Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 23
Interviewee: Michael Elsner
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong, and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.
Jason: Welcome to the Successful Musicians Podcast. Today, I have Michael Elsner with me, and Michael has been doing sync licensing. He started out as guitarist but Michael has done over 2500 placements of his music in TV and film, which is incredible. He’s had his music placed in shows like Amazon’s Jack Ryan, Supernova, Narcos, Sneaky Pete. He’s done Super Bowl ads, the Mandalorian TV show, which is one of my favorites, Maleficent 2; and I could probably go on and on with all of these different things but what I’ve been most impressed with Michael is he has been teaching people how to. He hasn’t just kind of kept this to himself on how he’s done it. He’s teaching other people how to do the licensing, which is, I think, one of those characteristics of somebody who’s really giving and wants to help other people succeed. So, Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael: Thank you, Jason. I’m so excited to be here, and I’m looking forward to this.
Jason: As we were talking earlier, one of the things I’ve seen you doing is licensing and teaching others how to do it. Maybe just tell people how you ended up doing that. You started out as a guitarist I know, but kind of give that origin story. Where did this come from and how in the world did you end up getting all these shows synced?
Michael: Well I started my career in ’98 in Nashville. In the fall of 1998, I moved to Nashville. I grew up in upstate New York and I played in bands through the 90’s and I’d really worked hard at developing my songwriting. As a guitar player, I was super focused on being a technician when it comes to guitar. I really worked real hard developing the technical facility on the guitar.
In ’97, I moved to Florida and I attended a school in audio engineering for a year – a school called Full Sail University. That seems kind of weird because I was a guitar player, and I should have gone to a music school but I had spent a good portion of the mid 90s in a band and we had spent a lot of time in some studios making a couple of records. During my time making those records, while the other guys were hanging out in the lounge or in the hammock outside or whatever and inviting girls to the studio to be cool, I was sitting next to the engineer the whole time and I was completely fascinated by the entire process.
Jason: And this would have been roughly the time when everything was converting over to digital too, then, right?
Michael: Yeah. Those records we were using are called DA 88. So you had ADATs and DA 88. So basically, they were high eight tapes and ADATs were basically VHS Cassettes. So, it was digital but it was still in tape form and those units were eight tracks each. And so, you had to lock multiple units together. So that was my experience during that time. Everything was still analog going into the system, analog. So, it wasn’t Pro Tools yet and I was fascinated by that process and I really felt that around ’97, by the time that band came to an end, I kind of did have that option of do I go to a music school or do I go to a recording school? I felt that the longevity of building a long-term career, having the recording knowledge in my toolbox, would be more of an asset to me, especially since I knew that I was going to pursue some form of studio work professionally.
So, I went to Full Sail. I graduated there in November, actually November 6, 1998, and I moved to Nashville on November 7, 1998. Within a week or so, I was already hanging out in studios and connecting with some folks. I didn’t know anyone when I moved there but I was very comfortable with the studio environment, having grown up in Woodstock, New York, where there’s a bunch of recording studios in that area.
So back in the day when I was playing in this band, whenever we weren’t doing shows or whatnot, I was really networking with the engineers and producers locally. So I was spending a lot of time in the various studios in general. I was getting hired to play guitar on independent artist records that were being recorded there. So, I kind of became a bit of a guitar player, a bit of a big fish in a small pond, so to speak.
That’s why I chose to go to Full Sail. Graduated, of course; went to Nashville and started just getting on the phone and calling different producers and engineers who I was able to get their phone numbers from. I actually bought this little book that had a list of all these phone numbers of producers and engineers. I think at that time it was like $100 or $150 to buy that little book. I started calling folks and most of them didn’t answer, didn’t return my call, but a couple of them did and I started hanging out in studios.
By Christmas of 1998, so within about six weeks, I already worked on my first record that ended up selling a double platinum. That kind of got the ball rolling. As I went into 1999 and 2000, I was doing a lot of studio work. In 2000, I got my first production gig with an artist that came up in the summer of 2000 and from there, I was producing a number of artists, from 2000 to around 2003. I was balancing that of course, with touring and doing a lot of songwriting, doing a lot of sessions as well. I was really kind of balancing that out, trying to find where I would really fit in but as a songwriter, I was always getting turned down. I kept taking my songs to these different publishers every three months. I had the opportunity in the early 2000s, because I was spending so much time in studios. I had the opportunity to trade studio time or my time for studio time. So if I come in and play guitar on someone’s record, I would trade that for could I get a day of studio time; and of course, because I had the engineering skill set, I would be able to run the entire session on those days.
I had a collection of roughly 50 or so songs that were fully produced and ready to go. Of course a lot of my friends were also engineers so if I was mixing in one of the rooms, I’d pop into one of the other rooms and ask one of these engineers to give it a listen and maybe help me do some tweaks. By the time I got to the end of my time in Nashville, I had full record production ready songs. I just kept getting turned down by these publishers. I could never get to that next step.
So, in the summer of 2003, I decided to go out to Los Angeles and try my hand there. Within about six weeks, seven weeks, I landed a gig playing guitar on a daytime soap opera. So I was now working with a composer and I was watching the whole process go down and the biggest difference between Record World and Composing World was the speed.
In Record World, you could spend the entire day on a guitar track. In Composing World, when I was playing guitar for these composers, I basically had two takes and we had to move on because they would have to do 13 cues in a day. Actually, I really fell in love with that. I loved the fact that we weren’t over analyzing anything and whatnot.
As I was working with these composers, I ultimately got asked to play on set for a show called Cold Case. During one of the days that I was on set, the music supervisor was the individual who hired me. I just asked her one day and said “hey could I bring in some songs for you the next day?” And she said, yes. So, I brought in a CD of songs that I had done during my time in Nashville and I was really proud of them. I wasn’t expecting much to happen with it because I’d had so much rejection but I brought her the CD and within two weeks, I had a featured vocal placement on Cold Case. That was really the first time that one of my songs had done something outside of any band that I was in, of course, promoting the songs within the band. I got a very hefty sync fee that paid my rent for the next six months and I thought, this is amazing. This was so much easier than getting rejected like I had for four years in Nashville. The first time I sent my music out, I got a yes and not only that I got a featured vocal placement, and they paid me a lot of money. I should try doing this again. And I did.
Within the next month, I connected with another supervisor, I did the same thing and the same thing happened. That was basically my introduction into licensing where I was like “wow, this is quite simple” and it felt really good to get the yeses and it felt really good to get those paychecks. Then nine months later, when the royalties started coming in, I had the same experience. I just had that jaw on the floor experience where this one placement in this one show now on a royalty, was paying me over $2,000. This is incredible. Now I just have to do this, like, ten more times and I’ll have a good retirement..
So, that’s not really the way it works but that’s how it started and then that was never my goal though. I always looked at licensing as a way to pay my bills. My goal of course was to build my career as a guitar player. Ideally, I wanted to get into a band, get a record deal, get on MTV, get the songs on the radio. So, I pursued that very hard up until 2011. From 2004 to 2006, 2007, I was having so much success with my vocal songs that at the end of 2006, I built a band around the songs that were already getting placed.
So, when we did the first record, it’s a group called Chasing Saints. We did three records but when we did that first record, the first record was all songs that had already been placed. All we did was go back and replace the vocals with the singer for the band and that was the first record. Then when we did the second record, we had new material. So that was stuff that I was promoting at that point, 2007, 2008. Bands like The Fray were getting signed because they were getting their songs placed.
So we were looking at that as being the outlet for “hey, listen, we’ve got this great band”. Everyone’s, I think, a good-looking dude, everyone sings well, we perform really well and so we really methodically tried to put together the perfect package but we were always getting placements. Ironically, at that time, it couldn’t have been a worse time because in 2008, 2009, 2010, all the labels were downsizing. The economy was having a rough time but we were also seeing tremendous success because we kept getting more and more placements but yet, we just even with all the interviews we were having with A and R folks and at record labels and whatnot, we just kept getting the nose because at that time, the labels were downsizing
So, kept moving forward, of course, we were making good money. 2010, I got offered a gig composing for American Idol which I accepted and that led to a gig writing music for a show called The Sing Off, which was an acapella show, and that led to another gig writing music for another show. And so, from 2010 to 2011, I was consistently writing for at least two to three shows at a time.
And in 2011, coming out of the second season of American Idol that I did, which was Season 12, I actually kind of pivoted and started writing trailer music then that’s how my trailer music company started and we released our first trailer music album at the end of 2011. And we’ve continued to have tremendous success writing for trailers and ads since then. So, I fell into it, so to speak, but I didn’t take it seriously until really 2011. And 2011, 2012 was when I decided, okay, I’m going to focus on licensing. Ironically, that’s when I left Los Angeles. I decided to move back to Nashville just for a change of lifestyle. I moved back to Nashville and I immediately got a gig with a country artist. I spent the next seven years touring which was what I was looking to do anyway.
There I was, 36 years old finally going out and traveling and was able to travel the world and whatnot with a number of different artists for about seven years until COVID hit but it was a perfect balance because I would be gone, which was my goal. I wanted to travel, so I would be gone for a couple of days out of the week. Then I’d be in town for a couple of days through the week. It was during that time that I would just be building my catalog, constantly adding to the catalog and really focusing on licensing for half of the week and then the other half of the week kind of going out on vacation and playing guitar.
Jason: Got it. So overnight success, obviously, right?
Michael: Oh, yeah. Nice. 20 years.
Jason: That’s awesome. So, as you look back on that, if you could rewind the clock back and go talk to yourself when you’re in ’98 or 2000, what advice would you have for your younger self about this whole crazy world?
Michael: That is a great question. That’s a question that I ask people all the time too. It’s a tough one to unpack because I have two answers for that. The first answer is, if I had to go back in time and not know anything of what I did, what would I do differently? I don’t think I would do much differently if I could go back without the knowledge that I have now. If I could go back and actually sit with myself in 1997 and have a conversation with myself, knowing everything I know about where the industry is going to go and how things are going to line up, the advice that I would have given myself would be to bail on certain things a little earlier. I spent years and years and years and years going after that record deal and that publishing deal and I didn’t really fully walk away from that until 2011 when I was 36 years old. The advice I would give myself would be to bail on that and focus on what is actually going to move the ball forward.
When I did bail on that idea back in 2011, I did leave Los Angeles and I decided I’m going to move back to Nashville. I’m just going to have a different lifestyle. That’s obviously when some of the doors opened for me but I never walked down the road as far as the record label aspect. That’s something that when I chose to do that, that’s when literally, the doors exploded on both sides. They exploded and just opened up for me. They opened up for me on the licensing side because I handed over control over what had at that point been a fairly large catalog. I worked very diligently on it for ten years or so. It was a fairly large catalog. I handed the reins over to a bunch of different music libraries and the teams at those libraries to basically administer those catalogs. That’s when the placements literally exploded for me. So, there was that element.
There was also the element when I was able to release the grip, so to speak. Think of it like this. You have a monkey grip. I would explain it like this. If a monkey sticks its little hand inside this little box, okay, there’s a little tiny hole in that box. The monkey can stick his hand through that little hole to grab a banana. So, it’s got the banana inside the box. But the problem here is that to grab that banana, it has to open up its fist, right? So now the monkey’s captive. It can’t pull its fist, out of that little hole, right? But yet there’s this tree over a couple of trees that has all of these bananas, right? But the monkey will not let go of that banana. So, the monkey is essentially confined to this little box. Now, the monkey cannot actually go off and have all of the opportunities that are available for it three trees over until it actually releases its grip, is able to get its little fist tiny again and pull it through the hole.
Now, for me, I had a monkey grip on that record deal for a long time, and it wasn’t until I released that monkey grip that I was able to go off and experience all the things that ultimately that record deal that I had perceived, that record deal would offer me. It wasn’t until I was able to release that monkey grip on that one aspect of my career that I was actually able to go off and actually get all those things.
So that, to me, would probably be the biggest piece of advice that I would give the younger version of myself. Of course, that’s in hindsight, knowing the facts, right?
Jason: I find it, as I’m listening to your story, as you talked about being in the studio instead of being out chasing the girls or hanging out in the green room or whatever. You’re telling me that you hung out with the audio engineers and wanted to learn that stuff and I’m hearing this over and over again from you.
I’m in LA. And I was there playing guitar, but I went, and I talked to the music supervisor. So, it seems like you were willing to do kind of the one more thing that a lot of people would just shrug their shoulders and be like, if they’re not interested, they don’t want to talk to me. But it sounds to me like there’s been several of these moments where you’ve been willing to let go of that banana and at least go see if the other tree might be.
Michael: Well, I have a philosophy that over time, I’ve realized kind of has been unique to me and it just kind of came out of the fact that I did not know any other way to do this. But my philosophy is what I call starting at the top.
So, when I moved to Nashville, some people moved to Nashville and they’re like, oh, I just want to get an internship and start at the bottom and work my way up. That was never my goal. When I moved to Nashville, I contacted the guys who did the records that I owned, guys who owned Grammys, guys who have sold tens and tens and tens of millions of records. I contacted them. Not all of them got back to me, but I did contact them, and a lot of them became friends of mine. And those were the people who gave me those opportunities. When I went out to LA, it was the same thing. There were two particular individuals who inspired me, and realized I need to go out to LA because I want to work with folks like this, like these guys. Well, sure enough, I ended up touring internationally with one of them and working on a record with another one because I made it a point to go, I’m going to contact those people.
Just the other day I was speaking at an event where just an additional side has nothing to do with the high-level producers and creators, but when I was moving from one PRO to another, I was having some trouble dealing with the local reps who just weren’t getting back to me. So, I contacted the president of the company, based out of New York, which is kind of random, right? But I contacted the president of this particular company. I got him on the phone, and about 15 minutes later, I got a phone call from the vice president of the company, who’s the guy who ended up doing the whole process for me. Ironically, as I was explaining this last week, during this presentation, that same week I had an event with one of my properties that I have regarding something that’s going on with it. And so, I’ve been dealing with the property management company, and I keep getting this run around of, well, we got to talk to so and so, and we have to get the approval from so and so and this and that.
So, I just contacted the president of the management company. He had a three-minute conversation with him. He approved the whole thing, and everything got squared away. And so, it comes down to starting at the top. Instead of going through these little systems that take forever to work up the ranks, so to speak, you just go to the top and you contact the person who’s in charge, like the producer or the composer, and if you can’t work with them. In my space, the sync licensing space, I go directly to the music supervisors. I go directly to the music editors, even. In fact, I spend more time working with music editors than I do music supervisors because everyone else is trying to contact supervisors. So again, I go to the music editors. Music editors are often the people who temp in the music before the supervisor gets to it anyway, right?
So again, let’s start at the top. Let’s go to the people who are at the top of that chain, and if we can’t go directly to them, then we go to their assistants and we go to the coordinators who are directly below them. So that’s the way that I’ve approached everything in my career. But I think that’s definitely one of the reasons why I had the same opportunities present themselves in a very short amount of time, having moved to two different music cities and not known anyone or had any connections with anyone in those music cities when I moved there, right. I just started connecting with the people who I wanted to work with. And not everyone said yes, not everyone got back to me. But you only need one or two people to get back to you to start the ball rolling.
Jason: My guess is as you were contacting those people; you probably had some sort of value you were willing to bring or add instead of just asking for free handouts and being annoying, right?
Michael: So along with starting at the top, I have another phrase which is “Be of service, not a narcissist.” Anytime you’re reaching out to someone, you need to put in the research. You have to find out what they’re doing, and you need to find what your unique selling proposition, so to speak, would be, right?
I did go out and hang out at studios. I would just go and hang out there, and I’d be a fly on the wall, and I’d be quiet. And one time we took a break and I said to the engineer, “Do you need me to do anything for you? Do you need any help with anything? He said it, his response to me, I think he said, was sarcastic. He goes, yeah, you could go mow my lawn, like something like that, as a joke. And I said, okay. And I remember after I said OKAY, his eyes got wide, and I had this weird facial expression. He goes, Are you serious? And I said, yeah, I’ll go mow your lawn. And he called his wife, and he told his wife, hey, open the garage door. This kid’s going to come by and mow the lawn.
I got directions to his house. I went over there, mowed his lawn. I went back to the studio and hung out when I was done. And I ended up working with that guy as his assistant for about a year and a half after that.
So, again, it’s kind of like if you can find out how you can help someone get that door open, because it’s kind of like this. It’s a lot easier to go up to someone who’s walking down, like, Broadway on a Friday night and go up to them and hand them $100 and say, hey, hope you have a great night, be blessed, right? You’re showing up and you’re giving them some value. Not everyone’s going to accept it. Some people are like, oh, I don’t need your money. They think you have an agenda, right? But others will be shocked. Wow, thank you so much. Right? It’s so much easier to do that, to show up and present value than it is to go up to someone and say, hey, listen, I’m here with my buddies. We totally want to get drunk tonight, but we don’t have enough money. Could I have $100?
No one’s going to give you the money. Of course. That’d be insane for someone to do that. But yet I feel like a lot of musicians, they come to the table, and they just ask for other people who they don’t know to do something for them, as opposed to coming to the table with value and an offer of how you can help someone else. When you go to the table and you show up to the table with that value, and you offer to serve someone else that value, the doors swing wide open for you, and they swing wide open very quickly.
Jason: Great advice. So, kind of shifting gears a little bit. So, for these younger musicians, or people are thinking, man, I’d love to get my music out in the film and TV, but it’s just too hard. There are too many musicians, there’s no opportunities, I don’t know where to start. What kind of advice do you give to that person ? Let’s say they’ve recorded a couple of tracks and they’ve put a few things on iTunes and Spotify, and that’s their dream. Given today, the music has changed significantly since 1998 when you were using the VHS style tracks. Is this the best time or the worst time, or is it flooded with too many people? What’s your thoughts on that?
Michael: It’s a great question. Well, so first off, your actions follow your beliefs. So, if you believe that there’s not an opportunity for you, then of course the actions that you take are going to naturally follow that belief system. Right? So that’s with anything. I encourage anyone to actually go look at the numbers. Anytime that I teach licensing, I always start with the numbers. Any time I give a masterclass or any or anything like that, I will show the numbers as they currently are.
And so, for example, as the numbers as they currently are of this recording, the PMA, Production Music Association just did a study that was released two months ago, and the study showed that of all the music that’s on TV, 47% is commissioned music, that means that it was written by a composer; 46% is production music, that means it’s written by independent musicians, pre written and recorded by independent musicians. That’s the world that I live in. So, 47% commissioned from composers, 46% production music from independent musicians, 7%, there’s only 7% that remains there. If you add those two numbers up equals 93, so you have 7% left.
7% is commercial music. The commercial music means, that’s music that’s commercially released basically through the record label machine. So, Justin Timberlakes, Beyonce, et cetera, the Taylor Swifts, that music is only used 7% of the time. 47% is commissioned through a composer. So, if you’re not a composer, then you’re out of that, but 46%, the remaining 46%, that’s six and a half times more than 7%. That means that for independent musicians, the music from independent musicians is used six and a half times more than the music of major artists. All right, so that’s actually very encouraging.
Let’s continue down the next step. Let’s look at how many TV shows are out in production. Well, in 2019, going into 2020, we just crossed over the 500-mark, but yet if we go back to 2009, there were 211 shows. So. Basically, in that ten-year period, we did a little bit more than doubling, right? 211 up to right around 500 is a little bit more than doubling. But we look at what happened through the pandemic. When people were home, what were they doing? They weren’t sitting home and twiddling their fingers, twiddling their thumbs. They were consuming content. And if we look at what’s happened just in the, you know, in the television world, in the film world over the last two and a half, three years, there’s been this explosion of productions. Right?
So where are we at right now? Well, as of June or July of 2022, we crossed over the 1000 mark of TV shows that are in development or, or active or that are in production or active development. So, we’ve seen dumplings in the last two and a half years. So now when you look at these numbers, that’s amazing because that tells us that as the number of subscriptions for these various services has increased, the amount of content has had to increase. We didn’t go through the growth, by the way, of subscribers for these, but you can do the research on your own. It’s been astronomical as well, as you can imagine.
With the number of productions that are out there, there’s been this massive growth for content and all of that content needs music. And of all the music that’s on it, 46% is supplied by independent musicians. Now you tell me, as a listener, do you think that there’s a lot of independence and a lot of opportunity for you as an independent musician?
If you believe the answer is yes, then you’re going to take the actions that will allow you to position yourself as one of the suppliers for that music. If you still believe, for whatever reason, that the answer is no, then at that point no one can help you because you will never take the actions that are going to get you there.
Now, if you’re of the group that believes that there’s an opportunity, which, by the way, there is, when you look at the amount of music that’s used per episode, I mean, there are some episodes that use between 81 to a hundred pieces of music and again, do that math. That works tremendously in your favor. The independent musicians currently out there contributing music to the licensing world, they are the lifeblood of the licensing industry. But if you’re just sending your music out there and expecting a music supervisor to figure out what to do with it, you’re never going to hear anything back. Because you have to keep in mind that when you’re licensing your songs, you’re no longer working in the music industry. So, the music industry marketing approach that you’ve learned does not apply to the TV industry, the film industry, the video game industry, the film trailer industry, the ads and the promos industries for commercials, those individuals who license music.
For these industries, they absorb and utilize music in an entirely different way. Taking that to another step. When we send out our music in the music industry, we’re the final cog in that wheel. We’re delivering the final product and we’re leaving up to those end users to decide whether or not they like it or not. If a magazine writer likes the record that we sent them, then they’re going to write a positive review. If they don’t, they’re going to write a negative review. Same is true with all the other end users from club owners to managers to publishers, record labels, et cetera. We’re giving them a final product and we’re letting them decide whether or not they like it. And the decision is yes or no, I like it, or I don’t.
In the sync licensing space, that’s not the case. In the sync licensing space, what we’re doing is we’re delivering music to say, for example, either a music library or a sync agent. If they’re going to rep, or if you have direct contact with a supervisor, great, then you’re going to send it to a supervisor. Ideally, what’s happening is these end users are searching for music based on specific criteria that’s dictated by the scene and they’re looking for the perfect complement for the action or the emotion that’s taking place in the scene.
How do they find that song? Through something called metadata. Metadata is basically the descriptive words that have to be added to the audio file so that someone can search through catalogs of hundreds of thousands of songs for the ideal fit. Now, ideally you want your metadata to be thorough so that you end up in the final ten or twelve songs in that search and then of course, your song is going to be auditioned. If it’s a good fit, then it goes to the next step where it actually has to get licensed.
And now in order to license a song for a placement, two rights have to be cleared: the master right and the sync rights. The master rights are owned and controlled by whoever owns the master recording. The sync rights are owned and controlled by whomever owns and controls the publishing. So as the owner of that intellectual property, it’s your responsibility to have all of that stuff laid out and taken care of, so that when, say, a supervisor has to clear the rights, they actually know that their rights are clearable. At the same point you can’t be using music and samples that you don’t actually control. And this is a big problem when it comes to sync.
When people don’t understand these intellectual property rights, they may grab a piece of music, maybe they’re going to grab the drum beat off of Michael Jackson’s Beat It and they’re going to build their track around it. Well, you don’t have the right to do that and if the record label who owns those master rights by the way, were to discover this and your song were to have been placed, then the person who’s actually on the line for that is actually the music supervisor. So music supervisors don’t like to take risks with folks who don’t know how the actual intellectual property is handled. So you have to understand this aspect of it. It’s very, very important.
Now, at the same point, it’s very simple but this is one of the reasons why my music supervisors right now prefer not to work with independent musicians because they want to work through libraries or sync agents where the responsibility is now on them.
Jason: They’ve cleared all of the rights for that.
Jason: Being an independent musician, it’s overwhelming to think, oh, it’s not a hard thing but you got to know what you’re doing.
Michael: You have to know everything. Yeah.
Jason: One of my friends, Robina and Scott. Robina has been a musician. She saw the problem that was out there. I know they’ve launched what’s track stage software that’s specifically for making those metatags and then organizing them. I know with what they’ve created, what I’ve seen, it’s incredible you can track all of that on there.
Michael: They actually are in my sync licensing program. I think when they went through the Metadata Module, where we dive deep into the Metadata Module, I think that’s what inspired them.
Jason: I know it is because I talked to her about it and you are what made them jump off the cliff and say, okay, we’re going to fix this problem, because it’s a major problem. The beauty of it is it’s something that can be simplified for sure at this point.
Michael: Right. The thing with metadata is this is why people come to me all the time for so many years. Like, man, I’ve been trying to license my songs for years, and I send my stuff out, I don’t hear anything back. Did you add any metadata? What’s that? Well, of course, when that’s the response, what’s that? Or, no, of course you’re not going to hear anything back. That’s like me coming to you and saying Jason, man, I’m so thirsty. I’ve been walking through the desert. I haven’t had water in three days. I’m so thirsty. Can I have some water? And you look at me going, hey, here’s a newspaper, right? It’s absurd, right? I need water and you’re giving me a newspaper. That’s kind of like supervisors in their role, they want to work with independent musicians but they’re saying to the musicians, I need the metadata. I need to make sure everything is clearable. I need to be able to do my job appropriately. And someone said, hey, here’s a newspaper.
Jason: By the way, use this newspaper and you lose your job if you use it. Right?
Michael: Yeah. So that’s why I’ve really gotten to the point where there are people who will say I’m just going to figure this out on my own. I’m just going to figure out licensing on my own. I hear that all the time and for a number of years I would just say, okay, that’s fine but what I’ve learned as I’ve connected with all the people in the online space who teach sync licensing – myself, Chris SD, Kathy Heller, Jodie Friedman, etc. There’s a couple of commonalities here. Number one, we’re all roughly the same age. Number two, we all lived in Los Angeles in the mid two thousand as the sync licensing industry was changing. Now, I’m not going to get into the details of how this happened but there was a big switch, of course, with the advent of Pro Tools and home recording and this and that to where in the early two thousand. It became very accessible to those who are very serious about having high quality recordings to be able to get their music on TV. We all happened to be in LA at that time.
Now, at the same time, sync licensing did not become a big thing until around 2008, 2009, when all the record labels were now trying to make up for the revenue that they had lost through the peer-to-peer networks and file sharing of the early days.
So we had about a three-to-four-year period for a lot of us where we happened to be in Los Angeles at the right time where not only could we get our songs placed, but we actually made friends with a lot of supervisors. I can’t tell you how many times I would go to a supervisor’s office because we go out and have lunch and I’d have to wait 15 or 20 minutes while they were clearing something quickly. I would sit and I would watch what they would do. So I didn’t figure this out on my own. Neither did Jody. Neither did Chris. Neither did Kathy. None of us did.
We all figured it out sitting in the room with supervisors and library reps. Now those folks are no longer accessible to independent musicians because they’re getting bombarded by all the labels and the publishers who are taking them out to really nice steak dinners and lunches and all that kind of stuff and wining and dining them, of course.
How do independent musicians learn how to do this? Well, you learn the same way we did. The only difference is that you’re learning now from folks who have systems in place who can show you exactly what goes on. When it comes to, well, I’m just going to send my music out to a supervisor because I downloaded some list off of Google. My answer to that is good luck because if you’re not delivering the assets to them in a way that they can then hand it off to the music editor because once the rights are cleared and that’s all the supervisor does, they clear the rights, they clear the intellectual property rights, the very first thing they do then is they hand it off to the music editor.
Now, the music editor needs to have various assets to be able to edit the track into the scene. Let’s assume that they have all the assets and they’re able to edit it very nicely. The next thing that they do is they hand it to the next person in line who is called a re-recording mixer. The re-recording mixer takes all the music, all the dialogue, all the sound design, all the audio elements in the show or in the film, and they mix it in the surround field. Well, we mix music in stereo.
Now, like Netflix and Disney Plus and Apple Plus and all that, they now provide for what’s called Dolby Atmos, which is basically surround, like 7.1, but with four ceiling speakers. So, it’s really 7.1 or 7.2.4. And that’s like surround sound on steroids, right? But we still mix in stereo.
So, if you’re not able to handle various assets to these end users, where they can actually utilize your music in the surround field again, you’re just going to be left behind.
So there is a process and it’s a very simple process but again, if you’re just doing the same thing that you did, sending your music out to the music industry clientele, you will never get where you want to go in the sync licensing space because you’re working in a different industry.
Remember, as I said before, when you’re sitting at your songs in the music industry world, you are the final cog in the wheel. You’ve determined, hey, this is the final mix of the song. This is the mastering of it. This is the artwork for the CD. This is how it is. This is the final product. When you’re licensing your song, you’re like four steps removed from the final product because you’re then handing it to a supervisor or a library rep who’s working with the supervisor.
Supervisor is working hand in hand with the director or the producer or the showrunner. Once everything’s been approved, then it goes to the music editor, then it goes to the re-recording mixer. So not only are you not the final cog in the wheel, but various assets have to be delivered as well.
Now none of this is difficult at all and the way that I explain it is it’s like backing your car out of a garage. It is a binary approach. You either license your music or you don’t. You either back your car out of the garage or you don’t. If you’re midway in the middle, the door is going to close on you, you’re going to get some damage, you’re not going to be happy. Right.
There are not multiple steps to backing your car out of the garage. It’s either in the garage or it’s out of the garage. Your song is either licensed or it’s not licensed. And once you learn how to back your car out of the garage, which most of us who have driver’s licenses probably learned how to do when we were 16, we can all confidently say that we probably have not become better at backing the car out of the garage in the last 30 years of driving, right?
We probably followed the exact same process that we learned 30 years ago, and we backed the car out of the garage successfully every day. Right? Now, the goal here is when it comes to licensing, is to back your car out of the garage multiple times a day because you want to generate consistent placements. You’re going to go much further in your career if you’re generating five or six placements a week than if you’re just generating one placement a month. Just like you’re going to go and travel more in your life. And if you back your car in and out of the garage five or nine times a day, then if you back your car in and out of the garage once a month, assuming you’re not taking like a yearlong cross-country trip, and it’s the same thing, we learn a very defined process to back the car out of the garage. We learned a very defined process to license our songs. Now the goal is to do this on a continuous basis.
Jason: Awesome. There was a masterclass you could probably sell as a college course right there and you just did it in less than five minutes. It was amazing.
So, Michael, the name of the podcast is The Successful Musicians Podcast. So, I’m curious, what do you feel like is your definition of success for you personally in the music business?
Michael: That’s a great question. I don’t feel like you’re either successful or you’re not successful. I feel like we go through phases. I feel like we have phases where we are successful and then I feel like we have these transitional phases where we’re going from one thing to another. I don’t think success is based on money either. I know a lot of people who make a lot of money and they’re absolutely miserable. I wouldn’t consider them to be successful. I know people who do fine. We would not consider them rich by any means. They’re extremely happy. I would consider them extremely successful.
So, to me, what I define as success for myself really could be wrapped up in the term lifestyle design. We all have different goals of how we want to live our life. And if we are able to design our life and our work life, our family life, our personal life, et cetera, in a way to where we’re able to accomplish that, we were able to get it to look like the vision for how we want to live our life, which is the term called lifestyle design. If you’re able to accomplish that, then you’re successful. That’s how I define it. I don’t think you can put a monetary value on it. I don’t think you can even put a, oh, he’s had 2500 placements, he’s successful. That doesn’t mean anything, right? What is a lifestyle? Are they happy? Are they doing what they want to do? That kind of thing. That to me is success. And everyone’s going to define it their own way.
For me, I look at three levels. I look at personal freedom, creative freedom and financial freedom, right? As far as designing that life, I don’t want to be bound by a boss and so that to me is personal freedom. I don’t want to have to write music within certain boundaries. I want to be able to come into my studio and if I’m in the mood to write a heavy metal track one day, I want to be able to write it, knowing that I’m going to have an outlet for it that could potentially bring in income for you years to come. If I want to go into my studio another day and write a Ukulele piece, I want freedom to do that. If I want to come into my studio and write an orchestral piece for three or four days, I want the freedom to do that. So, to me, that’s the creative freedom – designing the lifestyle and ultimately the business to have that as a key component to it, to me is successful.
On top of that, that all leads into the financial freedom aspect of it, where the creative freedom and the personal freedom should be designed in such a way, at least for me, to where it provides for financial freedom, meaning that I don’t have to stress about where my next paycheck is coming from.
So those three keys, personal freedom, financial freedom and creative freedom, for me, I’ve designed them in such a way that it allows me to lead a life that I don’t stress over things. I don’t stress over having to get up and be at work at a certain time or someone yelling at me. And to me that’s a success. Now, that took a long time. That didn’t happen overnight by any means. I definitely said yes to many things over the years that I didn’t enjoy. But they all ultimately led to that because I knew that they were going to lead to that type of freedom.
I feel like we reach those at various points too, that all does not come together at one moment. That to me, is how I define success. But I think it’s important that we actually do sit back, and we really do consider and heavily consider what we want our life to look like. And that’s going to look different at various stages of our life. It’s going to look different for you at 25 than it will at 35, then it will at 45 and 55, etc. As you know, we move on in our life and have families and have various other responsibilities.
Jason: What I hear from you is that it didn’t come all at once. I love that you said you did several things for a long time you maybe didn’t love doing. So having that, being happy and finding freedom didn’t happen right out of high school or right out of college. You definitely had to work to get there. And my guess is you enjoyed the journey all the way along the way, and it was fulfilling for you.
Michael: There are moments. Again, like I was saying earlier, you asked me if I could go back. There are some things that I feel like I stayed with a little longer than I should. I didn’t know that at the time. Hindsight is always 2020, right? There are definitely some things that I stuck with longer but that were frustrating because I wasn’t getting the result. But at the same point when I do look back, for example, like four and a half years that I spent in Nashville prior to moving to LA, I’m glad I spent that time there because it allowed me to build a catalog that had value, which opened up doors for me in the licensing space.
When I got to Los Angeles, it was really my college education when it came to being a guitar player. When I got to LA and I started working on films and on TV shows for composers, I had to work very quickly. So, the years that I spent in Nashville as a guitar player in the studio world, it definitely gave me the confidence to be able to work quickly. I would not have been able to have that had I moved directly from New York up over to Los Angeles.
There were times that there was education and I did invest heavily in both time and financially, of course, into continuing education that wasn’t necessarily college based, but that was based around just being around other individuals, working with engineers and working with producers and studying them. And then of course, taking various online programs that would expand my knowledge and reading a lot of books that would expand my knowledge beyond just music, but more towards business, more towards personal development, mindset, shifts, all that stuff. It was a journey. I would not go back and change. There are very few things that I would go back to, and I would change. The only thing I would change was literally not spending as much time holding with that monkey grip.
Jason: Got it. Last question for you. I know we’ve gone way over what we may be planning on talking about. If you look back, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? It doesn’t have to be music. Best piece of advice you can remember that somebody gave you over the years?
Michael: One of the best pieces of advice that I got is from a book called The Go Giver, and that is that 49:22 your value is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them. No matter what we’re doing, whether it’s music, whether it’s a barista at a coffee shop or whatever, we’re serving others. Even on the music side, if we’re serving composers, we can think our direct contact would be a supervisor or a music library. But the reality is that we’re ultimately serving the directors and the producers and the production companies. We’re helping them tell their story through music.
So when we look at it from that perspective, we’re always serving someone else. 49:58 When you’re able to serve people at a high level, they’re going to come back to you. And that to me, that’s why my little phrase “Be a service, not a narcissist.” Music is a bit of a narcissistic pursuit, right but when we approach it from the mindset of a service, even as a session guitar player, there have been times where I’ve played something on a track, I’m like, that was awesome. I was really impressed and then immediately the composer or the producers like, hey, can you do that again? But can you change this? The narcissist makes you go, no, that was perfect. Why would I want to change that? That was my artistic statement. Blah, blah, blah, blah. But the service goes, yeah, let’s do it again.
Jason: Being humble and willing to take that feedback. Michael, I know you’ve got your courses, and if anybody wants to go and learn more about you, where should they go? And I know you’ve got a free eBook that’s out there that you’re just giving away as well.
Michael: Yeah. I have a free eBook that I call “The Four-Step Plan to Licensing Success.” If licensing is an avenue that you want to take your music down, I show you literally all four steps and it’s a cyclical process. So, every song goes through the four steps. When you get to the end of step four, you go back to step one for the next song, and it’s just a repeating cycle. Every single song has to go through these four steps in order to serve our end users in the licensing space. So, I call it the four-step plan to licensing success. You can get it at Mastermusiclicensing.Com/getstarted and its Master Music Licensing, because when you apply these four steps, you become a Master of Music licensing.
Jason: Awesome. Well, Michael, thanks so much today that we’ll put the link down in the show notes for anybody that’s listening and wants to go click and go check that out. But I appreciate you spending so much time with us today and sharing so much wisdom. So, thanks so much.
Michael: Awesome. Thank you, Jason.
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Michael Elsner is a guitarist/songwriter/producer with over 2500 TV and Film placements to his name.
His songs have been placed in over 180 individual television series, accounting for over 850 individual episodes. Some of these include American Idol, The Voice, Good Morning America, Impractical Jokers, EXTRA, The Sing-Off, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Tracks he’s written have been used in international commercials for Audi, Mazda, Skechers and Verizon, as well as trailers for Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Maleficent 2, Disney’s Cinderella, Ocean’s 8, Susperia, Narcos, Sneaky Pete, as well as a Super Bowl Ad for Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan series.
What You’ll Learn
In this episode, Michael shared his secret on how independent musicians world-wide can connect with the taste-makers in the sync licensing industry, and generate sync placements on a consistent basis with a hefty sync fee.
He also wrapped up his idea of success with personal freedom, creative freedom and financial freedom.
He also had this philosophy of “starting at the top” which was definitely one of the reasons why he had many opportunities in a very short amount of time.
Things We Discussed
“The 4 Step Plan to Licensing Success.” – a free ebook that can be downloaded
Metadata – basically the descriptive words that have to be added to the audio file so that someone can search through catalogs of hundreds of thousands of songs for the ideal fit. Now, ideally you want your metadata to be thorough so that you end up in the final ten or twelve songs in that search and then of course, your song is going to be auditioned. If it’s a good fit, then it goes to the next step where it actually has to get licensed.
Connect with Michael Elsner
Connect with Jason Tonioli