Mr. Robotic released a debut CD in February -- begrudgingly. The Chicago rapper, aka Columbia College student Marcas Harris, has been writing and recording high-energy, club-ready songs for several years, and he claims to be making a full-time living from it. But the Benjamins haven't been coming from album sales ("Boy in the Band: A Love Story," a six-song EP, is his first physical offering) or iTunes downloads (though a small set of his tracks first appeared there last year). Instead, Mr. Robotic plugged his fledgling career into the other side of the music business: licensing songs to movies, TV shows, advertising and much more.
"I don't necessarily think the album is dead; I'm just not sure I need one to be a full-time, working recording artist," Harris says. "For me, I've got a commercial this week, a TV show next week. ... The people I work with getting commercial placements, they just need songs -- and, you know, they're hungry."
"Commercial placements" -- that means more these days than just hearing your song playing on the car radio while handsome doctors drive around on "Grey's Anatomy," or even landing on a movie soundtrack. Mr. Robotic songs have been sold for both of those uses -- he was on the soundtracks to a couple of B-flicks last year ("Skyline" and "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his songs have been used on "Jersey Shore," "The Hills," "Greek," "The Beautiful Life" and more -- but he's also written a theme song for a sports drink and an exclusive song for a national chain of yogurt shops. A Mr. Robotic song was used as background for a LeBron James highlight reel on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Each time a musician places a song in one of these spots -- ka-ching! It may not be a loud ka-ching, but in a troubled economy and a music business whose revenue model has been dismantled and decentralized, every little ka-ching counts. Websites, in-store promotions, social-media campaigns, smart-phone apps, you name it -- businesses have myriad new opportunities to try to turn our heads with a catchy tune, and they pay for each one.
Those new and revitalized sources of income represent a seismic shift in a musician's business plan. As Damian Kulash -- singer for Chicago's OK Go, which just unveiled its theme song to Morgan Spurlock's upcoming documentary about product placement -- wrote in a thoughtful December essay about these issues for the Wall Street Journal, "So if vanishing record revenue isn't being replaced by touring income, how are musicians feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensing -- a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes toward outside corporate deals have changed."
Bob DePugh handles music licensing at Chicago's Alligator Records. He's been with the label for more than 20 years, and he started making licensing deals for the label about a decade ago. Two songs by Hound Dog Taylor, for instance, are slated for "The Rum Diary," another Hunter S. Thompson story made into an upcoming movie starring Johnny Depp. DePugh even does extra work on the side. He's placed songs for artists at Chicago's Bloodshot Records, too -- the Deadstring Brothers in "Sons of Anarchy," Justin Townes Earle in "Justified," the Sadies in "CSI: NY."
"It became more and more my full-time job as the market really grew for it," he says. "Of course, 10 years ago way fewer people knew about this scheme, so the fees you could get were much higher. About five or six years ago is when it really took off, once shows like 'The Gilmore Girls' and that ilk became highly driven by the soundtrack. The floodgates kind of opened. That was also about the time that CD sales began to drop, so it became more important [for artists]. A lot more people are now chasing this income, and by a lot more I mean everyone."
Licensing songs, however, is a crapshoot, DePugh says. Live performance is where the income is for today's musician, followed by album sales and single downloads. He's mystified by the notion of artists who include placements as part of a business plan.
"You can't rely on this income, not really at all," he says. "It's very fickle, and you're dealing with a lot of people. The music supervisor might take your song to the editor, and it might not work, or the director won't like it, or the budget will change -- there are a lot of factors that make it very unreliable. It's great as found money, but you can't balance your budget assuming you're going to win the lottery."
One of those music supervisors scouting songs for TV is Evan Frankfort. He's won a Daytime Emmy for his soap opera scores and is a frequent collaborator with Chicago native Liz Phair writing TV music (he helped Phair craft her now-notorious "Funstyle" album while both were in the studio working on TV shows). Through his Los Angeles post-production music company, Would Work Sound, he also helps connect musicians with television directors looking for the right song for the right moment.
But while sealing the deal for a song in a primetime drama can feel satisfying for the artist at first, Frankfort says, the check usually is only as big as the artist. "Fees range from $500, if no one knows who you are, to maybe $10,000 if you have a following," he says.
Lyle Hysen, a New York-based music broker who works on commission with labels such as Chicago's Thrill Jockey and Drag City, has seen higher. "'Grey's Anatomy,' that could get you some money," he says, "but shows like that are usually exclusively dealing with a particular label. But that level of placement could get you $30,000 [all in]. New shows and cable networks don't have that kind of money, maybe $2,000, $5,000 or $20,000. It's not huge, and it's not consistent, but it's money the band doesn't have to load up the van for."
"A theme song, that's the ultimate goal," says Michael J. Mallen, a Los Angeles music broker who has scored Mr. Robotic many of his placements. "When we talk about this stuff, people usually think of the Rembrandts. Nobody knew who they were, then they wrote the theme song for 'Friends.' At that level, you're talking millions of dollars."
Most TV musical appearances, though, are disappointing for the musicians. Programs need theme songs and dramatic soundtracks, but they mostly need music for the background of a scene. Usually deep background.
"Most placements, I'd say three out of four, you won't even know your song is on the show," Frankfort says. "Everyone wants that final placement [like] at the end of 'Six Feet Under,' when the music plays over the drama, but it's usually at the bottom of what's going on. A guy I just did a record with had a song on a show this week. It was his first placement, and he was very excited. He e-mailed everybody. Not only was the show a big pile of sh--, he didn't even know where the song was. He called and said, 'I guess you didn't use it, after all.' I said, 'Yeah, we did, it's in the bar scene.'"
"I've listened to some placements on TV four or five times, cupping my ears down by the speaker, till I get a hint of the steel guitar lick that tells me, 'Oh, yeah, that's the track,'" DePugh says. "Sometimes the tenor of the singer's voice barely comes through. It can be that nuanced. It may not be that thrilling for the artist, until the check clears."
Frankfort has co-written with Chicago-area pop-punk band the Plain White T's, another band that has recently taken to the music licensing route to keep some money coming in. In August, the T's went on a tour not of public concert venues but of TV network boardrooms, playing mini acoustic shows for music supervisors in an attempt to market their music for primetime placements. Singer Tom Higgenson told Billboard: "With our band, our strong points are our lyrics, our melodies, our harmonies. ... We can strip our music down to bare bones and it's still just as effective."
It worked. Plain White T's songs have since been used in promos for NBC's "Parenthood," ABC's "Private Practice," Showtime's "Californication" and a two-month slot on ABC Family's "Secret Life of the American Teenager."
"Plain White T's are just so damn good in that environment," said Disney Music Group vice president of licensing Dominic Griffin. "Especially with 'Rhythm of Love.' It's such a great song with a universal message; it certainly has made it easier to accomplish our goals."
Those goals can range widely, but the bottom line is always there. "Usually, it's supervisors asking, 'Do you have anything that sounds like the Black Keys? Or Coldplay?'" Hysen says. "They want something that sounds hot and current, but something they can clear. Good supervisors don't give me the 'I need something that sounds like a rainy Tuesday.' Most of it's fairly targeted. ... Lyrical cues are pretty big. There's a lot of home, hey I wanna go home, I'm home -- a 'home' theme is good. Seeing is a big one, too -- happy to see you, good to be seen, maybe a medical show where someone gets their sight back. The werewolf/vampire things are pretty on-target these days. Don't mention fangs but maybe sing about internal love, undying love. Most good love songs do that, anyway."
Does any of this actually sell records or concert tickets? Only if flashing the musician's name is part of the deal. A few years ago, the late Nick Drake plunged back into the zeitgeist when one of his songs was artfully used in a Volkswagen commercial; CD sales and downloads spiked because the Volkswagen site mentioned the artist for interested viewers who went hunting it. Several months ago, Hyundai helped boost the sales of an unknown pop duo, Pomplamoose, by using several of their Christmas songs in a series of TV ads and correspondingly naming them on their site. Mr. Robotic saw a small sales boost on iTunes after his "Jersey Shore" appearance, because as the song played in the show it included his name and song title in the corner of the screen. Also, that yogurt shop and that sports drink -- they both placed links to his songs on their websites.
That doesn't happen when the song's playing in a coffee shop behind the main characters on "The Vampire Diaries" or when it flies by in a commercial promo.
"The good thing about TV music is that you can do a lot of it. The bad thing is that it has an air date," Frankfort says. "The music lives and dies very quickly, sometimes anonymously."
For an unknown, indie artist, music licensing affords them connections that could lead to other things, as well as the occasional check for a song placement. Oddly enough, indie artists even have a leg up on snaring these movie and TV show deals.
"I'm working mostly with unsigned people, independent artists," says Mallen, Mr. Robotic's broker. "If you're signed to a record company, that means there's publishing tied up in the deal, too. It complicates things. In films, often they want something that's available free and clear. It's quicker for them, it's cheaper, but the artist gets their name out there, for whatever it might be worth. I mean, Mr. Robotic can say he was in the Netflix Top 100. That's at least something."
"Most shows don't have budgets for big acts," Frankfort says. "Cable shows, commercials, they're all looking for cheap buys. One band's cheap, though, is another band's payday. Plus, even TV shows that blow their wad on a Fleetwood Mac song probably still need 10 other songs for cheaper."
Chicago balladeer Brad Smith has no illusions about his brush with international fame by virtue of a single song placement. "There's no doubt I was cheaper to get than Bruce Springsteen," he says.
Smith, a 30-year-old unemployed actor and a local musician seemingly unconcerned with his low profile, landed a song, "Help Yourself," on the soundtrack of the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated George Clooney film "Up in the Air" in 2009. How'd he do it? A combination of luck and, you know -- it's not what you know but who.
"A friend of mine from high school is [director] Jason Reitman's brother-in-law," Smith says. "He played my CD for this guy, who forwarded it to Jason while he was in pre-production for that movie. I was told this, and then I heard nothing for almost a year. Then one day, Jason calls me up. He wants to use the song, but he doesn't know anything about me, so he's asking questions, like where I regularly played music. I said I didn't very often. He asks, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I read a lot and drink coffee. I'm unemployed.' He says, 'What do you live on?' I said, 'Frankly, if you weren't using this song, I don't know what I'd be doing. I'm about to lose my apartment.' ... That made for a good story. He plucks this guy from obscurity who has no money and puts his song into a movie that's about unemployment."
But despite the song's fairly prominent appearance in an Oscar-nominated movie (in the wedding scene) and on its internationally sold soundtrack -- Smith wouldn't say how much he was paid for the deal -- Smith remains ensconced in relative obscurity. His soft, acoustic-based songs draw easy comparisons to Elliott Smith, but he didn't receive the same landmark Oscar performance moment.
"There was a lot of talk in the beginning about awards, and Paramount was very confident the song would get lots of nominations, but that didn't happen," Smith says. "In the end, it hasn't done much [for me] at all. My Facebook and MySpace pages got messages from people in Uganda and Romania. That was cool. I got a couple of calls from a company asking me to do a cover of 'Slip Sliding Away' for a commercial, which thankfully didn't end up happening. They wanted to put 'Help Yourself' in that show 'Hung' [on Showtime], but I don't own the song anymore, so I forward those calls to Paramount. ... And I didn't move to Hollywood to pursue this, so things just died back down."
What he did get from the experience is less tangible, certainly less bankable. After taking part in some publicity for the film, he came back to Chicago and finally put a band together. He got serious about songwriting. Early this year, he celebrated the release of a new full-length album, "Love Is Not What You Need," with a show at Schubas, followed by participation in a songwriters series at Metro.
"The biggest thing I took from it was the realization I could take this seriously," Smith said. "My parents, too. It comforted them about what, in their eyes, was something of a hobby, something that wasn't putting them at ease about my security. Now I'm trying to get my legs, as far as my live performance goes. And now I've got some contacts. I much prefer the slow build to sudden stardom, but maybe this will actually work out."