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Film and TV licensing a music biz bright spot? Not so fast

October 29, 2009 |  5:36 pm

Death_cabs_ben_gibbard_6_

Often hailed as one of the music industry's bright spots, the licensing of songs to film and television isn't immune to the recession or the general industry downturn, according to top music supervisors who spoke this morning at an industry conference hosted by Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter. Declining budgets for music, changing fee structures and broad single-artist deals, such as NBC's recent move to draft Bon Jovi as an "artist in residence," were cited as examples that could limit licensing opportunities in the year ahead.

As physical CD sales have tumbled, major label publishing revenues have experienced an upswing. For the nine-year period beginning in 1999, CD sales dipped 45%, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures released at the conference. Meanwhile, Warner Music Group's publishing arm Warner/Chappell saw a 19% uptake in film , TV and ad licensing revenue for the three-year period beginning in 2006.

However, ad spending for the first half of 2009 dipped 15.4%, compared with the same period in 2008, according to conference figures. Music supervisor and KCRW-FM (89.9) deejay Thomas Golubic, speaking on a morning panel about the state of music supervision, noted that music is the first item that will be cut from a production budget.

Some budgets become so low, Golubic said, that "you know you are making deals that are almost unfair."

Such bleakness stood in contrast to what's on the top of the U.S. pop chart this week. The soundtrack to "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" is No. 1, having sold 268,000 copies in 10 days of release. The franchise was the subject of two panels today. Indeed, the music industry may be hurting, but the "Twilight" business is a very good one to be involved in.

While Paul Katz, a music consultant who worked on the soundtrack with Summit Entertainment and Chop Shop/Atlantic Records, did not go into specifics about the deals set up with artists, he noted that artists who wrote and composed songs for the film could expect a "six-figure income stream" from participating in the project. 

Death Cab for Cutie, pictured, owns the first single from the film in "Meet Me on the Equinox." Videos will be filmed for soundtrack contributions from Lykke Li and Chop Shop in-house artist Anya Marina, said Livia Tortella, a marketing executive at Atlantic Records. But "Twilight" is an international phenom, and isn't necessarily an example of a healthy soundtrack market.

Music supervisor and Chop Shop owner Alexandra Patsavas acknowledged the rarefied position she's in. She gushed that radio stations have played the soundtrack, which will be sold at retailers as disparate as Nordstrom and Hot Topic,  from start to finish, and noted, "It is a lighting-in-a-bottle situation."

A more relatable picture of the music business was presented earlier. Billboard editorial director Bill Werde hosted a panel that provided an informative 45-minute snapshot of licensing opportunities. Artists and labels, it appeared, rarely have the upper hand.

Music supervisor Joel C. High (Tyler Perry's films) said the prevalence of lesser-known and indie acts in film and television may have contributed to smaller fees paid to license music. "Studios see one or two licenses go down, " he said, "and they demand all licenses go down."

Additionally, while there's more music than ever on film and television, music supervisor Richard Glasser ("Crash") noted that there's been a resurgence in so-called step deals, in which a small fee is paid upfront, and then artists will be compensated based on box office results. Golubic pointed out that such deals rarely work in the artist's favor, as international, new media and home video figures become difficult, if not impossible, for a publishing company to track.

Perhaps a bigger sign of things to come is NBC's recent and broad deal with Bon Jovi. By tapping the New Jersey arena rockers as a sort of resident band for the network, Bon Jovi songs can and will be placed across multiple NBC shows, sometimes, perhaps, to the dismay of the creative talent behind the programs. Such arrangements will work wonders for big name artists, but dry up opportunities -- and funds -- for lesser known acts.

Already, supervisor Frankie Pine ("Brothers & Sisters") noted, it's rare for a major network to license work from "Joe Blow down the street." Look for studios, the panelists seemed to agree, to work more closely with one production house to provide all the music, and subsidize the score and soundtrack, as well as seek all-in rights deals for in perpetuity. The latter may result in a bigger up-front fee, but less long-term grosses for an artist. 

"The people who have the power in this are really the studios," Golubic said.

In other "Twilight" news: While the morning's "New Moon" panel with Patsavas took more of an overview approach, the supervisor was asked why there were no Robert Pattinson songs on the soundtrack to the sequel. Patsavas noted that the actor "wanted to opt out of the second one," but will be asked to contribute a song to "Eclipse," which is due in theaters in June.

-- Todd Martens (Full disclosure: The writer was employed by Billboard Magazine from 2001 through 2007.)

Photo: Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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