Understanding Music Licensing and Placement in Advertising, TV, and Video Games w/ Rob Schustack

Freelance music supervisor and producer Rob Schustack shares his insight on how music gets placed in TV, film, advertisements, and video games. Drawing from his many years of experience in the industry, he will also explain how ‘Sync’ works and how newer producers can get started submitting music for placement.


Once upon a time, in a music industry far, far away…the idea of placing your music in film, television, video games or (gasp!) advertising, was taboo.  Artists were afraid that any brand association would instantly brand them as sellouts.  Long gone are those days as we currently find ourselves smack in the middle of the age of sync.   For many artists, landing a sync has become their top priority, dethroning the more familiar quests towards major label deals and radio airplay.  While I don’t believe any one area of the business is the key to success, landing a sync can definitely be a great way to gain exposure and of course…a great way to make some money.  Before we start opening up the offshore accounts, however, lets educate ourselves on some of the basics and start to work smarter towards that goal.

What is Sync?

In the spirit of commercials, let’s take a station break for a quick sync-101 and talk about what it actually is.  Sync is literally synchronizing music to picture.  The music that you hear in the background of the video game you were just playing, the music pumping you up in the preview of the movie you are about to see, the track at the end of your favorite TV tearjerker that recaps the episode with the gentle finger picking of an acoustic guitar…that is all sync licensing.  Additional licensing opportunities do exist, including “industrial” (or in-store use), in-flight music programming, and a myriad of other creative ways to use music…but for the sake of this conversation, let’s just cite examples specific to sync in film, TV, video games and advertising.

Sometimes music is custom composed for a sync (called: original composition) and sometimes an existing track is licensed to sync in to the picture (called: licensing).  Either way, you will have to work with a music professional at an ad agency, TV network, trailer house, etc., to negotiate and strike a deal to use your music.  This is where it critical to work smarter and ask better questions.   While no one expects you to become a music licensing expert overnight, by understanding the basics and appreciating all of the moving parts that go into sync licensing, you can definitely gain an advantage and move yourself one step closer to closing some more placements.

Here is a link to a few key music licensing terms that you should familiarize yourself with, along with a fantastic outline explaining pretty much everything you should know about publishing.


 S.S.L (Sync as a Second Language)

One way we can work smarter towards generating revenue with sync licensing is to speak the language of sync.  It’s important for an artist/producer to understand that different people experience music in different ways and explain that experience using different language.  To a lot of musicians, words like major, minor, root, or staccato can help to describe the music that they make.  However, you can’t assume that everyone you deal with speaks that same musical language that you do.  That’s where its up to you to start to work smarter and understand how to translate the needs of the professionals that you are pitching your music to.

Adjectives are a very important part of writing music for sync.  A lot of times you’ll be ask for a track that builds and moves; that evolves.  So what do you think that means?  To make sure your track has a riser?  A drop?  Well, sometimes its important to understand what your client DOESN’T want as much as what they do want.  In this instance, they want avoid what all of us who produce music have succumbed to at one point or another…the dreaded 8 bar loop.  Sure, you muted the high hats and automated a snare roll, but its still a 8 bar loop.  Variety, changes, developments…these are all aspects of your music that are attractive to music supervisors and producers.  Keep in mind: they are looking to use your music to help tell a story.  If your music doesn’t move and evolve, how can it help the story to move and evolve?

Where Have I Heard This Before?

Take a look at some of the music you see being used in film, TV, advertising and video games and see if you can pick out some trends.  Do certain shows seem to have a “voice?”  Can you pick out specific genres that seem to have been working for various brands, tv shows, video game franchises, etc?  A couple of recent trends that we can look at include video game trailers and movie trailers.  (Side note: when talking about video game syncs, you can talk about in-game use or trailer use). One trend you may have noticed is the use of lighter, more delicate and chill music, against much harsher and opposing visuals.  Here is one example of a trailer like that.  It’s important to keep these trends in mind when you are creating a strategy regarding who to reach out to about using your music.  Does the type of music that you like to create work with a specific trend or a voice of a specific brand or show?  Maybe you like to record and produce interesting cover versions of popular songs like we see here.  This has been a very big trend within the movie trailer world and utilizes the familiarity of a well-known song, coupled with the benefits of fresh production that can attract new fans and put a new spin on something old.  Regardless of what the trend may be, try to identify some common threads between your music and areas of sync that you want to get involved.  This will help you work smarter towards opening up those relationships.

You Gotta Getta Meta System

Sorry for the forced rhyming paragraph header, but for real…BE SMART ABOUT YOUR METADATA!!!!  Create a system that works for you and allows you to track your music, but more importantly, allows music supervisors to keep track of your music.  Try to utilize as many metadata fields as possible, as neatly as possible.  Is your track called “Track 01?”  Is the artist name “        ?”  If so, your music is getting deleted by everyone you send it to.  If you are composing for sync, think about the emotions you are trying to convey in your music and name the track something along those lines.  Are you submitting music from your last EP?  Make sure your contact info and maybe even a link to your webpage is in in the metadata somewhere.  The easier you can make everyone’s life that you are doing business with, the easier your life will be.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be honest with yourself about the music you hear being used in sync licensing.  The cold reality is that there are a seemingly infinite number of songs being created, but only a very limited number of opportunities to place them in.  While you don’t have to love every song you hear being used, what you should try to do is understand why that song is being used and why it might be a better fit than your song.  Is your song mixed as well as the song you heard in the trailer on TV?  Does it “evolve” like we talked about earlier?  Are you being thoughtful with your production and really paying attention to the vibe that the sounds you are choosing make?  All of these things are major factors in helping your music to wow the right people.  As long as you start to ask yourselves these questions and make an effort to start to work smarter, you will be taking the rights steps forward towards understanding how the sync licensing world works and how your music can fit into it.

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