Tech Focus: Sports Music

By Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group

Part 1 — Increasing Demand Keeps Up With Burgeoning Supply

Music has been overflowing its digital banks lately as laptops replace recording studios, creating a torrent of content, much of it routed through a growing number of production-music libraries, which commission and/or represent what has become millions of songs, snippets, loops, and beats. And broadcast sports have become a major-league client of many of them.

“Sports is like news: it’s always there, and it always needs new music,” says Ron Mendelsohn, president/CEO. Megatrax, a Los Angeles music library that counts Fox Sports, the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Broncos, and the Calgary Flames among its clients.

The landscape for production music has long been dominated by a few major names, such as FirstCom and Killer Tracks, as well as portals for some of the music industry’s biggest publishers, such as Warner/Chappell. Licensing ranges from one-off uses to blanket licenses for thousands of titles. Fees are similarly wide ranging, with licenses for network use costing thousands of dollars.

However, as the amount of music increases and the number outlets for it grows, especially with newly formed regional and collegiate networks, the landscape is evolving quickly. Newer companies — such as Epidemic Sound, Rumblefish, and AudioBlocks — offer access to vast numbers of tracks created by thousands of composers, some of whom might be little more than hobbyists on laptops, for blanket fees of less then $100 a year for unlimited access.

These new kids on the block are attracting the interest of investors. For instance, Epidemic Sound has raised $5 million in Series A funding from venture-capital firm Creandum, which previously funded Spotify, Wrapp, and other startups. Investors are also beginning to court the fringes of the sports universe. Proclaims Rumblefish’s portal, “We make it easy for a recording artist to get their music in front of a skateboarding teenager who’s making a GoPro video halfway across the world and make art together.”

“Oh, yeah, that influence is being felt,” says Randy Wachtler, CEO of Warner/Chappell Production Music in Nashville. He acknowledges that the proliferation of low-cost production libraries has driven pricing down across the board and may be filling a need among budget-challenged regional sports networks. But, he adds, major leagues and networks tend to stay with the bigger music providers at least for administrative reasons: “When you put music on network television, you really want to make sure the T’s are properly crossed, for legal purposes, and the bigger companies tend to do that better.”

Big Guns and Services
The legacy libraries counter the upstarts with custom-music creation, assurances of provenance and copyrights, and granular curation and search services, as well as an awareness of trends in music. The Seattle Mariners last year asked New York City-based music service Video Helper to choose music tracks for retiring Yankees captain Derek Jeter’s last appearance at Safeco Field. Matt Fondanarosa, a consultant at Video Helper, says the team was looking for “upbeat, inspirational indie rock,” à la Mumford & Sons, to score the farewell video on the stadium’s screen.

“We’ve seen that kind of pop music showing up more and more for sports,” he says. “Networks seem to be moving to more of an indie type of sound, and we’re able to get them exactly the right sound and no issues with clearances.”

Says Mendelsohn, “There’s a lot of music out there, but, when you whittle it down to the [libraries] that can go across all genres, all with a high level of quality and without any legal risks, the numbers are very few.”

Production libraries are reaching beyond their usual composer/producer sources to keep their products as varied and fresh as possible. For instance, APM Music, which has had exclusive relationships in place with NFL Films and the NFL Network and has extended that recently to individual teams in the league, also has a partnership with indie-music online management platform ReverbNation, which provides access to thousands of songs from both up-and-coming and established music artists. That, says Matthew Gutknecht, key account executive at APM Music, is important because of the shift in emphasis to lyrics rather than the instrumental music typical for sports.

“That’s part of the influence that pop music is having on sports,” he says. “If our clients can get the same level of authenticity from that kind of artist, it’s a huge utility to them from a cost perspective.”

Sports has always been a fan of genre-mashing, but the hybrid of orchestral and guitar rock has been giving way in recent years to one of orchestral and electronica. “The influence of [electronic dance music] is definitely growing,” notes Mendelsohn, adding that extreme sports often use unadulterated EDM tracks.

Wachtler sees a turn toward pop, an ongoing trend reflected in the Super Bowl halftime shows, which have been transitioning from classic-rock artists like the Rolling Stones, Tom Perry, The Who, and Bruce Springsteen to pop divas Madonna, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé. However, he interprets that as a network strategy to make sports shows more attractive to female viewers: “We’re seeing searches trending towards pop songs with lyrics, as opposed to the generic up-tempo rock tracks with big drums. They’re looking for a softer, more positive sound overall.”

One very recent trend is reflected in the company’s rerecording of SEC-member theme songs for the SEC Network, using traditional marching-band instrumentation; previous years’ versions of those songs had been leaning progressively deeper into guitar-based rock styles. Wachtler says he’s unsure what’s prompting the SEC Network’s turn to a more traditional sound.

In fact, the conventional team sports have historically tended to stay within relatively narrow musical genres: football prefers brassy triumphal tracks; baseball likes guitars, crunchy or jangly; basketball remains loyal to urban rap and hip-hop; NASCAR still likes the rock/orchestral hybrids. Sports now moving into the mainstream reflect their niche demographics, like UFC and its use of heavy rock. Says Mendelsohn, “It always goes back to the target demo.”

Part 2 — Music Libraries

The choices in library and production music and cues are greater than ever. Here is a look at some of the leading ones.

APM Music
The joint venture of EMI Music Publishing and Universal Music Publishing supplies a comprehensive collection of music for sports entertainment broadcasters (ESPN, Turner Sports, HBO Sports, NFL Network), professional franchises (Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, Giants, Steelers, Knicks, Grizzlies, Devils), and collegiate groups (Alabama, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Georgia). It offers more than 450,000 tracks in every genre by award-winning composers, top session players, and indie trendsetters. A mainstay in sports culture with songs like the Monday Night Football theme and catalogs like the NFL Films Music Library and MLB Music Library, it provides an online database, its Music Director Service, and its boutique custom division, Resonate Music Group. CLICK HERE for sports music.

5 Alarm Music
The independent production-music library for film, television, radio offers the expertise of award-winning composers and music supervisors. One of the largest independent music libraries, 5 Alarm Music hosts more than 80 music libraries and 285 independent artists, with a broad selection of cost-effective music solutions. Its sports roster includes the Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers, the New Orleans Saints, and University of Notre Dame. CLICK HERE for sports reel.

FirstCom Music
Providing production music for broadcast, film, multimedia, and corporate productions, FirstCom offers a diverse selection of high-quality, easy-to-license music that reflects today’s charts. The comprehensive music collection comprises more than 30 catalogs and more than 190,000 titles from creative writers, producers, and musicians, including Grammy and Academy Award winners. The company’s range music services includes music supervision, custom searches, and original scoring. CLICK HERE for sports-related link.

Killer Tracks
Offering more than 146,000 tracks from 35 global libraries with original works from award-winning composers and producers, Killer Tracks provides complimentary music-supervision services, as well as music access online and on interactive hard drive. Sports clients include ESPN, Fox Sports, NFL Network, and NBA Entertainment. Click for action and Intensity sports, for dramatic sports, for baseball.

With more than 90,000 tracks, including alternate and underscore versions and complete edits, Megatrax features a new Website with an ease-of-use interface and improved search system. A portable-hard-drive update system provides faster music updates and accurate metadata. Client services include full-time tech support and music supervisors with live chat, as well as online Spanish and Portuguese translations. Payment options include radio and TV barter deals. Custom scoring is available via the company’s Aircast Custom Music division. CLICK HERE for sports-related link.

Sound Ideas
More than 500 distinct royalty-free collections are available for broadcast, postproduction, and multimedia facilities with unlimited lifetime synchronization rights with every purchase, on formats including DVD ROM, hard drive and CD. All .wav files are provided with full keyword metadata for search applications. Click for sports music, for sports sound effects. Sister company Westar Music also features unlimited licensing.

Warner/Chappell Production Music
Uniting independents Non-Stop Music, 615 Music, Groove Addicts, CPM, and others, Warner/Chappell’s brands have composed works for TV shows, networks, and companies including ESPN, British Open Royal & Ancient, World Cup South Africa, Major League Baseball, Cox Communications, and Speed Channel. CLICK HERE for sports reel.

The independent boutique production-music library provides exclusive music for sports entertainment broadcasters (NFL Films, ESPN, ABC Sports, Turner, MSG, NFL Network, HBO, Showtime) and professional franchises (Seahawks, Mariners, and Lions) as well as colleges (Virginia Commonwealth University). With more than 6,500 multi-genre tracks designed to drive video, each cut is constructed with edit points built in. VideoHelper offers a specialized breed of production music to sports programming, one intended to think like a producer and make editing easy. Its new Website/search engine is designed to make it easy to find and license music for sports needs.

Part 3 — The Network Perspective

The increasingly numerous music libraries spend time looking for ways to appeal to sports broadcasters, which have become a substantial part of their market as the number of dedicated sports channels increases. For their part, broadcasters want to stay abreast of music trends and, at the same time, evoke the spirit behind both their sports and their network brands.

NBC Sports, according to Director of Sound Design Karl Malone, tends toward the traditional when it comes to pairing music with sports events, starting with the Olympics’ regal “Buglers Dream.” The lush Kentucky Derby theme, written and scored by film composer David Arkenstone, has become almost as closely associated with the event as Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“The Olympics and the Kentucky Derby are events with long histories, and I believe the strings, woodwind, and brass relate that very well,” says Malone. Noting that the traditional touches also resonate with NBC’s own image as the nation’s longest-established network broadcaster, he adds, “I think our signature music pieces keep that connection.”

However, when it comes to more muscular sports, NBC can rock with the best of them, with Formula One, NASCAR, and other motorsports firmly in the epic-rock category: the U2-esque track from Mládec called “Russian Circles,” for example, scores the network’s NASCAR promos. But it’s back to classical themes for Stanley Cup Finals spots.

“All in all, I believe we keep tempo with the stature of the event and respect the demographic of our intended audience,” Malone says. (However, a sense of humor came through in the promo for the Premier League’s relegation process on NBCSN.)

On the Edge
ESPN tries to balance three key constituencies when making music choices, synergizing the expectations of the viewer, the esthetic vision of a show’s producers, and the narrative needs of a show or a sport, says Coordinating Director of Music Claude Mitchell, who oversees a department staff of nine between Bristol, CT, and Los Angeles. “Sometimes those three are not completely in line,” he adds, underscoring the challenge of making music work at a time when generational changes make music genres more diffuse.

Mitchell, who has been with ESPN for 15 years, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that music also has to reflect the network’s overall brand, emphasizing that each show is treated as a separate entity. But ESPN has acquired a cachet of edginess, thanks in no small part to its X Games franchise, which brought artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers to sports music. And the network continues to work proactively with new artists, as in the curated pairing of R&B duo Lion Babe with the NFL draft this month, which took place in Chicago, the home base of the group, which performed “Move On Up,” a signature song of Windy City native Curtis Mayfield.

At the same time, ESPN has one of the longest-running sports tracks in the SportsCenter theme, written by John Colby, ESPN’s Grammy- and Emmy-winning music director from 1984 to1992. Colby, along with WWE counterpart James Alan “Jim” Johnston, was staff music composer and producer, a rarity at a sports network or department. His long presence, composing and producing music for hundreds of ESPN events and television programs during the network’s early years, helped deeply connect music to the brand.

But it’s arguable that the Hank Williams Jr. controversy in 2011, when the outspoken country-music singer’s criticism of President Obama compelled the network to drop his long-running theme for Monday Night Football, made the synergy of music and broadcast sports a cultural meme. Since then, a slew of top music artists have competed to snare themes for primetime sports shows, including, Big & Rich, Jack White, and the current NFL Sunday Night diva, Carrie Underwood.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, Hank had the field to himself,” Mitchell explains, “but, today, when radio has a shrinking palette of music and the film and television side has become more important to building a story around an artist, the connection to sports and network television is more sought after.”

Although the fundamentals, like crunchy guitars and martial drumbeats, will likely remain in place for sports music for years to come, changing national demographics will inevitably influence future music choices. It’s why who will play the following year’s Super Bowl halftime show has become a show in itself, one that starts the day after the previous show is done.

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