Michael Perlmutter looking into the future
Michael Perlmutter looking into the future

Michael Perlmutter On The Art Of The Deal In Song Licensing

Money, songs, and music supervisors...

It’s no overstatement to say your favourite movie or TV show has been immeasurably enhanced by a shadowy figure toiling unseen in the background, navigating labyrinthine legal worlds so that you, dear viewer, can readily enjoy Blue Swede’s dazzling cover of ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ during Guardians of the Galaxy or Sia’s elegiac “Breathe Me” during the riveting final moments ofSix Feet Under.

And who are these noble creatures valiantly facing down rights management in the name of rock and roll (and jazz and blues and soul)?

Music supervisors, men, and women working tirelessly with publishers and other eggheads to place popular songs (sometimes covers of same) in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to Canuck-helmed documentaries.

Toronto’s boutique four-person Instinct Entertainment “is a music supervision, licensing and creative consultation company [placing] music in television, film, online, and more.”

You’ve almost certainly heard their work in marquee productions such as longstanding TV drama Degrassi, black comedy Mary Kills People, big-screen Richard Gere nail-biter Arbitrage and, recently and quite notably, The Handmaid's Tale, the Hulu network’s smash TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel.

“In this unbridled era of streaming, artists can still generate revenues from licensing their music,” Instinct’s website intones. “Join in on this important music and sync curriculum hosted by top music supervisors who have direct avenues to the engine rooms of the directors and producers who are the creators and curators of hundreds of productions both regionally and worldwide.”

Lofty claim and yet… true and worth investigating by any musician or composer seeking additional avenues for exposure and income.

Instinct’s Michael Perlmutter has forgotten more than most will ever know about the intricacies of attaching songs to productions. The amiable Perlmutter spoke with FYI about the fast-growing but rarely considered field of music supervision (more platforms mean more content means a need for more music…) and why a song in today’s little-known show can reap significant benefits – monetary and otherwise – years down the road.

How would you describe what you do for a living in an elevator pitch?

We create soundtracks for film and other media productions. I’d say 25 percent of our job is creative and the other 75 percent is client management and admin and negotiating and a plethora of stuff we call backstage stuff. You might say we sit in our cave and we do our thing.

How did you end up doing this for a living?

My entry was unorthodox. I was working at EMI Music Publishing (for 18 months from 1992 to 1993), then I was in entertainment advertising and I got a phone call from the Feldman Agency looking for a music supervisor in Toronto.

Sam Feldman had heard about me through (former EMI Music Publishing president) Michael McCarty. It was helpful that I had worked in music publishing where we had done a bit of music supervision. I loved the idea of being around the creative worlds of music and film and TV as well as creative people. I was very fortunate. I worked out of the Feldman office for eight years (1997-2005). I worked like crazy but I couldn’t wait to get up every morning. This job just took me by storm.

Since I started 20 years ago it’s become a growing niche. There’s now music supervisor guilds in various parts of the world; I am the president of the Canadian chapter of the Guild of Music Supervisors (The U.S. Guild of Music Supervisors was established about eight years ago with the Canadian chapter established in November 2016). Productions sometimes don’t think they need a music supervisor. But there is a matrix of things involved in being a supervisor; it’s not just finding the right song. There is a lot of business and negotiating and paperwork and understanding terms.

Are you typically involved in the production process right from the beginning?

Ideally yes. That was the case with The Handmaid’s Tale – we were involved before they started shooting. That often happens with TV. With film, it’s not uncommon for shooting to begin before a music supervisor is brought in. It’ll be something like, ‘OK we have two months and we need 15 songs. Go!’ We often are prioritized behind script, budget and so on. Whenever possible, we like to be a part of the team and we feel we can better serve the production by being involved from the start and having the big picture. 

To clarify: the music you are placing in film and television isn’t incidental music but featured tracks – originals or covers – correct?

Yes. The other part of the job is to sit with the producer and/or director and go through the vision of what they’re looking for. Hopefully, we will be a great sounding board while keeping producers and showrunners honest about the kind of music choices being made. That means not using a song that’s been used 1,000 times… unless that’s what the producer wants.

We also want to ensure we find the best fit for a scene whether that’s the most up-to-date music or all-'70s music or maybe '70s music that’s super-rare. And of course, these creative conversations must also include budgeting because songs cost money. A Madonna song is going be expensive and a Radiohead song is going to be hard to clear. These sound and vision conversations are essential early on in the process.

What kind of money are we talking with respect to songs by marquee artists?

A very popular song from a popular artist for use in TV might range from $60,000 to $90,000. A film could be as high as a couple of hundred thousand. I’m sure if you wanted a Beyoncé song for a film, you’d pay maybe $300,000. We have yet to have that challenge (laughs). Commercials always pay a little bit more although which territory it’s playing in and which medium and the flight (length) of the ad campaign all factor in. You could pay in excess of $300,000 for a year.

That said, if an artist is really attached to a show we’re working on, they’re willing to make deals to be part of it. We have done Degrassi for many years and licensed many world-renowned international artists for extraordinarily affordable fees because the artists love the show. Most of what we use are independent artists which is amazing, but the show’s limited production budget hasn’t necessarily hindered the use of major songs. A successful and socially relevant show like Degrassi makes those deals possible. It’s all in the negotiation.

A film like Guardians of the Galaxy obviously has a big budget but the motivation behind placing, say, a George Harrison song (‘My Sweet Lord’ features in GoTG Vol.2) might be less about money and more about reaching tens of millions of younger people who might be otherwise unfamiliar with that music.

Sometimes deals are cut where multiple artists all get the exact same fee, like most-favoured-nation agreements.

Maybe the budget is $1.4 million and so 10 artists get $140,000. Again, other factors like the type of film and the studio can influence these deals. Nothing is ever cut-and-dried. And these days, record labels and artists and managers want to promote their catalogue for synchronization across all kinds of mediums. They’re not going to give it away but everyone is a bit more amenable to getting their songs out there, to punching through. Because it’s hard to punch through these days.

The overall health of the music business has a measurable impact on your business, yes?

Absolutely. There’s a proliferation of music out there – it’s easier than ever to create. And the delivery of music to music supervisors like us is easy. We get emails to links all the time. There are all sorts of labels – majors, mini-majors, indies – signing artists all around. Plus, there are pitch agencies who represent labels and even catalogues.

They are also trying to get their music onto our sightlines. Add to that the Hulus and Amazons of the world creating all this content. Even the production happening in our country is unbelievable. You have these indie artists who will get their songs out there for $1,000 or $2,000 for license fees. And they see royalties on the backend when these shows or films are broadcast around the world. So, there’s more music and more content and we are happy to be the middlemen and middlewomen putting the two worlds together.

Do you find yourself competing more for business with other Canadian music supervision companies or with American firms?

It depends on the production and whether it’s a co-production. It’s certainly a bonus for us that the crews in Toronto are some of the best in the world; shooting here is very attractive [to foreigners] and not just because of tax incentives. Plus, there are loads of Canadian productions: Kim’s Convenience and Anne to name two.

Parting thoughts?

I love what I do and I am very fortunate to be able to do it.

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