Composing and publishing music for film has long been a behind-the-scenes cash cow, helping to support composers, producers, and engineers in the music business. With the continued ‘uberization’ of the music business, however, this source of livelihood could be under threat.
In 1997, Mix Magazine sported an all black cover, bleakly titled “What Can Save the Music Industry”. This was before clickbait and this wasn’t just marketing. The headline reflected the mood of an industry bruised and battered by Napster, Limewire and other P2P file sharing networks, that managed to convince most in the industry that music had essentially lost its value. Music used in motion pictures, or what we call “sync”, has quietly entered a similar era. And like the record industry of the early 2000s, it needs to find its way out.
Music for pictures isn’t often in the spotlight but it’s definitely the big bottom end of the iceberg. It employs armies of composers, producers, musicians, engineers, and music publishers globally. While the performing artists are the visible and glitzy part of the music industry, music to pictures is the craft that has been paying the bills for many, and even to some of the performing artists we love, before and after their moment in the limelight.
Web platforms have entered this field some years ago and have lately led to what some would call the “Uberization” of the industry. These platforms cater to producers of A/V content, some with a very broad offering and some more specialized like the one I’ve founded. The move to digital platforms has opened the door wide open to economies of scale, which in turn tend to attract venture capital. The influx of new money comes with a now familiar pressure to sign up new users, which often means bringing the prices to attract them, down to as low as the supplier pool can tolerate. The result is extreme low-cost music for the end users, and the all-too familiar squashing of the supplier at the end of the chain, often with fees of less than 10$ for placements in very prominent content. Composers and music producers in the sync field are now faced with the same dilemma as cab drivers and other casualties of the gig economy: accept ever-diminishing fees or get out. This pressure is even worse since Covid deprived them of their main source of earnings: Live performances.
As a digital kid myself it’s always tempting to shrug this off as just another inexorable change that all in the market will eventually adapt to. And then I remember the 2000s. When a lot of us, including the most prominent music tech publication in the USA, were ready to leave the music industry as dead, as an early and massive casualty of the digital transformation. What followed the Mix Magazine cover was that Steve Jobs managed to get the major labels on board and launch the iTunes music store. And over the years, through various platforms and business models, we realized consumers weren’t necessarily looking for free music, but just for a more convenient way to get it and listen to it across various devices. We misread the consumer’s need for convenience and access for a wish that everything would be free. Free music still exists in dark corners of the web but it seems like most people are not that interested in devaluating the artist’s work. Sync is at the same crossroads today. It’s on a path to being devalued and commoditized to the bone, and it needs to make a play if it’s going to retain its value. I know many would shrug it off and suggest that we accept that music in pictures isn’t worth much anymore. I think this view lacks perspective, it’s only the case if we do nothing. I would rather ask (half-jokingly) “What would Steve do?”.
Many players have cards in their hands. Content producers, for one, make purchase decisions valued at $4B per year that collectively impact the music industry. At the moment that impact is certainly not clear to producers but I suspect it won’t stay like this forever. As awareness builds on the economic impact that purchasing decisions have on creators, behavior could evolve. In the VC space, since the pandemic, I’m perceiving a change of tone where social impact is more routinely part of the conversation and there is a fair chance this attitude will remain. As for companies like ours, that provide music for sync, I believe there are multiple paths forward, none of which mean freezing the sync industry in a time capsule to prevent it from evolving. Whichever path we choose, from this point on, we have a responsibility to provide alternatives to extreme low-cost music that are both viable and appealing to producers. If we believe as I do, that music has value, it’s our responsibility to bring it to users in ways that’s at the very least as convenient as any low-cost offering out there, and that generally makes their lives easier. Then we’ll see if it’s all and only about price. My bet is it’s not.
Philippe-Aubert Messieris founder of Bopper, a curated music licensing hub for sync.
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