anybody. We’re all friends which is also a good thing about this community. I think everybody gets it and we’re all like, “We’ll get it the next time. No big deal.”
What is one of your all-time favourite music supervision moments from film, TV, or advertising?
This is cliché but I think for people my age and my demographic, Alexandra Patsavas really was why I’m doing what I’m doing. I know a lot of people say that, but I think it rings true for a lot of people where we finally realize, “This is a job, picking songs for stuff?” I remember my mother telling me that I should be a supervisor because I would always ask for film soundtracks for my birthday when I was in seventh and eighth grade. I was the nerdy one who wanted that instead of Britney Spears so when I started watching Gossip Girl and all of the shows that Alex supervised and I saw her name and I was like, “She picked Peter, Bjorn, and John? That’s awesome. That’s super cool. I could totally do that.” Her work really, really stands out as something that really inspired me.
Here’s my last question. What would you say to someone who’s reading this that wants your job? How can they best position themselves to be doing what you’re doing?
I would say as great as I’m sure schools that specialise in music are, and I’m not downplaying that at all, I didn’t go to school for this. I studied communication and media studies, and Spanish. I didn’t do anything music-related so I would say don’t feel discouraged if you lost your way in school maybe a little bit. College is whatever, people don’t really know what they want to do when they’re 18 and I get that, so I would say don’t feel disheartened if you’re a little bit older maybe and you don’t know what you want to do.
I got where I am today because of my relationships and I worked really hard. If you prove to other people that you’re a hard worker and you do good work, people will stand up for you and really push for you. Get those internships. Do cold calling. Reach out to people. Reach out to me if you want to talk to me about stuff. I wouldn’t be where I am today without other people, so I would just say use your network and really just do good work and don’t give up.