Moya Dillon

An obscure band from Brixton, London achieved international fame when its track was chosen as the opening theme of HBO’s The Sopranos. Tony Soprano’s drive home on the New Jersey turnpike features the show’s familiar backdrops along with the fusion of acid house, blues, country and gospel music that characterizes Alabama 3 and its hit song, Woke up this Morning. Now making its swan song, The Sopranos paved the way for a surge in the use of licensed music in film and television.

After playing over a heart-wrenching goodbye scene between key characters on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, The Fray’s weepy ballad How to Save a Life rocketed onto Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart within a week. Daniel Powter, previously unknown in North America, scored the number one single of last year after his song, Bad Day, was featured on Fox’s American Idol.

 Soundtracks have become a big business, turning film and television into the new frontier for struggling artists’ looking for that big break.

“The film Closer is a good example,” says David Hayman, music supervisor at Vapor Music Group. “No one would know Damien Rice without that beautiful trailer featuring Blower’s Daughter. There are lots of instances where people have become famous just from music in a trailer.”

Hayman’s Toronto-based company offers a wide range of services that include original music composition, licensing and supervision, among other things. His position as a “music supervisor” is a relatively new invention in the industry. He is responsible for licensing songs for use in film, television and commercials. “In the past when a company or a film would want a major song, they would either ask their composer if they had ‘ins’ or the producer would find that music and then license it,” Hayman says. “And often they would get a big price tag. No one really specialized in [music supervising] before.”

Hayman credits shows like HBO’s Six Feet Under and The Sopranos for popularizing the use of music supervisors, since these shows used licensed music liberally. Directors such as Martin Scorsese (The Departed) have also enhanced the use of licensed music in soundtracks, consulting music supervisors before it became routine practice in Hollywood. “Maybe in the last five years it’s become a pretty exclusive position in the film world,” Hayman says. “But it’s absolutely new to the commercial world.”

Music supervisors manage a plethora of contacts and have thousands of tracks at their fingertips. “We deal with all of the indie bands in Canada and have them exclusively on our roster. We work with all the major labels and small labels all around the world.”

Joining Canadian success story Sam Roberts on Vapor’s list are newcomers such as Montreal’s DJ Champion and Tokyo Police Club.

Once, when one director had his heart set on a Rolling Stones track that would have gone way over budget, Hayman decided on a song from Vancouver indie band Black Mountain, which had a similar sound. “Canadian films can’t afford to feature a U2 song, so we’ll compile a list of affordable alternatives,” Hayman says. “You can say let’s try this band who has a cooler sound and we can tap into a different market.”  

Hayman says the rights for a theme song for a U.S. film could sell for up to $50,000. For commercials the rates are even steeper. Artists can collect up to $500,000 for a one-year international licence.

In contrast, Canadian shows lag far behind. For network shows in the U.S., artists are paid anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for a song to be used as background music with dialogue placed over it. Hayman, who served as music supervisor on CBC’s The Eleventh Hour before moving to Vapor, was then licensing background tracks for $150 Canadian.

“TV is the new radio in that people discover new songs through TV,” Brian Garrity, senior magazine correspondent for Billboard Magazine, told the Chicago Tribune in January 2007.

“It’s the whole viral aspect that turns musicians on,” Hayman explains, “more so than the money.”

Many networks now feature online soundtrack listings for their most popular shows. Viewers can go online and learn the title and artist.

“In licensing, the value comes from tie-ins,” Hayman says, referring to a friend who had a song featured on Grey’s Anatomy. “The benefit is how many people will go to the Grey’s Anatomy site, check out her name, Google it or MySpace it, and end up buying her music.”

Melissa Grimonte, editor of Toronto online music magazine Toonage, stresses the longevity of soundtracks as another reason for their appeal. “Soundtracks have a way of defining a generation. Look at Saturday Night Fever or Dirty Dancing. A lot of bands now aspire to be on film or television soundtracks not only because it’s an easy way to make money, but because it’s an awesome way to get exposure.”

Grimonte names the U.S. network CW, home of popular shows Smallville, One Tree Hill, and Gilmore Girls, as an example of the benefits artists can reap by appearing on soundtracks. Both Smallville and One Tree Hill have spawned successful, high-selling soundtracks featuring artists like Gavin DeGraw, Remy Zero and Ryan Adams. “The demographic they appeal to has the disposable income to go out and spend on CDs and concert tickets,” Grimonte says of networks like CW.  “They are also more likely to jump on bandwagons.”