Getting Your Music Licensed: A Q&A with Sarah Gavigan

By Riley Schilling Moore

Sarah Gavigan is a music licensing consultant who has placed thousands of indie and unsigned artists to television commercials over the course of her 20-year career. She has also worked as a talent agent, and taught music licensing at UCLA. Gavigan currently leads interactive music licensing workshops through her online educational community We caught up with her in Nashville recently.

How did you get into music licensing?

It was by accident. I spent the majority of my career in the commercial production world representing cinematographers – essentially, I was an agent. I ended up representing a collective of directors from Iceland that were also in a band signed to Warner Brothers called Gus Gus. And just from being around them, I found myself around a lot of other indie musicians, most directly at the 1999 Iceland Airway Conference. I started to look around and I saw that there was no one really representing independent record labels and artists to advertisers.

I formed a company in 2000 to represent independent record labels and artists to advertisers. We did thousands of licenses and made millions of dollars for indie artists. It was a really exciting time, because it was right at the shift of the industry. Digital was coming in and things were changing rapidly. People had very polarizing views on music licensing. In some cases, I was looked down upon and in other cases I was revered for what I was doing. It was a pretty exciting time to be in the eye of the storm.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

On average, I’ve got two or three projects going on. For me, a project is anything from a web film, or television commercial or a branding project – it could be a young fashion brand wants to get involved in music so I’m coming up with ideas for them on how to do that. Of the time I spend as a music supervisor, I would say half of that time I spend searching and organizing. So I get 500 some odd emails a week from major record labels, indie record labels and unsolicited emails coming in, saying, “Hey, listen to my music.”

So from there starts a pretty in-depth cataloguing system that I work on with my interns and my assistants. We file through everything and we start to tag and catalogue it in our own system. So we’ll hear something and we may not find something that’s right for it right now, but we’ll put it into a playlist, so that when a job like that comes up, we’ll go to that playlist.

So a lot of my time is spent organizing and listening and trying to make sure I have my finger on pulse with what’s going on. The other half of my time is spent managing and negotiating on paperwork. I think everyone thinks that music supervision is being a D.J. It is not being a D.J. It is so much more than choosing a song. It comes down to getting the deal done fairly.

What makes a certain type of music more licensable? Are there certain genres that are more licensable? Or just specific songs?

I think really it’s about the DNA of a song. I’ve attended a lot of songwriters’ workshops in the last couple years really to understand how musicians are learning to write songs, and if you think about how songs were written 50 years ago, they were written so simply. They weren’t complicated and it doesn’t mean music is any less for it.

One thing I say to musicians that I work with, if you’re going to write lyrics for licensing, the less it means the more it works. That’s my mantra. We have to tell stories in 30 or 60 seconds. Even though it’s on the TV, we have to tell the story that quickly, so the music has to admit something that fast. We end up using instrumentals more often than not and that’s why.

It seems like more artists have become interested in getting their music licensed. Have you noticed a big shift in this in the last few years?

I’d say that the shift is seismic, and for a lot of reasons. The number one reason is that it’s the number one source of revenue in the music industry. The last time I checked it was 2009 that I started hearing that it was the number one source. Secondly, the advertising industry flipped out when the internet started to change things. “Oh my god, television’s dead,” they said. No, television’s not dead, but what it’s done is it’s created more opportunity for content, and brands are taking advantage of that.

What’s the best way for an independent band or artist –without a lot of contacts – to get placement in a television commercial?

First, you need to watch a lot of television. It seems like a strange thing to say but you need to understand the marketplace. You need to understand what music is being used and you have to assess your own music or where it sits in that lineup, and then it becomes about diligent research. I’m a true believer that mass marketing is not only wrong but dangerous for artists in the music licensing world. We get pummeled with so many e-mails. The only ones that make it through that list are the ones that truly catch our attention, and a mass e-mail doesn’t do that. It’s not personal; it doesn’t speak to who I am.

If you do a little bit of research on me, you understand that I generally use a specific kind of music over and over again. Music supervisors are around. We broadcast our work every day. So know something about that person. Do your homework before you contact them, and you’ll have a much greater chance of getting through.