That Sense of Sync: How Stranger Things Powered the Music Industry | Music
JThe impact of using Running Up That Hill in Stranger Things was so great and unprecedented that even Kate Bush was surprised, calling it “really quite shocking” in a rare interview with BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour. The song’s placement on the hugely popular Netflix show gave Bush his first UK number 1 in 44 years and his first US Top 10 hit, 37 years after Running Up That Hill was first released.
“We’ll be hearing about it for at least the next 10 years, as a point of reference in marketing meetings,” says Jonathan Palmer of record label and music publisher BMG, of what will inevitably be called the Stranger Things effect. .
Palmer is BMG’s senior vice president of creative sync, music industry terminology for someone who deals with “syncs”, where a song – often a classic that’s ready to be rediscovered by a young generation – is placed in a television show, movie, commercial, video game or movie trailer. Think about how Nirvana’s Something In the Way was a cornerstone of The Batman earlier this year, or cheesy ’70s soft rock dominated Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and thanks to Stranger Things, those syncs become more important than ever in the music industry.
Palmer warns that Running Up That Hill is “a bit of a unicorn – most of my colleagues would agree that it’s a once-a-decade thing,” but Bush isn’t a total outlier. Something similar happens with Metallica’s Master of Puppets from 1986: since being used in the Stranger Things finale earlier this month, it’s currently climbing the UK Top 40.
“It’s hard to predict the power of a sync,” says Tim Miles, senior vice president of sync for the UK and Europe at Warner Music Group, which distributes Bush’s music (it has its own recording and publishing rights). But, he says, “we knew it was going to be used a lot [in Stranger Things] and you could tell it was going to be a great moment.
The proliferation of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video is opening up huge new opportunities for music synchronization, especially for catalog titles such as Running Up That Hill. These are the priority platforms for sync teams and music supervisors today for two reasons: huge reach and huge budgets.
Connie Farr is the founder of music monitoring company ThinkSync and has worked on films and shows such as Rocks, After Love, Creation Stories and The Essex Serpent. She says that if a streaming platform is involved, music publishers and record labels will charge exponentially higher fees to use songs in their catalogs.
“The likes of Amazon and Netflix have made a lot of money during the pandemic and I feel like the dynamic has changed a bit, with rights holders saying, ‘Okay, you can afford to pay an appropriate fee for it,'” she said. said. “Even though the show has yet to be picked up by Netflix, the rights holders are still quoting with that in mind.”
The power of Syncs is twofold: they generate fees for the use of music and they also provide a promotional springboard for music that might otherwise have been overlooked. They’ve been used for decades – remember John Cusack wielding a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes in Say Anything? – but the difference today is that due to streaming, TV shows are immediately global instead of regional. “It’s unprecedented,” says Miles, “and that’s why we have this incredible effect with music when used well.”
Record label marketing activity can be planned and coordinated around a major sync, as streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music push to get behind a track. The new wildcard is TikTok: clips from shows can be decontextualized and sliced into a variety of memes that can go viral, providing a powerful accelerator. It’s something that record labels can neither anticipate nor manipulate.
“TV and cinema syncs are always pushing the culture, but now people have the ability to take that culture and go somewhere else with it,” says Tom Gallacher, senior digital and marketing director at Rhino UK, which is part of WMG. “If you look on TikTok, the hashtag #runningupthathill has gotten almost a billion views and there have been over two million creations using the sound.”
Certain musical eras are trending on TV shows right now, and Stranger Things, set in the 1980s, is both cause and symptom of that. “A lot of the scripts I get now are looking for music from the 1980s, reflecting the age of the directors,” says Farr, noting that when music is trending, sync fees rise accordingly. “I know it’s going to be so expensive to clean.”
This trend is also partly reflected in the catalogs of songs acquired by companies such as Hipgnosis, BMG, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, WMG and Primary Wave. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and various members of Fleetwood Mac have sold the rights to their songs to these companies for a cash lump sum in recent years, earning the companies future revenue – and the syncs are a major source of this income. These companies will aggressively present the music they have acquired, leaning heavily towards the 1960s to 1980s, to achieve the biggest and fastest return on investment.
These companies point to the success of their synchronization services when purchasing a catalog, as proof that they can proactively perform synchronizations (so-called purchased synchronizations) rather than simply approving a request for synchronization when it falls in their lap (an unpurchased synchronization).
They must also ensure that the catalog of an act is not reduced to one or two titles. The sync teams are therefore actively working on less obvious music of a lower level, what Palmer calls “second-level copyrights” in a catalog. Farr says she sometimes gets a request for a specific track, but then may come up with an alternative the show’s creators never thought of: for example, suggesting Little Simz’s Picture Perfect for Sarah Gavron’s drama Rocks. instead of the much more expensive and obvious God’s Plan by Duck. “They often go with the hidden gem because it’s unique,” she says. “I always try to look for those catalogs, the ones that aren’t going to be astronomical.”
Sometimes music companies will happily license these lesser-known songs, perhaps at a reduced rate, as they see the broader promotional opportunities far outweighing the one-time synchronization fees. “I definitely find that with major labels,” says Farr. “If you show interest in something lesser known, they’ll be really cooperative in putting it into something because it’s really useful to them.”
Streaming television allows catalog tracks to find their way to young viewers in a way that was inconceivable even a decade ago. “Before, summers were all about going to the movies and talking about the great movies that came out, but streaming has changed that dynamic,” says Miles. “Now we’re talking about the big TV shows. I think it’s much more natural for younger audiences to hear a song on a TV show because it’s culturally relevant to them.
An added benefit today is that an unexpectedly successful sync can be instantly monetized through music streaming services, avoiding the historic delay in shipping products to record stores. This means that while TV streaming is now a huge enabler of catalog success, it’s not the only one. Tracks will constantly be featured on era- and genre-focused playlists from music streaming services, while trends on TikTok are closely monitored so that when an old track suddenly takes off, it can be capitalized on – the example the most obvious being Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, which went viral in 2020.
The triple boon of a spiraling TV sync across music streaming services and TikTok, however, is something that cannot be orchestrated, only capitalized on. For all of the synchronization departments’ best-laid plans, it’s often less about strategy and more about serendipity. “I’ve been doing this long enough,” Palmer says, “that I resign myself to not fully understanding where the chemistry is, how it works, and how it really connects on a larger level.”