How Music Is Pitched, Chosen, and Licensed
With Shannon Quisenberry and Frank Palazzolo
Shannon Quisenberry listens intently as Frank Palazzolo answers a question from a TAXI member.
Interviewed by Michael Laskow at the TAXI Road Rally, 2018
Shannon Quisenberry is the Director of Creative Licensing and Artist Relations; THINK Music Inc. She previously worked on Austin City Limits for two seasons with artists like Wilco, Etta James, Pixies, Elvis Costello, The Shins, and The Flaming Lips, to name a few. Shannon worked in New York City at Brick Wall Management for 6 years, working with artists and producers that included Citizen Cope, Marc Broussard, The Clarks, and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ari Hest. After moving to LA and working on Ingrid Michelson’s management team, Shannon was quickly drawn to the licensing side of the industry and started working with Platform Music Group in 2015. Now at THINK, Shannon has been an integral part of helping artists land placements, from hit TV shows (The Leftovers, Shameless, Claws, Queen Sugar, Suits, Lucifer) to nationwide Advertisements (Fitbit, Toyota, Comcast) and everything in between.
Frank Palazzolo is a Music Supervisor at Mad Doll Music. Frank began his music supervision career in the Universal Pictures Film Music department. After leaving Universal, he went on to work with KCRW DJ and Music Supervisor Liza Richardson at Mad Doll Music, where he has worked on over 1,000 TV show episodes and 5 films, including a win for "Best Music in Film" at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival. Some of his most notable projects include The Path (Hulu), The Leftovers (HBO), Hemlock Grove (Netflix), Scorpion (CBS), Graceland (Fox), and Rise (NBC). Frank is also a successful songwriter and producer with placements in various television shows, two major motion picture film trailers, the Orange Is The New Black Season 4 announcement promo, and a Toyota commercial that aired during the 2018 Super Bowl.
So we get this question every now and then when somebody finds out that they’ve gotten something that’s going to go into a major motion picture or an episode of a show, and they ask, “Should I reach out to my attorney?” And my answer is usually, “Well, I can’t tell you not to seek legal advice on this, but I can tell you that normally people don’t seek attorney’s advice because it’s a simple license agreement: “Will you license this song, for this purpose, for this amount of money? You either will or you won’t.”
Frank, if you got a call from somebody who says, “Man, I’m so excited you’re gonna put my song in your show. I just need my attorney to talk to you.” What would your reaction be?
Frank: It’s annoying. It happens to me, it really does. And then we have people with this standard one-page quote request trying to change it. And it’s like, what is there to change? Here’s the thing to know, if it’s coming from a network and it’s just a basic sync like your song is going to be playing in this scene, no one is taking advantage of you. If CBS sent you a contract and they’re not talking about it being a theme song or a song that an artist is going to be performance—even in that case, 99% of the time the song that the artist is performing isn’t a buyout either; it’s a license. But they’re not asking if they could own your song. You don’t need a lawyer to look at it; you don’t need to try to negotiate the fee if you’re not landing hundreds of syncs a week. Look at it and go, “This is fantastic—here’s my signature. Let me know where to send the W9.” Because it’s not a negotiation process, and it’ll only hurt your chances if you start to play with that.
I would think it would damn near kill your chances.
Frank: It might. If I have other options on the table and I’m not feeling like holding your hand and walking you through the process of why this is so basic and why you’re showing how green you are, then I might just go, “You know what? Never mind,” and just use another song.
I understand the logic of why people ask if they should get their attorney involved, because they are green, #1, and because #2, their entire career they have been told that everybody in the music industry will try to screw you. But they just don’t know the mores, the norms of this side of the industry. Nobody’s trying to screw anybody. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single case in film-and-TV licensing where somebody was trying to screw anybody out of anything. They might go back to them and go, “I feel terrible. The budget is blown; I’ve only got a thousand bucks for this; can you work with me?” That’s as close to getting screwed, and that’s not getting screwed.
Frank: Sync licensing is pretty much the most basic thing in the entire music industry. You’re not signing a bad record label deal or a bad publishing deal, you’re just going, “You wanna use it...for this amount of money? Sounds good to me.” That’s all you are really doing. And I know when people call their lawyer, it freaks me out a little bit, because it does make me feel that they are gonna throw a monkey wrench in the process, when I really just want to pay somebody. But what you need to recognize is the fact that I’m given a budget... Music supervisors are given a budget in the season. Then we are kind of like, OK, we have like $40,000 per episode; we have 10 episodes ready to rock. Now we ended up spending this amount of money here, and now the budget is shrinking or getting better, or whatever. So those fees that we are paying you guys fluctuates based on the surplus of money that we have throughout the season. So if I’m on episode nine and I still have $250,000 left in my wallet, then you are gonna get a better chance at a better fee. If I have a $1,000 overage debt with two episodes left, I’m gonna be asking you to go lower into the fees. That’s just the way it’s gonna be. But what you need to understand is that when the season is over, if there’s $100,000 left in the season that I didn’t spend, I don’t see a dime of it. So what incentive do I have to cheat you guys out of an extra $500 or $1,000?
I think that some people might think that you are scoring Brownie points with your Executive Producer because you’ve saved them money. But they don’t really give a damn...
Frank: All that happens if I come in way under budget is, they go, “Great. Frank pulled this whole season off with $50k, let’s only give him $45k [for next season’s budget], even though he really needs $250k.
Shannon: I will say if you are given a publishing contract or something that you should get a lawyer to look over. We’re just talking about the actual synchronization licenses that come in. But definitely look at your publishing deal, look at the small print. Get a lawyer to look at those, because there are some bad ones floating around.
Frank: Those are deals, mine are permissions. Sign the permission slip. And also, the only word to look out for is buyout. If there’s the word buyout in the request that comes to you, then you can ask the question, “What does that mean?” It’s mostly for things like theme songs. They’re gonna buyout the song, which means you are not going to get the backend, you’re not going to get the royalties from it, because that’s their song now. We’re gonna own this song that you made for us.
Shannon: There is one other thing. Like the Netflixes and the YouTubes, they’re all doing [their own productions of original] TV shows now and a lot of them are trying to do backend buyouts, so that you’re not getting paid from your PROs. But you can negotiate an extra $5,000 or something upfront since you’re not going to get ASCAP or BMI royalties from it.
Frank: Let’s be clear, Shannon works at a big pitching company. So if you’re an independent artist, you might not go, “I see this word buyout on here, Netflix. I’m gonna need another $5,000.” And they’ll tell you to go screw.
Shannon: I would say ask the question, “What does this mean?” And I don’t think that you’re gonna get pushed back. It’s not going to be a big thing, they should be able to explain it easily. I’m sure they get the question all the time. I asked the question when I first saw it, so...
Music Supervisor Frank Palazzolo does a little post panel meet and greet with TAXI member Scott Free at TAXI’s Road Rally, 2019.
OK, so let’s say the deal is done, and has been agreed to, Shannon landed a placement in one of Frank’s shows. When does Shannon’s company get the check, and when does the artist/writer get the check?
Shannon: Ahhh. Months for a check. Even if it is a $5,000 placement—tiny chump change that CBS definitely has in their back pocket—nine months. Sometimes I’ve landed an ad placement and got paid a month later. So it just depends, and what we tell our artists is that we have 45 days to get them the money after we get the check. I think the standard is like 30-to-90 days or something after airing. So I’ve landed a song in a TV show and it’s not even airing until next summer, so I’m not getting paid—no one’s getting paid until after that airs. Because a week before that airs, they could edit it and the song could be dropped out. It doesn’t happen a lot, but every once in a while we’ll have something done, yay, it’s in, we’re gonna confirm it, and then all of a sudden they’ll come back with, “Actually, we edited it and the song is not in it.”
What’s worse than your family and friends not being able to hear the song in the mix? It’s when the song didn’t even make it in the episode you were told it was going to be in and nobody told you.
Shannon: Yeah, we always tell our artists, “Don’t celebrate; and don’t spend your money until it’s on your television set and the check is in your hand.” Because even if you see it on, it might be another six months until you get the actual check. And some of our artists are like, “I already spent it. Can I get an advance?” And the answer is, “I don’t have that money yet; it’s not in my hand yet, so I can’t give it to you.”
Frank: Treat sync money like the money you put in your bathing suit on vacation and you find it the next summer and you’re like, “Holy crap, [I just found] 50 bucks in my bathing suit!” That’s sync money.
So I think I’ve asked all the questions I want to ask. Let’s see what our audience members have for you.
Audience Member: So we’ve talked a lot about the range of experiences; what happens when and what if? I want some more 80/20 stuff, like law of averages. So assume TAXI members here have a bunch of friends that could write and produce whatever songs are most needed in whatever quality, whether it’s rap, whether it’s about home. Can you give us some idea of what are you being asked for the most? What’s going to have the most value if we were to do 30 of them next year, or 10 of each of the top three.
Frank: It’s just such a hard question. I tell people like, “Oh, well, cocktail jazz is cool.” Then it’s like, “Sweet, Frank, I just wrote 700 cocktail jazz songs.” And I mean, I just meant I’m getting asked for it a lot right now, and from time to time. But there really is no code; there really is no knowing exactly what it is. Do what you’re good at, you know? Because I’d much rather have five awesome rock songs from you than 500 crappy jazz tracks that you did just because I told you to do it. So think about what your strength is. Seriously, the best advice I could give to you if you were trying to specifically write for sync, is write stuff that stays pretty mellow and pretty consistent. If it’s going up and down with crazy bridges and all this stuff, you’re less likely to land it with me, because the majority of my job is to kind of make score with your music, so something that’s not too distracting. If you write a cool indie song with just a solid steady bass line that doesn’t have wild things, that kind of solid steady melody, that’s more likely to land than writing stuff that’s outside of your real house.
Shannon: But as far as trends, it changes also. Like we had a lot of the Mumford & Sons folky stuff—the hey-hos and things. That’s dead now. That’s not syncing as much; it’s more horns and kind of retro soul that’s syncing. But that’s been syncing for a couple months now, so who knows what next is gonna happen. Because now if everyone goes out and writes a retro/soul song and gets them to me, I’m ready to send them out and all of a sudden they’re back to the Americana sound, or some True Blood-like sounds.
Frank: Nick Harcourt wrote a book, and he said something like, “When you hear a type of music on the radio and you want to emulate it, you already missed it.” Because by the time you get that song written, recorded and then finally circulated to the world, we’ve already licensed that type of thing a hundred times. So just kind of just stick to what you’re good at and listen to the radio right now if you want to. But you might miss it.
Audience Member: A real basic question: We get a tip and it’s like, “This is the dialogue, somebody’s breaking up or whatever.” But we’ve got no picture. So you’ve got a song, you really like it, you’re gonna recommend it, but it’s 23 seconds too long. Do we get a chance to like...? Is that where the stems come in, or do we get, “Hey, man, make this shorter”?
Shannon: Not usually for TV, because they go so fast. But for trailers, ads, promos, things that have a little more time, I will sometimes get that from a supervisor. They might ask something like, “Is there any way they can take this out?” or “Is there any way we can cut the ending?”
Audience Member: So what’s submitted has to match the picture?
Frank: No, we’ll make you match the picture. It’s got to be comfortable in its finished form.
Shannon: They have a music editor that is still going to cut it up.
Frank: I see the potential in it, so I go, “This is cool; this is vibing. I’m not loving the length,” like you say, maybe you came up 40 seconds short. So then I ask for an instrumental, and then we elongate it—the show’s music editor elongates it.
Shannon: You don’t have to do that. You provide an instrumental [as well as the full mix] and they will mess with it.
Frank: So if somebody produces your tracks, ask them if they could—when they’re done, when they send you the completed piece—if they could also provide you with a high-resolution file, a WAV file and stems...and an instrumental—as many materials as you can get. We don’t have time to wait for you to try to track down your producer from Brazil.
Audience Member: I have a question about publishers. Most of the people I write with say that they don’t use a publisher; “When I do session work, I get contacted directly.” What is your experience with that? Do you get publishers that contact you, or is it usually just you have a relationship with the artist? How does that work?
Frank: I go to publishers. I go to major publishers for the most part. So I’m on the phone with them a lot, but it’s because you’re so buttoned up that their deals with their artists and their writers, and whoever else, that doesn’t really concern me. As long as they’re able to sign off and account for all the splits, I don’t really care. When I go to a publisher, I usually, for the most part, understand that I’m going to be paying a higher fee. Sometimes a publisher can bite you in the ass, because I can get the song from you [personally], and I didn’t even get it from a publisher. And then you co-wrote with somebody from Warner/Chappell, and it turns out that person you co-wrote with also happened to be a co-writer on another really big track. Then they’re like, “Oh no, she wrote with some big people, unfortunately.” I know she said we could give you the $4k, but it should be more like $14k, and now I’m like, “What the hell just happened?” And you’re like, “What the hell just happened? I’ve never had a sync before.” So publishers can come back and be a problem. So I don’t think they are needed, unless you want to write cuts on albums and do radio stuff. But for sync-related stuff, I don’t think a publisher is super necessary at the moment. But having representation is good.
I’ve gotta say, I remember walking up to Shannon in the ballroom in Hawaii this past summer and saying, “I’ve really got to get the two of you onstage,” and had the whole vision for this panel in my mind. And then, when I started writing questions, I was getting a little nervous. I remember asking myself, “Is there enough there for a whole panel?” Hell yeah! You guys are amazing. This worked out better than I hoped it would. Thank you so much you guys. Shannon Quisenberry and Frank Palazzolo, you guys are awesome. [applause]