Licensing Your Music with Alec Stern of Leo Burnett

When working musicians think of licensing their music for commercial use, two camps usually emerge: those that see it as the way to “make it” and those that see it as selling your soul.

Which camp you tend toward may have more to do with when you were born than it does your definition of true art. While the landscape of economic opportunity has certainly changed for musicians, the realities around licensing your art are as murky as ever.

Alec Stern in front of the American Football house.

We recently talked to Alec Stern, who works in music licensing at Leo Burnett, and has negotiated deals and overseen the licenses for industry award-winning campaigns like the “#LikeAGirl” for P&G Always, Allstate’s “Safe In My Hands,” and the “Sorta Pharmacist” Super Bowl spot for Esurance, which featured Bryan Cranston’s return as Walter White.

Whether it’s turning 15 national anthems into one cohesive international anthem for Samsung, putting a Passion Pit track in a new Marshalls campaign, or finding the perfect classical overtures for McDonald’s “All Day Breakfast” campaign, Alec has lent his creative thinking, brand insight and unique taste to the musical selection process for countless successful campaigns.

We had a chance to tap into Alec’s industry insight to find out what music licensing truly looks like for artists wishing to pursue it.

What exactly does Leo Burnett do?

Leo Burnett is an advertising agency in Chicago. We just celebrated our 81st year as a company, and Chicago is the worldwide headquarters. It’s the largest agency in the Midwest and is responsible for characters and campaigns like Tony the Tiger for Frosted Flakes, Allstate’s Mayhem, and the #LikeAGirl campaign for P&G Always.

As the music producer for the agency, what is your day-to-day like?

Any commercial created by Leo Burnett for any of our clients (Samsung, Esurance, Firestone, etc.) goes through me and my team if it has a musical component. The music can fall into two buckets: licensed or composed.

For licensing, we look to find a piece of music that exists – whether it’s from a major-label artist, an unsigned indie band, or a composer’s back catalog – and synchronize that to the commercial picture.

This process involves finding the right piece of music to synchronize with a visual, working with the track’s rights holders - usually a label and publishing company - to agree on a fair licensing fee, and executing the required paperwork to finalize the deal for the license.

The other route is composed music. For this, my team and I find an artist, composer, or larger company of composers – sometimes called “jingle houses” in the past but now referred to as “original music companies” – to score a piece specifically for our commercial.

I also assist with any larger-scale artist/brand partnership opportunities, such as on-camera opportunities for artists and tour sponsorships. I also run our agency’s Artist-in-Residence program, where we invite artists to come play intimate showcases for our employees.

How do you see licensing as fitting into an artist's career in the 21st century?

As the traditional models of the business have crumbled with new technologies in recording, distribution, and consumption, a new system has taken its place. It is a model where other revenue streams have become more valuable monetarily.

For most artists, especially ones who are up-and-coming, licensing, merchandise, and touring are arguably the most stable and profitable ways for an artist to stay afloat in this new environment.

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Can a musician expect to make a living entirely off of licensing their music?

The short answer is no. I don’t want to perpetuate the notion that an artist can retire and send their grandkids to college from getting their music synced in a commercial, even if it’s a big one.

The other aspects of being a musician, especially touring, are absolutely still required in order to make a run at being a full-time, self-supporting musician.

The check from a license might not be life-changing in a “yachts and mansions” type of way, but it can definitely lead to an improved career and lifestyle. I’ve heard stories of an artist using the money from a license to finally finish building their recording studio, to make their next record, to fix their van so they can go back on tour, or to shoot that music video they’ve been concepting forever.

This is all independent of the potential exposure a license can also provide, which can be even more impactful. All of these kind of things can advance your career and improve your life, so while I’m hesitant to use the phrase myself, I’ve known instances where artists have considered a license to be “life-changing.”

Advertising is the new terrestrial radio."

Advertising is the new terrestrial radio. It’s how a large section of our population discovers music, so the potential for impact on an artist is enormous.

How is licensing looked at differently now than, say, 20 years ago, given that streaming and YouTube redefined an industry built on radio, record sales and MTV?

The biggest change is that many artists approach licensing positively in a way that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago.

Back then, when the industry was at its peak of selling CDs - and Gold and Platinum records were seemingly being awarded to just about anyone on a major label - the idea of aligning oneself with a brand was ludicrous. Nothing would label an artist as a “sell-out” quicker than partnering or syncing their music with a brand, mostly because it wasn’t needed for artists to stay afloat in that climate.

But times have changed, and artists have had to look for new ways to continue doing what they want to do. Licensing is a great way to do that. And because more and more artists have begun to dabble in licensing, the stigma once surrounding it is all but erased. It’s the new norm.

How has the de-stigmatizing of licensing impacted the ad industry?

As this shift started and more ambitious artists became available for use in ads, advertising itself had to get better. Ads could no longer be cheap product sellers – they needed to become worthy of the music that was being utilized.

I truly think that this shift in music is one of the reasons ads are better now than they have ever been. In terms of how they are filmed, the stories being told, and the emotional and social weight they carry, advertising is in a creative upswing.

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What kind of companies are looking to license original music from artists?

Brands have really embraced the idea that authenticity is king. No one provides more authenticity in the public space than musicians. Certain brands have different strategies than others when it comes to music.

Some want to align themselves with the biggest stars in the world to tap directly into their major fan bases. Others take more risks and are interested in challenging the status quo.

My team is constantly pushing to be the ones to break great songs in our ads that are relatively undiscovered. Time and time again, we’ve seen artists become famous because of the exposure they receive from licensing their song in a big commercial.

Many brands just want to be the first to get something. Because of this, they’re looking to artists and original music companies to make a track that “sounds like something you’d hear on the radio.” They do this because they get to have something created exactly the way they want that they can own. To the outside world, it appears like they just had their ear to the ground and discovered something totally unique before everyone else.

It’s a huge win for a brand if people collectively ask on social media “What is that song, and where can I find it?” Especially if they were the ones behind its creation.

Can you give an example of a big win-win for an artist and a brand?

The easiest ones to think of are Apple with the first generation iPods. Remember those ads with the colorful backgrounds and the silhouetted dancers with the white earbuds? Jet can thank their short-lived career to syncing “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” in one of those.

Feist got launched onto the global stage with “1,2,3,4” in another Apple ad. The band fun. arguably broke into the mainstream via their Chevrolet commercial sync, as did Phoenix with Cadillac and M83 with Victoria’s Secret.

All of these instances were of artists who had a fair amount of indie hype, and a giant brand took a risk by choosing them over someone more established. And for all of those brands, the payoff was huge – even more so for the artists themselves. But none of those bands were plucked from obscurity. Years of work, recording, touring, and networking were required to get them to the level needed for these licenses to happen.

Does Leo Burnett work directly with artists to "commission" new works for a commercial or show? Is there a contract agreed on sometimes before the actual music exists?

Yes, but not as often as licensing existing pieces of music. At least not for our department, though it definitely does happen. For that sort of thing, a fee is agreed upon beforehand. It includes compensation for the composer’s time, creativity, and the studio fees required to create the piece, as well as a fee for licensing or purchasing the song.

Generally speaking, the client will want to purchase original compositions as a work-for-hire, meaning the client owns the copyright and can use it whenever and however they choose once all paperwork is finalized. The writer still receives the writer’s share, and will get paid by the applicable talent unions and performance rights organizations.

However, we will sometimes simply license the original composition for a set of specific terms. For example, two years of global TV and Internet or six months of Internet only. That way, the artist still owns it, and the brand is only associated with it during the agreed-upon term. But all of this is case-by-case, and many factors come into play. Budget, specifically.

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Do artists need to wait until a licensing company comes to them about using their music, or should artists actively push their material to companies like Leo Burnett?

Waiting for the world to come to you is almost never the strongest move."

One of the biggest questions musicians should ask themselves as they are creating their art is, “How am I going to get my music heard?” Waiting for the world to come to you is almost never the strongest move.

Getting your music heard takes a real concentrated effort.

My advice to any artist looking to get their music out there is to find yourself a team. If your goal as an artist is to find a community that understands and appreciates your art, I’d recommend you go out and find a group of these people early and put them to work.

In the old days, an artist was solely in charge of making and performing music. In this new era, an artist is expected to do those things while also making sure their social media presence is strong, handling their own distribution, booking their own tours, and getting their songs out there to supervisors for potential pitching purposes.

A team mentality will go a long way here, and part of that team (usually a manager or a representative from a record label, though it can be anyone with a talent for sales) needs to make sure your music is getting into the hands of supervisors. That can be done through emails, at conferences or panels, through meetings, etc.

At the end of the day, supervisors such as myself are so overwhelmed with new music being sent to us day after day for consideration, the odds of us finding your track on our own completely organically are extremely slim. So whatever you can do to get it on our radar is worth the work it will take to do so.

What advice would you give to artists looking to bring in additional income through licensing?

Be open to it, but don’t rely on it.

Licensing has become a serious aspect of the music industry and has been an enormous help to artists looking to stabilize an income and gain a new level of exposure. It’s worth putting some real thought into it, as opposed to immediately scoffing at the idea and thinking it will brand you as a sell-out.

You’d be surprised by how many major artists have lent their time and talents to custom scoring for ads. It’s a great revenue stream that allows them to continue their careers in the way they want to. Not to mention that it can be a really unique and creative exercise for a lot of artists. Writing music to a brief or scoring it to picture activates a part of a musician’s brain they don’t often get to utilize. So I’d recommend being open to the idea at the very least.

However, do not rely on licensing. The industry is constantly shifting, and while licensing is a very large part of the music business right now, I cannot say for sure what things will look like even five years from now.

Artists create for the intrinsic love, passion, and joy for creating. When music is written out of hopes for a sync, I’d argue that it becomes more commerce than art. That’s fine, but I think it’s an important distinction to make. Just be honest with yourself and what the music you make is for.

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