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Sync Licensing: The Lucrative Link Between Music and TV

Are there any songs you automatically associate with a particular film or TV show? Sync, the practice in music of licensing those songs for a visual medium, is the lucrative reason why.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” has exercised an eternal refusal to fade from society’s psyche. The inspirational track was certainly a well-received hit following its 1981 release, becoming the third-highest-charting Top 10 single from their blockbuster album Escape.

While it didn’t exactly fade into oblivion after that, its true revival came 16 years later.

On June 10, 2007, an estimated 11.9 million viewers witnessed one of the most controversial television show endings ever. With “Don’t Stop Believin'” playing on a background jukebox, The Sopranos series finale suddenly cut to black, leaving Tony and his family’s fates uncertain.

Between the Sunday night finale and the following Tuesday, sales for “Don’t Stop Believin’” skyrocketed by 482% on iTunes. And by November of 2008, the song had soared to claim double-platinum status with over 2 million digital copies sold. 

This phenomenon falls under an industry-wide term and licensing agreement known as sync

“We’re selling 20,000 tickets a night. And we haven’t had any other hit records beyond what we did in the ’80s,” Journey founding member Neal Schon told People Magazine four days after the finale aired. “For them to use our song at the end of it is probably the highest compliment ever for that song.”

The Sopranos and Journey aren’t the only example of pop culture taking an old song and giving it new life.

Painting a vivid picture of Los Angeles’ inner city on the big screen, the 2015 Straight Outta Compton biopic, depicting the rise and fall of N.W.A., cemented the staying power of sync in the modern age of music consumption.

The rap collective’s ruthlessly raw and unfiltered debut album by the same name failed to grace the Billboard Hot 100 during its 1988 debut, but after a month in theaters nearly three decades later, Straight Outta Compton peaked at No. 38 on the same chart while reaching No. 4 on the Top 200. 

By November, the album had sold more than three million units with Spotify streams up over 100%. The music industry took notice; it was time to cash in. 

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The Sync Licensing Phenomenon

In the simplest terms, synchronization is when licensed music is, as the name suggests, synced with a visual medium like film, television, or video games.

Recent films like The Batman are now inexplicably linked with counterparts like Nirvana’s “Something In The Way.” The dreary song did more than score the film’s initial trailer, it became the quintessential theme to Robert Pattinson’s broody portrayal of Bruce Wayne. Consequently, it enjoyed its own virality on TikTok.

Synchronization existed for decades, but the trend of it revitalizing classic songs has exploded in the 21st century.

In its 2022 Year-End Music Revenue Statistics, the Recording Industry Association of America estimated the industry’s “Synchronization Royalties” value at $328.5 million, a 24.8% increase from 2021. 

Thanks to the phenomenon’s growing occurrences, artists and songwriters are exploring the vast syncing opportunities supercharged by the chokehold social media and streaming have over society. 

Enter The Streaming Era

By Straight Outta Compton’s release, the music industry had already begun its shift toward favoring streaming platforms. Spotify was nearly a decade old, amassing just under $2.2 billion in revenue in 2015 alone. Jay Z’s TIDAL service had launched a year prior while Apple Music was in its three-month-old infancy.

The ease and convenience made available with streaming music had already become inescapable. And with it, a surge in sales and records for musicians and labels keen on merging the two entities. 

A trickle effect took hold throughout the following years. Thor Ragnarok’s use of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” in 2017 led to an additional 2.1 million streams and 18,000 units sold. Aerosmith’s allowance of “Dream On” for The Boys Season 2 Episode 5 netted them a total of 10.9 million on-demand streams, according to Neilson Music/MRC Data. 

And the latter doesn’t even begin to touch the height that Kate Bush reached in the summer of 2022. 

Since 2016, Netflix’s thriller-drama series Stranger Things has exposed a new generation of listeners to the sounds of the 80s. Few, though, compared to the life that “Running Up That Hill” took on.

Throughout the fifth season, Sadie Sink’s character Max crafts a perpetual bond with the Best British Single nomination. As the climax of the season ensues, Bush’s voice synchronizes with the imagery of Max fighting the control of Vecna by siphoning strength from the mid-80s hit. 

The roughly four-minute sync between the song’s euphoric build and Max barely escaping the antagonist’s grasp quickly became a memorializing high note for the series and global fan base. 

“Running Up That Hill” initially charted in the US at No. 30 on the Hot 100. 37 years later, the hit song leapt up to No. 3, giving Bush her second-ever No. 1 UK single. 

The UK native’s song went berserk across the pond, racking up 86.6 million streams from June through August while Spotify reported the song had surpassed one billion streams just 26 days after the Stranger Things season premiere. 

“It’s just extraordinary,” Bush told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in June of the renewed interest in her song. “I thought the track would get some attention, but I never imagined that it would be anything like this. It’s so exciting. It’s quite shocking really, isn’t it? The whole world’s gone mad!”

The beauty of sync in the modern day lies in its low-risk, high-reward payout. Bush didn’t have to come up with another hit song nearly 40 years later as a revenue driver. She didn’t have to reinvent her persona or explore a new medium for worldwide recognition. A fusion with Stranger Things took care of that and earned Bush about $2.3 million in subsequent streaming royalties.

Social Media’s Role

Where the Duffer Brothers excel in reliving the 80s for adolescents is where apps like TikTok and Youtube Shorts serve as the red-hot coals that keep producers and directors pouring back into the sync trend. 

As noted by CenturyLinkQuote communications specialist Rebecca Sowell, 39% of Gen Z only recognized Bush’s 1985 single due to its TikTok popularity. The song drew over 830K posts and over 2.1 billion views in the aftermath. 

“Platforms like TikTok and YouTube are absolutely making it easier for people to discover new music,” Sowell told Forbes. “22% of Zoomers recognize pop hits because they trended on TikTok or other social media.”

Social media has become a depository for old songs waiting for the perfect sync to send it soaring. It’s provided a promotional trampoline for bygone chart toppers or overlooked gems from recent memory. It’s also become a space for featured artists to connect with newfound fans, like Florence Welch did in May. 

Like Stranger Things, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has exercised a mastery in tapping into today’s nostalgia-steeped society.

Energized by Star Lord’s eccentrically curated playlist, the jubilant conclusion to a heart-wrenching Volume 3 paired its final scenes with Florence & The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” 

In the theater watching the final moments of her track play over the credits, Welch was overcome with joyful tears, seen in the TikTok she posted during the film’s opening weekend. 

“So I cried all the way through this movie but when The Guardians of The Galaxy started dancing to Dog Days I really lost it,” she wrote in the caption. “Thank you so much for all the love for this moment. The superhero obsessed little girl in me can’t believe this happened.”

Ten days after the movie’s release, the band’s 2008 hit song became the 15th-most Shazam’d track in the world and amassed over 9.2 million US streams throughout the month, all while incurring its biggest streaming day of all-time on the app, 15 years after its release. 

From fan edits and memes to syncing the lyrics to different types of shows and movie clips, over 325 million viewers on TikTok caught wind of the harp-based track and were reintroduced to the allure of the Indie-based group. 

The Future Of Sync

Artists and movie producers haven’t been the lone earners of the dividends sync churns out. 

Major corporations like WMG, BMG and Universal Music Group have been proactive in acquiring the rights to artists’ collections, citing the recent successes of their sync departments when buying up catalogs.

Bruce Springsteen reportedly sold his music catalog to Sony for more than $500 million in 2021 while Justin Bieber recently offloaded his archive for a $200 million cash-out.  

In exchange for a cash lump sum, companies are betting on syncs to accrue additional revenue while relying on society and Hollywood’s obsession with nostalgic, historical dramas to cement their investments. 

Promotional opportunities are nearly endless with the current state of streaming and social media. Worldwide Music Groups knows it and Journey knows it. So does Spotify, TikTok, and every other artist striving for a Top 100 placement or return to the limelight. 

Sync listening is driving in levels of pay and a number of performances that artists haven’t witnessed in decades. Millions of individuals have become aware of artists at the tap of a finger decades removed from their so-called eras. 

And as the era of quick consumption prevails, so will its influence in boardrooms and recording studios. 

“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years,” Head of Sync at Bodega Sync told The Grammys in May. “There are more sync opportunities now than there have ever been.”

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