We have nothing but time on our hands due to the worldwide pandemic. What can we do to turn this all around and let it work to our advantage? Your host, Bree Noble, interviews Michael Elsner about sync licensing opportunities in this episode. Michael Elsner’s career took a left turn after getting his first song licensed on CBS’s Cold Case in 2004. He tried to do sync licensing while pursuing his artist career but felt so stressed out it caused health issues, so he changed his path. With all the time we have in our hands, he explains why it’s the right time to do sync licensing and the process he used. He shares his struggles over the years, the learnings he gained, and gives us guidelines on the path we could take. Explore the opportunities, learn how to create income and help your business scale and tune into this episode!
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Earn Income Through Sync Licensing And Help Your Business Grow With Michael Elsner
I am here with my friend, Michael Elsner. I can’t believe that I haven’t had you on the show yet. I had you on my summit but I was thinking, “I need to have him on the show,” especially because he’s got this awesome video series out that I will have already given you a link for. I want to make sure you guys know to grab that. We’re going to talk a little bit about his experience with licensing, working with students, what’s in the video series, and all that stuff. I know many of you in my audience know him because I’ve been telling you about him. Michael, if anyone here doesn’t know you, tell them how you got into licensing and the highlight reel of what you’ve done with licensing.
Thank you for having me on. This is going to be a lot of fun. I’m happy to be here. The short story is that I got into licensing by accident because I didn’t know that it existed. I grew up in upstate New York. I left New York in the late ‘90s. I moved to Nashville. I was pursuing the artist’s path. I played in a band in New York for about four years. We did a bunch of records and had some success there. It was time to move to the next thing. I moved to Nashville.
At that point, I was looking to advance my career and get a publishing deal. I’ve always been a band guy. I was looking to get into a group. I was always the main songwriter in my band but I’m not a front guy. I was looking to form a group based around a lot of the songs I was writing and get a publishing deal. I got turned down by everyone for about 4.5 years. I made it out to California in 2003. I thought, “I’ve tried it in Nashville and nothing’s happening in Nashville.” A lot of it too was that I wasn’t writing country music.
I went out to Los Angeles in 2003 with a pretty good collection of songs. I got there and I landed a gig on a TV show. I spent a lot of time in studios in my early twenties. I became comfortable in the studio. As a guitar player, I was focused on being a session player as well. I landed a gig on a TV show. Through that process of working with the composer, I met a music supervisor. I had no idea what they did but I learned quickly what they did.
What was the TV show you were on?
The first gig that I got was playing guitar on The Young and the Restless. That led to my first movie, which was Ella Enchanted with Anne Hathaway and whatnot. That opened up a lot of doors. I met these music supervisors and then I got my first break as far as the song goes when I was working on a show called Cold Case on CBS. I gave my CD to the supervisor for that show. Two weeks later, I had my first song placement. It was a song that I was proud of.
I took that particular song around Nashville and I played it for every publisher. I remember thinking, “If they turn me down from this song, I cannot do anything more in this town.” I did the rounds and I got turned down. That’s when I was like, “It’s time to try my hand somewhere else.” Wouldn’t you know it, the first song I got placed when I got out to Los Angeles was that song about I got turned down in Nashville and that was my first placement. It was a featured vocal placement at the end of one of the episodes. They played it for 2 minutes and 20 seconds, something like that. The payment that I received for it paid my rent for months. I thought, “What is this?” That led to a second placement and my world started changing. That’s how it happened.
I kept pursuing the artist thing. I was playing in a band all the way up until 2011 and did a bunch of records with that group. I always joke that we were the most successful failures. We did three records. Our songs were on so many different shows and films. At that point, we were meeting with record labels and A&R people starting around 2007, 2008 into 2009. If you remember what was going on during that time, everything was going down. Not only was the record label and the industry going down but then we were going into recession.
The labels were putting the freeze on hiring or assigning people and whatnot. It couldn’t have been the worst time to pursue that and have the traction that we were having with all the placements. We had some great meetings but still, nothing came of it. Yet, we were getting many placements. After a couple of years of working hard at that and then not seeing that come to fruition, I landed a bunch of gigs on some TV shows. I composed for two seasons of American Idol and that led to a bunch of other shows like The Sing-Off and a lot of these competition shows. That ultimately led to me starting to write film trailers.
At that point, I thought, “Why am I killing myself pursuing this artist thing?” It has always been depressing getting turned down but yet, everything that I was doing in the licensing world was gladly accepted. It was welcomed with open arms. I was getting such a great response. I was able to write so many different styles. Realistically, I’m accomplishing the goals that I wanted to accomplish musically by getting into licensing. My goal was to make a living as a musician and I thought that meant having a record deal, having videos, touring the world, and all the traditional music industry path-related aspects of that. What I realized was through licensing, I had so much more artistic freedom. I was working in an industry that valued what I was doing. I enjoyed that path more.
For a couple of years, it was this fight back and forth. I wanted that record deal but I was fighting and clawing my way in that side of the industry and getting a lot of rejection. In the licensing world, it was a great group of people to be around who enjoyed what I was able to deliver to them. They would call me, thank me, and then they would offer me other opportunities. It’s like a yin and yang, although that might not be the best analogy. I finally had to go, “This is stupid. Why am I fighting this other side? I need to accept the beauty of it.”
I’m curious, did the labels not care if you tell them, “I got this placement and all these songs.” People are valuing these songs and they’re getting played and all that but the labels, that wasn’t enough for them.
It was what opened up the doors to get into the meetings with them. They did care and that was a great thing for us. At the same point, in hindsight, we weren’t the most current sound for what the industry was looking at. You can go to MichaelElsner.com and you can listen to that particular group of albums. It was by a group that I was in called Chasing Saints. Keep in mind, this is the later mid-2000s. In 2006, 2008, 2010, that range, we were very much a Vertical Horizon meets Collective Soul meets Matchbox Twenty.
The late ‘90s, early 2000s. I love it, by the way. It’s my music.
I love it, too. Stylistically, that was not what was happening in the mainstream music world. That’s not what people were signing in 2008. In 2008, that’s the stuff that was getting heard. There are several groups I can give you examples of that are not big groups. If anyone’s familiar with groups like Vertical Horizon or Collective Soul and you pay attention to what you hear on TV shows and films, you hear their music a lot. They never became those big top 40 bands. They had 1 or 2 hits back in the ‘90s. Their music was great for sync, especially in the mid to late 2000, stylistically. That music works great for a lot of different areas within the sync world. It was not what was happening currently in the top 40 market.
At the same point, when I do have to take an honest assessment of what I was doing stylistically, it was working great for sync and it was not working great for what was happening in the top 40. As I look back now, based on my own experience, the songs that I write will never be cut by Justin Timberlake or Beyoncé because that’s not what I enjoy writing. It’s not what I listen to and what I’m going to naturally do.
I don’t want to kill myself writing 100 songs hoping that Justin Timberlake is going to finally record one. I want to write the music that I want to write that I enjoy spending time on. The nice thing about sync is that there’s a lot of opportunity for lots of different genres and styles of music. You only have to start listening to different TV shows and commercials that you’re in front of every day over the next week or so to get an idea of what’s working stylistically in the licensing world.
For me, I wanted to be a certain thing because I wanted to be popular but I don’t write like that. I had to write what I could write and be okay with, “This is me.” It may not be the popular thing right now. I built my little legion of fans. I didn’t even get into the licensing but there are two ways to go about it. You can build your little legion of fans and you can have your little corner of the industry there but that’s a lot of hard work. It’s worth it if you want to be an artist or you can go and pursue sync and find the people that value what you’re already creating.
For me, for a long time, I never viewed myself as an artist. I’m the guy who works well in a band environment. I’m good at standing off to the right or the left of the singer and letting them front the show. I’m also good on the back. Not to sound arrogant but my skillset would be on the songwriting side and the production side. When I was growing up, I thought, “I’m not going to be the front guy. I’m going to be the guy who’s putting it all together.”
I look at what I do in the sync world and I view what I do as very much an artist because I can come into my studio and I can write a big orchestral piece that’s going to get used on an international film. I never went to music school but that’s one set of skills that I sat around and developed long enough. They take a long time to write those pieces. They don’t happen quickly. I enjoy writing that because that’s a challenge.
I left Los Angeles and moved back to Nashville. I love having other artists come in and sit in my studio with me. Whether they’re pop artists, country artists, or whatever they’re pursuing, I love writing that stuff with them and then doing the production. I love writing rock-based or guitar-based instrumental tracks, which I get a lot of placements on those as well. Artistically, I get to cover a lot of ground that I never got to cover pursuing the artist path. When you’re pursuing the artist path, you have to pursue one thing. You have to be a little bit more homogenized so that your fans understand your brand.
That’s true. You can’t be as much of a genre-bender.
I see that a lot of times. People are asking me about licensing, “I do a lot of different styles of music.” I’m like, “That’s awesome. That’s even better for you.” Most composers or musicians do a wide variety of music. When we’re pursuing the artist path, we know that we have to brand ourselves in one thing. We choose one little narrow niche and we head down that path. In the licensing world, I’ve done everything from acapella to bluegrass. These aren’t little things. I did acapella on a show called The Sing-Off. I did bluegrass on a number shows. One of the ones I’ve done a lot for what would be Amish Mafia.
I’ve done big orchestral pieces for big trailers and a lot of stuff for a bunch of the Amazon movies and rock-oriented stuff, pop, and country-oriented stuff. Being able to cover a wide variety of styles, to me, is a lot of fun. That is one of the reasons why I also like being more on the back end. As a teenager, when I was moving forward in my career, even when I was playing in my band, I was always in my basement writing and recording different styles of music that I would never present to the band. I was always exploring other things. What’s nice is that the licensing path allows me to freely come into my studio and explore that and knowing that there’s always going to be an outlet for it.Some people are built a certain way, and it’s okay if you’re not like them. Click To Tweet
In your video series, you talk about different licensing paths that you can take. I know over the years, some people have said to me, “I’ve gone the route of trying to write to particular opportunities. I go on something like TAXI or something and I see there are these opportunities. I’m trying to write for those but I get frustrated because it’s not my style. I want people to like the music that I naturally write.” I know you’ve been successful with that. If you could talk a little bit about the different paths to licensing and how you guide artists into which path to take?
I’ll tell you a little story of how I converted along the way on how I was going to pursue things. Around 2009 or the beginning of 2010, I was offered a gig writing for season eleven of American Idol. I jumped on it because I was working with all these composers for the previous number of years and I was in that world of composing. I thought, “This would be a great opportunity. This would be my first TV show to write music for.” That worked out well. The company I was working for asked me to start writing for another show. Now, I was writing on two shows a day.
Within a month, I got asked to write for a third show. I was writing for three different TV shows at one time. It then became this crazy pursuit because I was working on American Idol where I was doing the Tension Beds that underscore whenever the contestant is standing in front of the judges and they make that awkward and long thing where they’re all looking at each other and the silence and all that stuff. I was doing the Tension Beds for that season.
I was writing what I call cinematic bluegrass for a show that only lasted for one season called Sarah Palin’s Alaska. I was doing acapella for my first season. I did it for a show called The Sing-Off, which is an acapella competition show like American Idol. I didn’t see that light of day for about three months. I was under so much stress. I developed a little health thing. It’s not a big deal but it’s called alopecia. It’s where you start losing hair. Some people get that when they get stressed.
I remember thinking, “This is the worst thing in the world. This is not why I picked up the guitar. This is not the path that I chose.” I was following the path of, “Michael, we need this and we need it by 5:00. Michael, we need this and we need to have it by 2:00.” It was a great experience. I don’t regret it. I would do it again, in hindsight, if I could go back and go, “It’s only going to be three months of hell but do it because you’re going to learn so much from it.” After that was done, I thought, “I will never do this again.” It got to be something that I didn’t enjoy. I have friends who are musicians who love that. They love the challenge. They love composing requests. Some people are built that way and I’m not.
Prior to that, I’d been having quite a bit of success with my songs anyway writing the music that I liked. I thought, “I’m going to go back to that. I’m going to scale it up to a whole new level.” At that point, it was getting into 2011 and I was changing my pursuit from the band pursuit, the record deal, to going, “Now I’m going to focus on licensing.” Licensing has always carried me through for the last number of years. It paid my bills and whatnot. “Now, I’m going to pursue it. I’m going to make this a career now.” When I did that, the game changed.
I then started learning a lot more about how to deliver music and that’s when I started developing my process, which I call The 4 Step Plan to Licensing Success. It’s a four-step process. That four-step process came about through many years of experimentation and whatnot. As far as when it comes to writing the music that you’re passionate about versus pursuing what they call briefs or requests, I’m no longer a fan of pursuing the briefs for a number of reasons.
The one thing you have to keep in mind, especially when you’re a part of some of these organizations and I’m not saying anything negative about any of them in general but, in my experience, the licensing world works quickly. If there’s a request that goes out, they have that need within the next 24 hours. When you’re getting these briefs from these other agencies, “We’re looking for this. Send it in by Thursday.” It’s the previous week’s Wednesday. To me, that is one of those things where I don’t personally put a lot of stock in that particular brief because it’s been my experience that request was already fulfilled before you probably even saw that brief. That’s my experience, the licensing world works quickly.
The other thing that I’ve learned and one of the things that you brought up is where I talked about the paths to placement. That’s one of the first things I talked about in the first video in this series. I talked about the four paths to placements. The first path to placement that a lot of musicians think about is direct to music supervisors, “I want to get my music in front of music supervisors.” That’s great. I understand that. That’s exactly how I started.
I’ve been teaching this and I’ve been speaking about licensing for well over a decade at conferences and whatnot. The thing that I’ve learned is that while a lot of musicians know what it is and they know how profitable it can be, the reality is that they don’t understand the business enough to fully represent their music to a music supervisor. They don’t understand that if a music supervisor is offering you a contract, a licensing deal and it’s 2:00 on a Thursday, they’re going to send you an email at 2:00 on a Thursday because they need it by 5:00 that Thursday. You need to be able to check your email quickly. You need to be able to download that contract, read it, and agree to it or renegotiate something and come to an agreement within the next 2 or 3 hours. If they don’t have that deal by 5:00, they’re going to go elsewhere.
You don’t have time to call up your music lawyer and ask them to look it over.
For me, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I managed my entire catalog. I administered my catalog fully until around 2011. Since 2011, I haven’t touched on administering my catalog. I work solely with a group of libraries. Various portions of my catalog are in various libraries. A lot of musicians don’t like to do this. They’re like, “I don’t want to give up the rights to my music.” You’re not giving up the rights to your music. You don’t understand publishing enough to understand how you’re not giving up the rights to your music. Just because you’re signing your music over to someone to administer your catalog for you, it doesn’t mean you’re giving up anything. At the same point, you have to understand a little bit of the business so that you can lead a team of people to market and promote your music catalog for you.
For those who are new to this, I’ll give you the best analogy that I’ve ever been able to come up with when it comes to music licensing. We all understand real estate. At this point, it’s safe to say that most of us understand how real estate works. Licensing and real estate are the same business model. The only difference is that when you’re selling a house, you leave and you don’t go back to it. That whole deal is closed. With licensing, when you are licensing your song, you still own it. It’s like renting out your house but you still get to live there and you never get to see the guests. As far as the actual business of it, it’s like real estate.
Most people, if you’re going to sell your house, you’re going to want to get the best deal you can for. How do you get the best deal? You bring in a team of individuals who know the market, who have their marketing and distribution channels in place, and those are called realtors. You bring them in and they are going to get a percentage of that house sale. At the same point, you get to continue with your daily life and not worry about selling your house. They’re going to do all the work for you. You can go to work and all you have to do is keep it clean so that if they come and maybe show it throughout the day, they show a clean house. Other than that, you move on with your life and all is well in the world. That’s exactly what happens with licensing.
When you have a licensing company, a publisher, or a music library working your music catalog for you, you get to continue on with your life, as usual, getting back in your studio, writing the music you want to write, and having a great time doing it. You then hand it off to a team and now they have to pay their bills. They have to have incentives. They’re going to take a percentage of the licensing fees but you’re not giving them your music. They don’t suddenly own your music. That’s a big thing that we have to understand as musicians.
Even taking it a step further back to understanding the basics of publishing and songwriting rights. When you write a song, you are always the songwriter for it and you are also automatically the publisher for it until you hand over the publishing or the administration rights to another company. At that point, you have to look at the contract and make sure that you agree to the terms. I will never give up the rights to my music but I will let a company market and promote my music for three years. They need to have that incentive.
Three years in the licensing world is a fair term because we have to look beyond America. We have publishers in all these other countries. Probably a little bit more than half of my income comes from international song royalties. You have to look at the market as a whole. When you have sub-publishers in other countries, they don’t suddenly ingest your music into their catalog. There’s a process. If I deliver my music to my publisher now, it probably will not be available for about another 2 to 3 months. It’s how long it takes to go through the system and get up into their system for the team to be familiar with the record for everything to be in place.
It would be the same thing with a record label. If you finish the record today, the record label takes a couple of months to get everything in place to release that record for everyone to get familiar with it, to understand what’s in there, and to get everything in place. Once that’s up in the American world with my American publisher, then it goes to all the sub-publishers in other countries. That could be a 6 to 9-month process. The reality is if we say, “I’m not going to sign anything longer than a year.” You’ve not given any of the people working your catalog, any of the team members, any incentive to work on your song. By the time it finally gets ingested into the final sub-publishers’ catalog, that deal is over and it’s going to come right back out.
A three-year deal is extremely fair. After three years, the rights revert back to you or you can continue on. You’re never giving something up. At the same point, this is licensing. They’re only representing your song for placements. You can put your music up on streaming, you can sell it, and you can do whatever you want. They are not a record label. They’re not taking on the record label responsibilities. It’s important to make that distinction when you’re licensing your music. The people who you’re working with in the licensing world are not working in the music industry. You don’t have to worry about all these things conflicting with each other. They’re not mutually exclusive. They each work separately from each other.
I always say that 50% of something is way better than 0% of nothing. Let’s say you created twenty songs and then you spend all of your time trying to get them in place. You’re not creating new music. As licensors, we need to keep creating. Feed the pipeline.
The thing with how I teach licensing is I have my process. Other people teach it. They share their process. Their processes are different from mine. I’m never going to be guilty of telling someone to do something that I haven’t done. For me, when I handed my catalog over to a publisher, I look at it as a team. This is a team event, by the way. I have a relationship with every single person at those companies. I have their numbers on my cell phone and their emails in my email. I have direct contact with them.
One of the worst things that you can do as a musician is to go to a website, sign up, log in, and suddenly be working with a company. You’re a number. You don’t even know who you’re contacting or who you’re in touch with over there. If you don’t have a personal connection with the people working your music, then you’re with the wrong company or with the wrong team. You’re not even with a team. You’re with a music collection agency that’s trying to collect music.
At the same point, we also have to think of the gatekeepers. Anyone can sign up for some of these different companies and upload their music, “I’m being represented by this company now.” Did they even listen to your music? Do they even know what that’s good for? Are they inputting the metadata for it? I guarantee you they’re not. Are they having you input the metadata? Most likely. Do you know what metadata is? Do you understand how editors and supervisors are searching for music right now and what the key terms that they’re using are? What’s popular? What’s trending? If you don’t know those answers, then you should not be doing this yourself. That’s the thing.
I hear from a lot of musicians who are like, “I tried licensing my music. I sent my music out and I never heard back from anyone.” You didn’t deliver music to them in any way that made their life easier or supported what they were working on currently. You just bombarded them and blasted them with your songs. You’re not going to hear back.The music licensing world works very quickly. Click To Tweet
There is a process. I’m not trying to sound harsh about this but I do want to make sure that your readers understand that we’re used to, as musicians, a certain pursuit. I call it the traditional music industry path. That path is a two-step process. We finish our song and our record, and now we’re going to send it out to A&R guys, publishers, radio stations, and maybe some magazines and get some reviews. It’s a two-step process. Finish the song and send it out. Package it up into a CD and send the CD out. That is not the way that the licensing world works.
In the licensing world, it’s a four-step process. Step one is to finish your song. Step four is to send it out. The two steps in between are what creates the value so that the editors who are sitting at an edit bay in a little cool vibed-out studio wherever they’re at, probably California or something like that, they’re watching a scene. They have a list from the director or the producer of what style of music they’re looking for. In this particular scene, these decisions have been made before these scenes were even filmed, to be honest with you. Music is the last step of the process.
This isn’t something that happens on a whim. There was a lot of thought put into every single thing that they’re looking for in every particular scene. There’s an editor who’s looking at a sheet of paper that says, “In this scene, we’re looking for music that’s happy, upbeat, and youthful but it’s got to have a female vocal and they want a glockenspiel in it. The director wants a glockenspiel, that’s fine, and a ukulele.”
The editor now is going to go into his search function and he’s going to type in glockenspiel, ukulele, female, and youthful. He’s going to type in these keywords. He’s going to search through hundreds of thousands of songs. If your song does not have this type of descriptive metadata attached to it, it will not show up in their search. You will never get your song licensed. That’s one of the key things that we don’t have to do in the traditional music pursuit. We don’t have to add metadata to our songs when we send them out to a radio station or to a magazine to get a review for our record.
The other thing too is we have to also understand the role of our editor. There’s dialogue happening in the scene. Maybe the editor needs some instrumental section underneath the dialogue. Once the dialogue ends, they need to then go into the vocal version. You hear this when you start listening to TV shows and commercials and stuff like that. You’re going to hear sections where there’s a lot of instrumental music and then it’s going to transition right into the big chorus.
How did that happen? That’s because there was an instrumental version and there was a full version or maybe there was an acoustic version and then there was a full version. The editor is going to line them up. Right at that moment, he’s going to do a crossfade between them. That’s what I call delivering valuable content. That’s step two of my process. That’s what makes your music extremely licensable. Most musicians don’t understand this. They don’t send out their music with metadata. They don’t send out their music with what I call valuable content with the alternate mixes that make the editors and the re-recording mixers’ jobs extremely easy.
Let’s take it a little step further here. Re-recording mixers are the final step of the process. They’re the ones who mix all the dialogue from the actors. The sound design is what would be the sound of the car driving down the street, the rustling of the leaves, the feet on a wood surface, the sounds of forks and spoons when they’re eating dinner, and stuff like that. That’s sound design. They’re going to record the actor’s audio. They’re going to mix the sound design and then they’re going to mix the music together. Most TV shows, commercials, and films are mixed in 5.1 surround. We mix audio in stereo.
The next question I have for these people who are like, “I tried to do this but I failed,” is, did you send them your stems? “No, I didn’t.” How do you expect someone who’s mixing something in 5.1 surround and suddenly throw in your stereo mix and get it to fit with the rest of the audio? You need to be able to deliver your stems to them. This is a whole other world. It’s simple. We have to understand that there’s a process to get us to the results that we want to get. That process is completely different than the traditional process that we’re used to when it comes to the traditional music path, which is to finish our song, have a stereo mix of it, and then send it out and expect people to figure out what to do with it. That’s not the way that the licensing world works.
Nowadays, people are recording so much from home and it is possible to do all of this. They may feel overwhelmed with like, “What the heck is a stem?” All that stuff. You cover that in your licensing course when you’re working with students.
I cover every aspect of it. Here’s the thing. Around 2000 and maybe 2009, I started speaking at some conferences out in LA. I was starting to have quite a bit of success and people were hearing about me. I would speak on licensing. I would go to these conferences and I’d listened to people talk about all this stuff. It’d be later in the day and people would start to fall asleep.
I remember, in one of the conferences I spoke at, I said, “Today you’ve learned how to wake up at 3:00 AM and you have that great idea on how you can use this program to record it and all this stuff. You can do it quickly and everything is easy now. After you went back to bed, you have that song, and you wake up at 9:00 AM, how do you deposit it into your bank account? I want to show you how to do that.” I’d see everyone’s heads pick up. I was like, “This is resonating.”
I would speak at more conferences and I’d see these people talk about licensing and it would annoy me because they would talk about what music licensing was. They wouldn’t talk about how to do it. It was just more of what and how profitable it is. I was always helping my friends get into this and sharing with them the processes that I’ve used and seeing them have success. When I created my course a couple of years ago, my focus was for it to be a one-and-done program. This is all you need. This shows you every process.
If you don’t even record your music, you can go through my course, you can sit with your engineer and your producer, you can pull up your laptop, and you can show them 2 or 3 videos in module three that will show them exactly what they need to burn for you. They can watch it and in 5 to 7 minutes, they’ll know exactly what they need to give you.
To give you a little bit more of a clear idea of how I approach everything, since I was a teenager, I’ve learned that if I create systems, processes, and I follow them, they will work. That’s what helped me become a better guitar player over time. I would map out my rehearsals and my practices. That’s how I was able to get faster and more depth at the instrument and probably why I was able to have a session career as a young twenty-year-old musician in Nashville and Los Angeles as well. Systems work.
When I started focusing on licensing, I didn’t want to put a lot of time into this. I didn’t have to sit and always figure this out every time I wrote a song. I implemented systems. This four-step process is a four-step system. Step one, which is to build your catalog, has multiple little steps in it but you start at step one and you go all the way down. When you’re done with that, you are automatically now in step two of the process and then that has a bunch of different processes. You have to create your alternate mixes. Here are the alternate mixes that generally get used a lot. Not every song can generate all those mixes but you can at least get 3 or 4 alternate mixes from every song.
The next step in step two is to create what I call your cut-down mixes. Those are your 30, 60, and 15-second mixes and those are what are used in commercials. It’s easy to do. It’s not hard but that’s still step two of the process. The third part of that step two is to create the stems. Creating a stem is simple. If you need to create a drum stem and you have your session in front of you, mute every instrument that’s not a drum and burn it to a stereo mix. You have nothing but your stereo drums exactly as they appear in your full mix.
If we need to do a guitar stem, you mute every instrument that’s not a guitar and you burn it down to a stereo mix. You can burn stems in 2 to 3 minutes and have all your stems done. The thing that’s interesting is some musicians get caught up thinking, “I don’t know if I can do stems.” You can. It takes 2 to 3 minutes once you learn how to do them. I show every step of that process in my course. It is a paint by numbers process.
Now once you’re done creating the alternate mixes, the cut-down mixes, and the stems, you’re automatically in step three of the process, which is metadata. In there, I have a whole spreadsheet. We cover every aspect of metadata for your editors, music supervisors, music libraries, PROs, Performing Rights Organizations. All that information needs to be captured because that’s what gets put into a cue sheet. Cue sheets are how you’re paid your royalties in the licensing world. You go through that spreadsheet per song, fill out each column, and now you have all the metadata that’s necessary. You move on to step four.
Once you’ve done it 1 or 2 times and you understand how it goes, it’s very simple. Licensing your music is not hard but you have to understand how to do it. The entire process that I’ve created has been successful for me because it’s value-based towards my end users. It’s all about providing value for the editors, music editors, music supervisors, and for the individuals, my team, at a music library or a publisher who’s administering the catalog. When you’re able to deliver value to them and make all of their jobs easy, you cannot not have success licensing your songs. It’s impossible.
Anytime that someone can make my life easier, I’m working with them again.
To me, I hate guessing. You might not realize it but I bet you that every single person reading, when you get in your car, you follow the same process. It might be slightly different from everyone else’s but you follow the same process unconsciously. For example, when I get in my car, I sit in my car, and the first thing I do is turn it on. Once my car is on, then I put the seatbelt on. If it’s hot, I might turn on the AC. I do it in this particular order.
We go through the process of pulling out of the parking space and moving. We do this process. That’s my system for driving a car. Yours might be slightly different but it works and it gets you where you need to go. We all have systems and we do these unconsciously. When it comes to licensing or anything in any career that we’re pursuing, if we can create systems that get us to that goal that doesn’t require a lot of thought, it requires thought putting it together. Once we have it down and then we follow the process, that’s how we have success.
As I’ve been talking with Bree before I came on for this interview, I went to Starbucks. I got myself a green tea latte. I’ve been to Starbucks all over the world from Shanghai to Germany to virtually every state in America and every green tea latte tastes the same virtually. In other countries, it might be a little different because they’re getting their matcha green tea somewhere but the process of creating that green tea latte from Starbucks is the same. That’s why I can go to different ones here in America and it will always taste the same because they have a system in place. It’s the same thing with McDonald’s or any fast food restaurant. Teenagers run these places pretty much but they all follow the same process. That’s how we have that consistency from location to location.
That’s why people buy franchises because they know it’s successful. They’re going to be given a system and they’re going to follow it and then they can start making money.Musicians don't understand the business enough to actually fully represent their music to a music supervisor. Click To Tweet
I didn’t even think about it but my licensing process is like a franchise.
The last thing I want to talk about is, why is this the right time to “buy” into such a franchise? This interview is during what I am calling the COVID era where, as musicians, we cannot perform live in person in general. Most of the time, we are doing a lot of live streaming but that doesn’t usually pay as well. There’s a lot of things that are frustrating as a musician. You’re talking about and you’re right that the content world for TV, movie, especially things that are put out by different content creators like Netflix Originals and stuff are going crazy right now. I would love for you to talk about why this is the absolute best time to get into licensing.
I’m in a fortunate position. A lot of my friends are successful and well-known musicians or they are also musicians who play for well-known musicians. Now living in Nashville, a lot of my friends play with huge country stars and they’re all completely out of work. They don’t know when they’re going back to work. It’s a shame. It’s funny because during the COVID thing is when more than any time in my life, I’ve had my friends from California, from Nashville, my music friends, professional musicians, reach out to me going, “Michael, I got to learn how to do this. I got to learn how to get my songs licensed.”
If anything, the COVID pandemic has been a wake-up call for a lot of musicians to get their back-end passive income stream in order. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but we’ve all seen how it only takes one little thing like this for everything to dry up. My friends are hurting because they don’t have a back-end income stream happening. Here’s the thing that’s also interesting and you can look this up, I have the stats. Disney+ started in November of 2019. We’re here in July of 2020. It’s been eight months. Disney+ already has over 15 million subscribers.
I grabbed the stats from the email that you sent out and put them in my email. They’re massive.
I even sent out an email where I sent out the list of all the shows that are in production and when their productions are starting again, as well as the list of the shows that have been picked up for another season and as well as the shows that have been canceled. When you go down that list, it’s pretty astronomical. It’s hundreds of shows. There’s so much production going on. Even the networks that they’re on, CBS, ABC, Amazon, Netflix, Disney+, or whatever. It shows you who’s doing these. It’s an astronomical amount of content that’s being produced.
People are craving entertainment. We even see that in the past years alone. I know the stat off the top of my head. In the last ten years or so, the number of scripted TV shows has increased by 174%. That’s not including movies, documentaries, and reality TV shows. These are scripted TV shows. The amount of content is exploding.
On top of that, we also have to look at where the licensing world is going in the future with things such as YouTube, people who are creating content from home who are using music. Those are called micro licenses, by the way. That’s a whole other conversation. It’s still in the process of sync licensing. If you’re watching a YouTube creator who decides that they want to use a Beyoncé song in the background of his or her video, that’s called a micro license. Like anything, that is a thing that’s coming to prominence here in the licensing world. It’s something to stay on top of. Also, it’s another reason to get into it.
The reason why this is a great time to get into licensing is that it creates a back-end revenue stream. We cannot, as musicians, focus on only collecting our income from doing shows because now we’ve seen how that can end in a heartbeat. At the same point, I’m getting paid for work that I’ve done over the years. I’m thankful for this but the COVID epidemic has not affected me in any way.
People are bingeing old shows. Friends is super popular with the younger generation. All these shows like The Office that have been around forever are now coming back and people are like, “I have time now to finally watch this show.”
People have nothing but time on their hands. This is a good time. Also, by the way, productions have started up again. I’m fortunate in my career that I’ve been able to work on a lot of shows and I have a lot of friends in the industry on social media, Instagram, and stuff like that. I’m seeing them posting on their Instagram stories. They’re back in production and on set. They’re wearing their masks and face shields and stuff like that. It shows that the productions have started up. In our world as musicians, it’s irrelevant to us wearing face masks or face shields because we get to work out of our home studios and we come into the process after the production. We come into the process during post-production.
The reason why I want to encourage musicians to start considering sync as a viable option to add to your income stream is that especially right now, it’s going to take a little bit of time to learn this. You’ve got to learn the process and you have to apply it to every song in your catalog. It’s not going to happen in two days. The productions that have started up now, in another month or two months, they’re going to start going into post-production and that’s where we come in.
We’re in the summer of 2020. Start focusing on licensing so that you can start perfectly positioning yourself and your music. All these shows that are now jumping back into production, they’ve got a backlog and people are craving entertainment. When all these things start jumping into post-production, you can be in the game. You can be a contender to get your songs placed. It’s not about blindly sending out your music to a supervisor and hoping that they figure out what to do with it. That is the reason why you will never hear from someone and that’s the problem. A lot of musicians are like, “I sent out my music and I never heard back.” “What did you do?” “I sent them an email with the link to my song.” “You’re not going to hear back. You didn’t deliver music to them in any way that they could use it.”
This is the time for you to get your crap in order and get your metadata settled for all the stuff you already have. Get your stems and follow Michael’s process. You will be ready and be able to get connected with libraries and publishers.
One thing that I would like to add to everyone reading is that it does sound good. This sounds exciting. Licensing is a fun world. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It does require work. You have to write good music. Your productions have to sound good. You can’t hand in demos with out-of-tune vocals and stuff like that. You’re playing in the big leagues. You’re playing with big productions that spend millions of dollars on their shows.
The nice thing about it though is that your music is valued and you are paid accordingly, which is a wonderful thing for us as musicians because there are few other outlets where we do get paid accordingly both on the upfront licensing fees and on the back end royalties. At the same point, the other thing that’s wonderful about licensing and is a part of my story is that, for a long time, I looked at my career as a failure. I went to Nashville and LA and I failed. I never got the record deal. In hindsight, I look at it and I’m thankful that I landed into the licensing world because it gives me an opportunity to do the stuff that I love. I still get to come into my studio and play the guitar and that’s what I love to do and write and record music.
The wonderful thing about it for you is if you did not have success on your path or you didn’t get to the point that you wanted to or maybe someone said something stupid like, “You’re too old. Your music is not top 40.” The great thing about licensing is that this world accepts you. This world doesn’t matter how old you are and what you look like. It doesn’t matter if a record label turned you down or anything like that. What matters is one very simple thing, it matters whether or not your music complements and enhances the story and the emotion that’s happening on screen. Nothing else matters. What you look like and what clothes you wear are completely irrelevant.
I’m glad you said that because we had an episode about not letting your age hold you back. The people that follow this show are of all ages, backgrounds, and genres. There is a place for you in licensing. That’s exciting.
I will give you one assignment. This is the first assignment that I give to anyone because a lot of people will ask, “Is my music good enough for licensing? Where does my music fit in?” Here’s the thing. Over the next couple of days when you get home from work or if you’re hanging out at the house in the afternoon and you’re sitting on the sofa watching some TV, I want to encourage you to give yourself a half-hour to an hour a day for a couple of days. It doesn’t matter what you watch, find some random show that you’ve never seen before for all I care. Turn on the TV, close your eyes, and listen to the music going on in the background.
When it gets to a commercial, don’t get up. Sit there and listen through the commercial because commercials will pay you a lot of money. Commercials are probably going to be some of your biggest moneymakers. Pay attention to the music that you’re hearing in a commercial. As you do this over the next couple of days, you will hear that the majority of the music that you hear on TV is not the music that you hear on the radio.
You’re going to hear a wide variety of music across multiple different styles, across even multiple different eras. You might watch a show that’s using a lot of throwback 1980s music. You might hear something that’s using stuff that’s jazz from the 1920s. All of that stuff is created by people like you and me, independent musicians writing the music that we love to write and it’s getting licensed for these shows. Start listening to the TV. Stop watching it. Give yourself some time every day to listen to it.
That’s your assignment. Not usually do you get assigned homework to listen to the TV. I hope you enjoy it. Check out some different shows you would never normally watch and then watch some of the ones that you love and don’t watch them, listen because it’s going to be super valuable. Your second assignment is to go sign up for Michael’s video series. It is good. I’ve watched it front to back several times. It’s helpful. He talks specifically about the four paths, metadata, and all those important things and what songs they’re looking for in licensing and everything. Go to Femusician.com/michael and get into that video series. Thank you so much, Michael. This has been awesome.
Thanks, Bree. I always love talking to you.
- Michael Elsner
- The 4 Step Plan to Licensing Success
- Episode – Age & Motherhood Shouldn’t Hold You Back From The Music Career You Desire with Brianna Ruelas
About Michael Elsner
A rock guitarist by trade, Michael Elsner’s career took a left turn after he got his first song licensed on CBS’s Cold Case in 2004. With over 2000 placements of original material, he has mastered the art of music licensing. Some of his credits include American Idol, The Voice, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, commercials for Audi, Mazda, Skechers, and Verizon, as well as the trailers for Disney’s Cinderella, Ocean’s 8, and a Superbowl ad for Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan Series.
He believes that every musician deserves to be heard, which is why Master Music Licensing was born. While most musicians know WHAT music licensing is, and how profitable it can be, most don’t know HOW to Successfully License Your Music. Michael aims to change that through his 4 Step Plan to Licensing Success.