With album sales in freefall, the music industry has had to adapt and diversify its revenue streams. Over the last few years, one of those streams has grown incredibly quickly: synchronization licensing. These are licences granted for the use of a work in a TV series, movie or advertising, an economic activity that directly involves songwriters and their natural allies, music editors. It also indirectly involves fans, who sometimes become hostile to musicians who “sell out” by letting their work be used to promote a product in advertisements.

“It’s a well-known fact in the industry: there’s a lot of money to be made with synchronization” of recorded music, says Patrick Curley, President and General Counsel at Third Side Music, a music publishing company founded in 2005 that manages a catalog of more than 40 000 works, many of them by Québec artists such as Malajube, Radio Radio, Lisa Leblanc, Champion and Groenland, to name but a few. (Curley is also a member of SOCAN’s Board of Directors.)


Nowadays, business is booming for this music publisher. With 15 employees, as well as an office in Los Angeles, Third Side Music is on the short list of go-to publishers who American audio-visual (advertising, TV, movie) producers ask for the perfect song. And thanks to its Californian eyes and ears, the company is always on top of new and upcoming productions and their music needs. From that point on, Third Side Music prepares lists for the music supervisors working on each of those productions.

And it works: Third Side Music “places” between 50 and 100 songs each month in all kinds of productions, mainly in the U.S., a market that makes up to 70% of its revenue. “Our profits are growing year after year,” as do the royalties paid to the artists, according to Curley, whose company has been surfing on a huge wave that’s carrying the whole industry.

In 2014, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) reported that, worldwide, the revenues derived from synchronization licences had increased by 8.4 percent, with certain markets benefitting even more than others. France, for example, saw an increase of 46.4 percent! Globally, revenues from synchronization licences represent 2 percent of music industry revenues.

“I really had to think it through before agreeing to one of my songs being used in an ad” – Patrice Michaud

Canada is not left behind in this growth trend. The most recent data published by SODRAC reveal that the royalties collected in 2013 for the synchronization of works in TV productions and video clips rose to $701,852, up from $579,856 in 2012.

One need only turn on the TV to find a plethora of examples of Québec artists who’ve benefitted from the audio-visual revenue stream. Lately, Radio Radio and Misteur Valaire have both seen their work heard in advertisements, the former for Telus and the latter, Vidéotron.

One of Patrick Watson’s songs – “The Great Escape” – was included in an episode of the popular TV series Grey’s Anatomy, as well as in an ad campaign for Tropicana juice.

As for singer-songwriter Patrice Michaud, he accomplished quite a feat: his song “Mécaniques générales” was used both by PatriceMichaud_CSPepsi and Honda in ad campaigns.

“The song was quite popular on the radio about a year ago, and that was important to me,” says the artist. “It was near the end of its life cycle when we got a request for use in an ad campaign.” Which, nowadays, has become an alternative to radio play, giving an incredible amount of exposure to a few lucky songs.

In the case of Patrice Michaud – who is his own publisher, but leaves the management of his catalogue to professionals – he got even luckier, since he never had to pitch his songs to ad producers. They came to him with the specific request to licence “Mécaniques générales.”

This is “quite rare” according to Patrick Curley. “Generally, it’s a publisher’s job to suggest works for specific audio-visual productions.” For example, it’s Third Side Music that “placed” Groenland’s song “Our Hearts Like Gold” in an ad for Apple’s latest iPad. The ad – directed by Martin Scorsese – ran during the 2015 Oscars ceremony in February, and focused on the video production and editing capacities of the device.

“We make sure we maintain a good relationship with the production agency that handles all of Apple’s advertising,” explains the publisher. “We had prepared a list of about 10 songs that could work with their concept, and they made the final choice. We’re definitely very proud of that one!”

“Placing” a song in an ad can be tricky, however. In 2006, Malajube granted a licence for their song “Ton plat favori” to the ad agency handling a campaign for defunct retail giant Zellers, and the musicians had to stave off a pretty intense backlash from their fans. In 2011, Karkwa had to deal with the same type of backlash when their song “Pyromanes” was used in an ad campaign by Coca-Cola.

“I really had to think it through before agreeing to one of my songs being used in an ad,” admits Michaud. “To me, that song is a pop love song, an earworm, therefore I see no contradiction in the fact that it is used in an ad. Ultimately, it had a definite impact on album and concert ticket sales. A lot of people became aware of that song because of those ads. The next question for me is ‘What will happen to that song now? Will people be tired of hearing it?’ In any case, one thing is sure: it can’t be used in another ad.”

Every project that film and television composers Amin Bhatia and Ari Posner take on presents an opportunity for them to learn from each other, and face new challenges that add to the set of tools the pair bring to their work, both collectively and individually.

“I love that, even after 15 years, we’re constantly trying to better ourselves and trying to surprise each other,” says Bhatia. “It’s very healthy to have a longtime partner you trust come up with things that challenge you. In fact, the best compliment we give to the other when we hear a piece of music,” he continues, as Posner laughs in the background, clearly knowing what’s coming: “The best compliment is, ‘I hate you.’ When one of us is working on something we’ll send it to the other and say, ‘Do you hate me?’ And they’ll respond by saying, ‘Congratulations. I hate you.’”

“I love that, even after 15 years, we’re constantly trying to better ourselves and trying to surprise each other.” – Amin Bhatia

Their latest project, the CBC Television series X Company, is no exception. The series follows a fictional group of operatives trained in a true-to-life, Ontario-based facility, Camp X, who undertake missions in Europe to undermine the Nazis during World War Two. While both Posner and Bhatia are familiar with broader details of the war, neither knew much about the existence of the Canadian training camp previously. “That aspect of it was really cool,” Bhatia says, “and when [the series creators] asked us to keep our schedules clear, we were like, ‘Yes, we’ll see what we can do.’ But we were jumping up and down with joy.”

X Company was created by Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, the same team that produced the internationally successful TV series Flashpoint , which Bhatia and Posner also scored, and for which they’re best known and celebrated. The duo received three SOCAN Film & TV Awards during its five-year run, as well as a Canadian Screen Award for Best Music in a Series. But they started collaborating frequently long before that, since meeting in 1999, on a variety of projects – including Disney’s animated series Get Ed, for which they share an Emmy nomination.

Over time, they’ve also worked on a wide array of projects individually. Posner’s credits include films like All the Wrong Reasons and My Awkward Sexual Adventure and television series such as 24 Hour Rental. And Bhatia’s credits range from albums like his 1987 debut, The Interstellar Suite and its follow up, Virtuality (2008), to features like John Woo’s Once a Thief and Iron Eagle II, and series including Kung Fu and Queer as Folk, among many others.

While the pair have no formal business arrangement, Bhatia says, “Now and then something comes along we both feel would be great to team up on, and we’re always thrilled to have an opportunity to work together.”

Given their existing relationship with Ellis and Morgenstern, X Company was a perfect opportunity to do so. “Mark and Stephanie said, ‘We couldn’t imagine doing this without you guys,” Posner says, but adds that it was essential to prove to everyone involved that X Company’s score would differ substantially from their work on Flashpoint. There’s always a possibility of being associated with your previous work so closely that potential clients can’t see past it. “But we have to be chameleons as composers, and it was great to have Mark and Stephanie rooting for us.”

Filmed in Hungary and produced by Temple Street Productions for CBC-TV, X Company debuted in February 2015 and will begin filming its second season in July 2015. But even before the series began shooting, Posner and Bhatia started creating music for the project. “That’s a new trend,” Bhatia explains. “It’s a way of helping a show find its signature sound. That’s generally more common in feature films than television.”

Ultimately, the result was a library of ideas and melodies that helped nail down a musical approach and overall sound for the show. “Stephanie and Mark were very articulate in helping us find a direction that worked for everybody,” Bhatia continues. “And with the help of our editors Lisa Grootenboer and Teresa Deluca, and the entire sound edit and mix team at Technicolor Toronto, we came up with musical and sonic ideas that changed how the show was edited and put together.”

Although X Company is a period piece, the score is quite modern, and intentionally so, Posner says. “Right from the get-go, they said, ‘It’s set in World War Two, but it has to feel like now’ – in order to make younger viewers see themselves in the characters. There are times when the score needs to be a bit more traditional to put you in that era, and sometimes we erred on going a little too modern, but that’s really how it found its legs.”

“And, in the end, we created a sound everybody’s happy with,” Bhatia adds.

Do you choose to live a life in music? Or does music choose you? Young composer Antoine Binette Mercier, 28, has never thought of doing anything else. “I’ve never questioned my career choice,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to write music for films, for as long as I can remember.” In spite of his young age, the composer has already written music for video games, advertising jingles, short film soundtracks (Ça prend des couilles by director Benoit Lach, among others) and documentary features like Le nez by Kim Nguyen and Take Down: The DNA of GSP by Peter Svatek and Kristian Manchester.

For his musical work on the GSP documentary about ultimate fighting champions, Binette Mercier received a Gémeaux award, a Canadian Screen Award nomination, and a SOCAN Foundation Young Audio-visual Composers prize. 

“If you want to survive in the business of composition for films and documentaries, you have to create your own sound.”

Binette Mercier started off creating music for video games. While he was studying classical music composition at Laval University, a teacher put him in contact with Long Tail, an independent gaming studio. The job was so demanding that he decided to drop his university studies. “I sometimes miss the academic world,” he says. “But at the time, I didn’t find it very practical. It was a gift to be able to do music for video games.”

After three years of working there, Long Tail was bought by Ubisoft and the contract ran out for Binette Mercier. He arrived in Montreal and linked up with Apollo Studios musical services, an association that guided his choice of a professional path. “I had an office on their premises as an independent worker,” he says. “And that enabled me to get my footing, and get involved with the people and projects in the field. I wouldn’t have won the contract for the GSP documentary without them.”

Binette Mercier understood what the GSP documentary producers wanted, because of their larger-than-life musical references in George St. Pierre’s image. Directors Peter Svatek and Kristian Manchester acknowledge Radiohead and Hans Zimmer as musical influences. “In our job, we’re always dealing with the demolover, directors who are obsessed with the music they’re using to make their film before adding an original score,” says Binette Mercier. “As composers, we must understand the feelings that are touched upon. To move beyond the references provided at the beginning of the project, and find the musical tools to express the three or four emotions within a scene. Peter and Kristian had used a Radiohead song in a school bullying scene at the school where George suffers in silence and then, one day, fights back to get some respect. I went for Claude Lamothe’s cello, which has the athlete’s strength and intensity but also his warmth. Everything worked out.”

Another decisive meeting was one with Julien Sagot. Binette Mercier has been friends with Karkwa’s percussionist since 2009, when he wrote the arrangements for the group’s symphonic concert performance, and the creative exchange is still going. Binette Mercier produced the second part of Sagot, Valse 333, which came out in late 2014. The exchange has set the composer off on an artistic quest. “Sagot has woken me up as an artist,” he says. “He’s instilled a feeling of urgency in me, to find my own sound, my own style, my own language. I’ve been looking for a musical identity ever since. And that’s all down to him.”

Binette Mercier has therefore started composing his own album of “cinematic” songs in his spare time, or when he feels inspired. “If you want to survive in the business of composition for films and documentaries, then you have to create your own sound,” he says. “It’s easy in this business to just do what people ask… Plus, our creative time is often cut short. It’s up to you as a composer to do the groundwork, to feed yourself with painting, creation, life.”

When you ask Binette Mercier what it takes in this business, he replies with no hesitation that resourcefulness, determination and communication are his key themes: “You have to be up to speed technically speaking, and able to compose with a computer. You have to be versatile and meet people. No man likes to sell himself, but when I had no more video game contracts, I bought myself a $300 ticket for the Montreal International Games Summit. And I came out with a $2,000 music contract.”

Nothing like making your own luck.