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The Art of Selling Out

How much money can you make from licensing your music — and is it really worth it?

Mike “DJ” Pizzo
Oct 29, 2015 · 11 min read

ublic Enemy’s biggest hit record came in 2012, decades after what many would consider their prime. Although many hail their 1988 sophomore LP, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, the group never found themselves with a huge crossover smash single that dominated the mainstream charts. This fact and their trademark logo is probably why they cleverly named their 1992 remix album Greatest Misses. That would all change 25 years into their career when their 2007 track “Harder Than You Think” became the band’s biggest hit, reaching #4 on the UK Singles chart and #1 on both the UK R&B and UK Indie charts. Yet this didn’t happen until September of 2012, five years after the song was initially released.

What led to the sudden mainstream interest of a group we’ve been heralding as champions of rap music for over two decades? Pretty simply, the song was licensed for the 2012 Channel 4 Paralympics “Meet The Superhumans” ad campaign. After being heard by UK fans over and over again in the commercial, sales of the track surged, making it the biggest hit of the band’s career. Strangely enough, ask any die-hard P.E. fan what their favorite song is from the band and you’re far more likely to hear “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise” or many other late 80s classics named.

Public Enemy’s “Harder Than You Think” used in the 2012 Channel 4 Paralympics ad

But this instance shows the power of artists licensing their music for usage in movies, television shows and commercials, despite the fact that for many years the idea of doing so was frowned upon. Famously the Geto Boys’ shunned the idea of crossing over on their 1989 track “No Sellout,” which found them rapping about Public Enemy’s keep-it-real stance and hardcore resistance to radio. Just a decade ago on the Beastie Boys’ 2004 single “Triple Trouble,” the late Adam “MCA” Yauch proclaimed “Cause I’m a specializer, rhyme reviser. Ain’t selling out to advertisers.” His will prohibits the use of his lyrics or image in commercials and other forms of advertising.

Yet with piracy and the jump to digital contributing to the sharp decline in music sales over the last few years, many artists have changed their tune, as this has become a viable option to get paid. Yet it doesn’t replace the good old days of platinum plaques.

“It’s not predictable. It’s great to have, but it’s very much feast or famine. Touring is my bread and butter because it’s much more consistent,” says producer RJD2, who has licensed his music for commercials, television shows and films. “Often times what happens is a bunch of small usages in the aggregate end up being a thing that is worthwhile doing. That’s an approach that I think seems to work.”

“It’s certainly is a way to expose people to new music, but I don’t think it’s a way that anyone can rely on getting paid the same way that they would have before on album sales,” says Full Pursuit Media’s Gabe Hilfer, who has licensed music for movies like Black Swan and television shows like Entourage. “But it has definitely been referred to as the modern day radio, in the sense that it provides a medium to expose people to music that they might not necessarily be familiar with.”

Case in point is now household name Charli XCX, who at one time was seemingly stuck in a rut penning hit hooks for other artists like Icona Pop (“I Love It”) and Iggy Azalea (“Fancy”). That all changed when one of her solo cuts became the theme song to a hit film.

The Fault In Our Stars helped Charli XCX successfully break through solo

“My business partner was the music supervisor to the movie The Fault In Our Stars,” says Hilfer. “It sold hundreds of thousands of soundtracks, which was great, because people were really moved by the music in the film. Some of the music was original for the film, so in a way, it was a platform to launch the entire thing. That Charli XCX song ‘Boom Clap,’ was made for that movie and now that’s a platinum single. It’s another way to help get the word out in an increasingly cluttered marketplace.”

Hilfer also had a hand in launching the career of Aloe Blacc, who was struggling to get his completed sophomore album out of TBA status. Once Hilfer licensed “I Need a Dollar” as the theme for HBO’s How to Make It In America, Blacc suddenly had a release date. Years later he’d record “Wake Me Up” with Avicii, one of the biggest charting EDM songs of all time.

“It wasn’t quite retirement money to use ‘I Need a Dollar’ as the theme of the show, but it was definitely enough to justify putting out the album. When they put out the record and everyone liked the song on the show, it sort of took on a life of its own and Aloe became a person people were talking about,” says Hilfer. “And now he’s like a big star, performing on huge stages. He’s been so cool and grateful. We actually have music supervisor awards every year. He performed last year at the awards and before his set, he was like ‘Hey, I just wanted to say without music supervisors, I wouldn’t be here. Specifically I really want to thank Gabe Hilfer for hooking up that one use in ‘How to Make it In America,’ without which I would not have a career.’ It was kind of a big moment.”

How To Make It In America shoehorned Aloe Blacc into American living rooms

If it’s not retirement money, just what kind of money can one expect to make from licensing their music to the world of pop culture? It turns out there are many different tiers to music licensing, really boiling down to how you play the game.

“In my experience, in general, things have trended downward, year-by-year. The early aughts until now, broadly speaking, things have just trended downward, fairly considerably and quite noticeably,” says RJD2.

“It’s a pretty standard supply and demand kind of equation. Every project is totally different, I happen to be lucky enough to work on TV and film. Indie films have no budget or low budgets, giant studio films have way bigger budgets. TV shows have totally separate budgets, depending on what the show is and how their internal budgeting process works,” says Hilfer. “It goes all the way from production / library music to echelons of people who really do not need your exposure, like Jay Z or Eminem. People are checking for them no matter what. The money you are going to pay them doesn’t really move the needle for them too much because they are so exceedingly wealthy. If you go and offer Jay Z $50,000, it’s not a huge thing to him. It’s more if he wants to do it — and he does sometimes. I work on this TV show Black-ish, and we’ve used a number of Jay Z songs and he’s been super supportive and awesome. But it’s not like a decision that he is making based on money… Those are huge artists and you are capitalizing on their name and notoriety. To watch a Cadillac commercial and hear a Led Zeppelin song, it’s arguable which has the stronger brand identity.”

“It varies across the spectrum, what they would offer Kanye for a spot versus what they would offer me, versus someone that doesn’t even have a record deal,” says RJD2. “Those are all scenarios where it could be the exact same usage, but for radically different amounts. Basically they know what people can afford to turn their nose up at. We’re talking about discrepancies of multiple zeroes across the board. I’m on the low end of that spectrum, frankly speaking.”

Music supervisor Hilfer breaks down what that spectrum looks like on various levels.

“The fee structure for something like that could go from $2000-$3000 to $10,000-$12,000, for an artist that is not typically well known, based on a whole variety of different factors,” he says of licensing tracks to television shows. “In a commercial, that’s a whole other set of parameters. Is it a global spot or is it North America only? Usually the deals for commercials are for a year or in segments of years. Is it a one-year spot, a two-year spot, or a six month spot? That could be a whole lot of money. A whole lot of money. Like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Potentially it’s all what somebody is willing to pay. It’s negotiation.”

Yet it’s not that simple. The advent of social media has made it much easier for these companies to measure the reach of your brand and determine your value from there.

“There are certain caps that networks have and there are certain parameters that everyone understands are sort of the way something is more likely to get used. Like if you want to use a song in a TV show and some band that nobody has ever heard of asks for $100,000, it’s never going to happen. Generally, there’s no way that that is ever going to happen. It’s just off the norm,” says Hilfer. “It’s like if you went to go buy a birthday cake and you went to the store and someone was like ‘Yeah, this birthday cake, I spent a lot of time making it and it’s $25,000.’ You’d be like, ‘That’s insane, every other birthday cake in here is $20. Chill out, I will never buy your birthday cake.’ You can charge whatever you want, but it might mean that nobody is likely to ever buy it.”

But things don’t always go as planned. RJD2 produced the theme to AMC’s Mad Men, which seemingly could have set him up for life like Seinfeld theme composer Jonathan Wolff, who still collects royalty payments via syndication. Yet RJ and his team had no idea that the show would be a hit when they sold its publishing to Lionsgate. The Mad Men theme was originally a rap song called “A Beautiful Mine,” produced by RJ and featuring emcee Aceyalone for their 2006 Magnificent City collaborative album.

The Mad Men theme was originally a rap song until Lionsgate licensed its instrumental

“We made that record, Aceyalone and I, and then we put out an instrumental version of the record so the DJ’s could have the beats. Lionsgate came and wanted to use the instrumental for Mad Men. It was before the show was on the air. We didn’t know anything about the show, nobody did. Those guys — Aceyalone and Decon Records — who represented the master really wanted to do it. I was on the fence for a while because I didn’t know the show and this was selling the publishing, it was not a license. It was a thing that I had never done,” recalls RJ. “So they own it, I don’t have any control over anything. That was very contingent on that deal, they insisted on that. On the master side Decon are still able to release it, but on the publishing end we don’t control anything, unfortunate as that is.”

Things can also get tricky when uncleared samples go mainstream. Sampling another artist’s work might be fine when flying under the radar on your deep album cuts, but not when Pepperidge Farm wants to use your track to sell Milano Melts. One of the worst cases was for rapper Pharoahe Monch, whose unexpected crossover hit “Simon Says” liberally used the Godzilla theme as its backbone. It was undetected when Funkmaster Flex was dropping bombs on it, but not after it appeared in Boiler Room, 2000’s Charlie’s Angels and three other major Hollywood films.

“What ruined it was the genesis of it. The beginning of it. I turned in the sample and the sample wasn’t cleared,” Monch told the Juan Epstein podcast last year. “Legally, I had to hire a digital music lawyer, in which the fees were crazy. In the beginning, the lawsuit was like 40 grand. They tried to fight it and the lawsuit went all the way up to $400,000. I don’t own the record any more, I can’t license the record any more… If they paid the $40,000, everybody would be happy right now. I’m fucking pissed at the fact when I think about that. It’s painful how easy life would be right now.”

Uncleared samples stopped Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” from being an endless cash cow

“I’m pretty aware of it. I avoid it. If I know there’s a sample, but it’s not acknowledged when you are researching the ownership and the publishing, I try to stay away from it,” says Hilfer. “It’s not a good look knowingly putting a song in there that could come back and bite you. There’s also a thing called a “quick claim,” which is the scariest thing, which is when record labels own stuff and they’ll take your money, but won’t warrant that they don’t control 100% of it. In other words, ‘There might be a sample in here and we’ll take your money. But if someone comes after it and sues your movie, it’s on you.’ So that’s not fun.”

Despite the potential downsides to music licensing, it can be incredible for an artist’s exposure — just ask all those bands that were featured in those early silhouetted iPod ads some years back. It’s par for the course that these musicians see an uptick in track sales when their songs inadvertently become a part of the mainstream consciousness through licensing.

“I did the music supervision for that movie Project X and we had some cool stuff in there like the Steve Aoki remix of Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness.’ That soundtrack was the only place you could end up buying that song and it actually sold around 300,000-400,000 copies around the world,” Hilfer recalls. “One interesting case was in Entourage, we had used a La Roux song that had been out for a year (“In For The Kill”) and the iTunes sales quintupled or something. So if they were initially selling x amount of copies of the song per week, for like 20 weeks in a row they were selling several thousand copies per week. The only thing that they could point to in their campaign was that it was on the end credits of an episode of Entourage. It’s rare that you have that kind of opportunity to keep it in a vacuum, where all of the other variables are accounted for.”

Project X’s soundtrack was at one time the only place to purchase Steve Aoki’s remix of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness”

“If they played ‘Harder Than You Think’ on urban radio two times a day, three times a day, it would probably do the same thing here,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D told Rolling Stone in 2012 when the song hit five years after its initial release. “And the thing about the U.K., they blasted it through television. So that shows the power of being able to have opportunity on major media — even more so than the strength of the song.”

“I don’t dive head first into the analytics of the thing because I’m just not that kind of person, but my sort of very layman viewpoint is that it does drive visibility to a record or a song,” adds RJD2. “I’ve heard of this happening decades later. An associate of mine — a DJ whom you would certainly recognize his name — told me that he licensed a tune for a L’Oréal spot in England from a 12” single that he put out around 1991. The song is 20+ years old and was one of the biggest licenses he’d ever done in terms of revenue. And it was just some obscure 12” that he put out on an indie techno label or something.”

With the music industry rapidly changing, artists are forced to adapt and music licensing seems to be one of the ways that musicians can be compensated for their work, even after the rest of the world has stopped paying for it. But RJD2 believes that as long as the prospect of licensing his music does not interfere with the creative process, he’s going to be alright.

“I think that it is important that the idea of saying ‘no’ is a part of every artist’s lexicon. I don’t think that saying ‘yes’ to everything is a healthy approach to working in a creative field. There’s things that I would definitely not feel comfortable licensing my music for,” he says. “I’ve decided that I’m not going to go into the studio and consider the commercial viability of the song I am making. For me, that line is compromising on the creation of the song. I need to make whatever music I want to make. Once the song is done, then I can look at ways it can be presented.”

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a…

Mike “DJ” Pizzo

Written by

Marketing Content Manager @ Reef Dispensaries / Co-creator of Cuepoint @ Medium / creator of / Host of Let the Record Show



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

Mike “DJ” Pizzo

Written by

Marketing Content Manager @ Reef Dispensaries / Co-creator of Cuepoint @ Medium / creator of / Host of Let the Record Show



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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