That Sync Feeling: How Stranger Things Supercharged the Music Industry music

TThe impact of Running Up That Hill on Stranger Things was so huge and so unprecedented that even Kate Bush was surprised, calling it “quite shocking” in a rare interview with BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. The song’s placement on the massively popular Netflix show gave Bush her first UK No.

“We’ll be hearing about this as a reference point in marketing meetings for at least the next 10 years,” says Jonathan Palmer of record label and music publisher BMG about the so-called stranger things effect.

Palmer is BMG’s senior vice president of creative synchronization, music industry terminology for someone who handles “syncs,” where a song — often a classic intended to be rediscovered by a younger generation — is made into a TV show, a Film, an advertisement, video game or movie trailer. Think how Nirvana’s Something In the Way was a cornerstone of The Batman earlier in the year, or cheesy ’70s soft rock dominated the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and thanks to Stranger Things, those dubbings are becoming a bigger part of the music industry than ever before.

Palmer warns that Running Up That Hill is “a bit of a unicorn — most of my peers would admit that’s once a decade,” but Bush is no complete outsider. Something similar is happening with Metallica’s 1986 Master of Puppets: since it was used in the Stranger Things finale earlier this month, it’s currently climbing into the UK top 40.

“It’s hard to predict how strong a sync is going to be,” says Tim Miles, SVP of sync for the UK and Europe at Warner Music Group, which distributes Bush’s music (it owns 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 this was going to be a big moment.”

The proliferation of streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video opens up tremendous new opportunities for music synchronization, especially for catalog titles like Running Up That Hill. They are the premier platforms for sync teams and music managers today for two reasons: massive reach and massive 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 when a streaming platform gets involved, music publishers and record companies will charge exponentially higher fees for using songs in their catalogues.

“Companies like Amazon and Netflix have made a lot of money during the pandemic and I feel like the dynamic has shifted a bit as rightsholders are saying, ‘Right, you can afford to pay a reasonable fee for this’ ‘ she says. “Even though the show hasn’t been picked up by Netflix yet, the rightsholders are still quoting to that effect.”

John Cusack in Say Anything. Photo: 20./Allstar

The power of syncs is two-fold: they generate a fee for music usage, and they also provide a promotional springboard for music that might otherwise have been overlooked. They’ve been used for decades – remember John Cusack holding up a boombox and playing Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes on Say Anything? – but the difference today is that streaming makes TV shows instantly global instead of regional. “It’s unprecedented,” says Miles, “and that’s why we have this incredible impact with music when it’s used well.”

Record label marketing efforts can be planned and coordinated around greater dubbing, as streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music promote getting behind a track. The new wild card is TikTok: clips from shows can be decontextualized and chopped up into a variety of memes that can go viral and provide a powerful accelerator. That’s something record companies can’t predict or manipulate.

“TV and film dubbing are still driving culture, but now people have the opportunity to take that culture and go somewhere else with it,” said Tom Gallacher, senior director of digital and marketing at Rhino UK, part of WMG. “If you look at TikTok, the hashtag #runningupthathill has almost a billion views and there have been over two million creations using the sound.”

Certain eras of music are trending on TV shows these days, and Stranger Things, set in the 1980s, is both cause and symptom. “A lot of the scripts I get now are looking for music from the 1980s, which reflects the age of the directors,” says Farr, noting that dubbing fees go up accordingly when music is in vogue. “I know the eviction will be so expensive.”

This trend is also partially reflected in the song catalogs being acquired by companies such as Hipgnosis, BMG, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, WMG and Primary Wave. Artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and various members of Fleetwood Mac have sold the rights to their songs to these companies for a cash fee in recent years, allowing the companies to generate future revenue from it – and dubbing is a major source of that revenue. These companies will aggressively showcase the music they have acquired, leaning heavily towards the 1960s to 1980s in order to get the greatest and quickest return on their investment.

These companies highlight the success of their sync departments in purchasing a catalog as proof that they can proactively land syncs (known as procured syncs) rather than merely approving a sync request when it falls into their lap (an unprocured sync).

You also have to be careful not to reduce an act’s catalog to just one or two tracks. Sync teams therefore actively work on less obvious music one level down, what Palmer calls the “second tier copyrights” in a catalog. Farr says she sometimes gets a request for a specific title, but then might offer an alternative that the show’s creators never thought of: For example, she’s suggesting Little Simz’s Picture Perfect for Sarah Gavron’s Drama Rocks instead of the much more expensive and more obvious God’s plan from before Drake. “They often go for the hidden gem because it’s unique,” she says. “I always try to look for those catalogs that aren’t going to be astronomical.”

A still image of Rocks.
A still image of Rocks

Occasionally music companies will willingly license these lesser-known songs, perhaps at a reduced price, because they see that the wider promotional opportunities far outweigh the one-time sync fees. “I definitely see that in the big labels,” says Farr. “If you show interest in something less familiar, they’ll be really cooperative to include it in something because it’s really helpful to them.”

Streaming TV is enabling catalog titles to find their way to younger viewers in ways that were unthinkable just a decade ago. “Summer used to be about going to the movies and talking about the big movies that have come out, but streaming has changed that dynamic,” Miles argues. “Now we’re talking about the big TV shows. I think it’s much more natural for a younger audience to hear a song on a TV show because it’s culturally relevant to them.”

An added bonus today is that an unexpectedly successful sync can be instantly monetized by streaming music services, bypassing the historic delay in shipping products to record stores. This means that while streaming TV is a huge catalyst for catalog success today, it’s not the only one. Tracks are constantly assigned to the music streaming services’ own era and genre-oriented playlists, while trends on TikTok are closely monitored so if an old track suddenly takes off, it can capitalize on it – the most obvious example being Dreams by Fleetwood Mac. which went viral in 2020.

The triple bonanza of a TV dubbing morphing into music streaming services and TikTok is something that can’t be orchestrated, just harnessed. All of the sync departments’ best plans are often less about strategy and more about chance. “I’ve been doing this long enough,” says Palmer, “that I’ve come to terms with not fully understanding where alchemy is, how it works, and how it really connects on a larger scale.”

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