Writing TV Production Music

Writing TV Production Music

Erik Jacobsen is the Founder and President of Syncfree Music Library, a library that provides original digital music files for television broadcast productions. Erik got his start in the music business as a saxophone player and went to music school at the University of Miami, where he studied jazz and began to develop a passion for writing jazz and pop jazz tunes for other artists. After college, he moved to New York City, where he and his brother, a fellow musician started a production team called White Pelican Productions. Eventually, Erik met a producer who helped him get a job writing production music for soap operas including As the World Turns, Guiding Light and Another World. After years of working as a writer for various music libraries and feeling frustrated by some of the unfavorable deals that artists were having to cut with music libraries, Erik decided to start Syncfree Music Library, which offers a 50/50 ownership deal to songwriters, charges no sync fees and currently houses over 5,000 tracks. Syncfree has provided music for over 300 shows, including Jersey Shore, NYC Ink, Burn Notice and The Big Bang Theory on 50 stations and has over 200 contributors.

 

 

I recently talked to Erik about his own career as a production music writer, what led him to start Syncfree Music Library and what artists need to do in order to successfully partner up with music libraries.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Thanks for much for taking the time to chat, Erik. How did you get into the music business?

 

EJ:

 

I am a saxophone player by trade, and I went to music school at the University of Miami and started studying jazz. But I always loved to write. At while I was in school, I was also writing jazz and pop jazz tunes for other people. I just loved the whole idea of creating songs.

 

When I moved up to New York in the early ‘80s, I started to write for soap operas, which was a lot of fun. I loved writing tracks in all different styles, because of my background in jazz.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And how did you get hooked up with those gigs?

 

EJ:

 

My brother and I had a production team, which we called White Pelican Productions. We just started writing for other people, and our company name and our names got out there as producers. It wasn’t the most lucrative thing, because we did everything on spec. But we got the opportunity to work with a lot of great musicians in the New York City area. They were a lot of people who were up and coming that no one had heard of, and we just did production deals – everything we could to get our name out there. We advertised for studio time, and people would come in, which was how we would pay for our addiction. And then we would write we really wanted and submit it to every record company and then go to BMI and ASCAP artist showcases and connect with other artists there.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

So, you hustled and networked.

 

EJ:

 

We really, really hustled. We were constantly sending things out. Plus, we were holding down regular jobs at the same time, so we would have to write at night. I was landscaping at the time, so I would sit in the truck and write on the way to the next lawn. I would take days off from work just to come home, write and listen to the type of music I loved that I aspired to write.

 

Then, I started to get my hands on industry lead sheets to see who needed music. Now, being on the other side, I see better how things work. Back then, we would send out music to people who needed songs. But by the time it got to them, either they’d found songs or they had moved on to another project. Nothing ever panned out with that except for one time, when we actually got a call from a producer who was legitimately working with an artist named George Lamond, a big dance artist in the late ‘80s. We did some production tracks for him, and they loved it, but it just never went anywhere.

 

I remained friends with those producers, and that’s how I got into doing soap operas. My brother ended up getting a real job. He still does music, but he just got worn out by the process, after ten years of trying to make things happen. I don’t have to tell you that it’s a tough gig, and everyone struggles.

 

I’ve worked with a lot of people that just haven’t been able to handle it anymore and have just stopped after a couple years. But I was determined to do it, so I stuck with it and started writing for soap operas, which is really a job that suited me, because I was really attuned to popping out good-quality tracks. I knew what sounded good and about how to achieve the right balance, so I was able to knock out five or six tracks a day.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I would imagine that requires a very different skill set than someone who is a solo artist constantly working on their own original material.

 

EJ:

 

It does. The way I look at it is, if you’re a good musician, you know what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good, because this is music you’re hearing every day. Whatever type of music you listen to, you can usually determine what it needs to really sound great. You know certain types of music need a specific keyboard or bass sound, or that the drums need to sound a particular way. My brother and I were very good at doing sound alikes. People would come to us and say, “We need something that sounds like Bobby Brown.” And we could whip out Bobby Brown tracks very quickly. My brother was a phenomenal drum programmer. He is a great drummer, and that really translated onto the machine. He knew how to get the right sound.

 

Because we were great at doing sound alikes, when it came time to work on a music library, we could mimic whatever we needed to mimic. And I find that even today, people who are good at mimicking what’s popular get played so much more than those who write original songs. I think when people start writing original tunes, they get into a really narrow niche. And the odds of them finding that perfect meld between their song and a scene are going to be a lot lower than for someone who writes generic pop tracks that sound like someone like Lady Gaga, etc. … at least with the shows and the supervisors I deal with. There have been times where I’ll have a very specialized tune in the library for five years, and it will get used one time.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

How did you make the transition from writing soap operas into starting Syncfree Music Library?

 

EJ:

 

I was very successful at writing for soap operas. As always, it was a case of “It’s all about who you know.” The person I was working with just happened to know someone who was a music supervisor supervising several shows. We were doing four or five of the soap operas, because the songs would just make their way around to the different shows, like As the World Turns, Guiding Light, Another World.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It’s amazing how that one relationship can just change everything.

 

EJ:

 

Absolutely. And it’s that one relationship that can save you years and years and years of pounding the pavement; one person can turn everything around in one shot.

 

After a couple years of doing soap operas, this connection was lost,  because this person didn’t work at the network anymore. And it’s pretty common that supervisors come and go regularly. After that person left, everything collapsed. Overnight, there was just no more work. I was used to writing every day, and suddenly there was nothing going on. So, I had all these tunes and thought, “What can I do with these?” I had a lot of friends and connections who were great singers and musicians, and I started to wonder what I could do to continue.

 

The first thing I did was call a bunch of libraries to see if they’d be interested in my music. I was calling all the big libraries and sending them my work, but I wasn’t hearing anything. I’d call at all different times and try to figure out what times they’d be there. I wasn’t being a pain in the ass, but I was definitely persistent:  “Pleasantly pushy” is a great way to put it. I was always nice, never defensive or offensive, no matter what they said to me. I would listen to everything they told me and try to learn from it. But, I knew I wanted to do something in music and that I loved to write and hear my work on television.

 

I was getting a lot of negative feedback throughout this process. Everyone was saying, “It’s a terrible time to start a library, and you really shouldn’t start one.” In spite of this, I went ahead and started my own library. And I knew almost nothing about how to compete – what my edge would be and how I was going to get into the market. Some of the other big libraries had something like 20,000 CDs, and I had no idea how I was going to compete with that, even though I knew my music was just as good as theirs. Who would listen to me, when I owned about 150 tracks? When I would call people and try to sell them on my small catalog, they just wouldn’t want to talk to me. And the people I would meet with thought what I was doing was great and commercially viable. But there was never any follow-up and no one would sign me on.

 

I finally signed onto a small publishing company. I gave them 60 tunes, and nothing happened for years. I finally decided I’d had enough and said to myself, “I think I can go out and do a better job than these people.” So, I wrote them a letter to get out of the contract, like my contract stated I could. The problem was, I didn’t send it certified mail, so they said they never got it, even though they were just a couple towns over. And the deadline had passed for me to get out of the contract, so they told me they owned the tunes forever. The smart thing I was able to do with these people was retain 50% of my publishing. So, because I still owned 50% of my masters, I could still exploit the tracks at the same time this company was exploiting them.

 

But while I was in their studio just talking to them one time, I started talking to them about other libraries, because I realized I didn’t know a lot about what was out there. My contact rattled off five or six of them, and I wrote down their names. When I got home, I started calling those libraries and learned a lot just from talking to these other owners. It made me decide I was really going to start my own library.

 

This was about 1998, and I had no money to get a website going, so I programmed my own. It took a while to make it happen. And then I found this guy Paul Schmidt in St. Louis, who still runs my site. He charged me by the hour, took my files and was able to create a website. Then, I needed to find people to visit it.

 

So, I pounded the pavement for another few years while I was collecting tunes. I actually went onto ASCAP’s website and advertised for what I needed in their “Collaborator Corner.” People actually started sending me songs. I took great pride and care in handling their music. The deal I cut with them was 50/50. I didn’t want to have any hidden fees, any exclusivity in the shopping or any other stipulations. For one thing, if I were going to pay for exclusivity I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And I was a writer too, so I was coming from the pain of my own experience. I didn’t think it was right for me to own someone else’s songs, and I wanted to make it a really writer-friendly contract and experience. And I still have the same policies to this day.

 

I figured out a whole scenario where I wouldn’t have to cut checks personally. Everything would be cut from BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Because I have never charged any, I’ve never had to do much paperwork. There are no checks coming into my mailbox.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And from what I understand, that’s about re-titling. A lot of artists I talk to are really upset about that idea. What does re-titling really look like? And does it get confusing when somebody goes to look up a certain copyright?

 

EJ:

 

Re-titling can get confusing, but the artists I work with don’t have a problem with it. What I tell artists is, there are a couple ways you can look at your music. You can look at it as your babies – and all of our songs are our babies. But it is so difficult to write a song and actually make money on it. There are so many people that write songs that never make a dime on their music, let alone make a living off it. So, if you’re going to make it a policy to hold onto all your tunes – which was one of my mistakes in the early days – you’re never going to make any money.

 

The library business is totally different from the record business. It’s a game of numbers, and it’s not for everybody. So, the more great songs you can pump out and get placed, the more money you make. In my case, I have to re-title, because I’m not a big library. I can’t afford to buy everyone’s tunes out, and if I did buy them out and they didn’t get placed and just sat in my library, that would become a liability for me.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I’m sure you sometimes get some push back in initial conversations with writers.

 

EJ:

 

I actually get more push back from libraries that charge sync fees, saying I’m giving away music. I see their point; however, it’s a way that, as a smaller library, I can compete with some of the bigger ones. It gives us an edge when we make less money on the front end, but pick it up on the back end. And that model actually fits into the niche of unscripted television, which is what we’ve ended up getting into. When I started the library, Flavor Flav’s and Paris Hilton’s shows were on the cutting edge of unscripted television, which was just starting up. We happened to get in on the ground floor of reality TV. And MTV wouldn’t have looked at me if I charged sync fees. So because I didn’t charge those fees and I also had great music, everything clicked.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And what does Syncfree Music Library look like now? How does it work?

 

EJ:

 

Right now, I have over 5,000 tracks. I have 1,000 in the queue. We’ve provided music for over 300 shows and 50 stations and I have over 200 contributors. We provide original music to networks and supervisors without charging sync fees.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of libraries and don’t know how to approach them about their music. I know not every library will be right for every writer. But in general, how do you recommend writers and artists source library partners?

 

EJ:

 

You have to feel comfortable with the library. I answer every single email as fast as I can, even those that come from new writers. I think you have to feel comfortable with the people you’re working with. I’m small potatoes compared to a lot of other libraries. I still get results for my writers. I do have writers in the library that don’t get any plays, but I still believe in their music and always push it. It wouldn’t be in my library if I didn’t fully believe it had a niche somewhere. I listen to every track that comes through here a bunch of times to make sure it will fit my goals and my clients.

 

I also think if a writer is good and their music has popular appeal in any way, within any genre, they could go to any library and be successful. Again, there are only a few of my writers – about ten out of 200 I represent – that can make a living off it. And they can probably write for anybody. But you see their music consistently coming up in the detections – 10 or 15 times a day. And it’s the same people over and over, because they have the ear for writing . They know exactly how to create a specific sound that will draw in music supervisors. If you want to write for a production music library, you have to be as commercial as you can be. If you write folk music, you have to be as commercially-viable as you can. It’s great if you write original tunes, but it may not be the best thing for a library.

 

Watch the reality shows (and I tell everyone to do this). If you watch the shows, you’ll see the kind of music the libraries are taking and will be able to see what they might need. When I give people that approach me this advice, I end up getting a flood of music. Some of it’s good and some of it’s awful. But if your stuff is good, you’ll get heard. It’s the same thing with talent when you’re talking about original artists. If you’re talented, you won’t go undiscovered.

 

To learn more about Erik Jacobsen and the work he does with songwriters and music producers, visit the official Syncfree Music Library website and follow his company on Twitter.