License to Thrive
Alfrede Tirado

How independent artists--without labels or publishers-are making money and growing their careers with synch placements

Without the help of record or publishing deals, a growing number of independent artists are working under the radar to secure synch licensing and make a living through placements of their music. These musicians are competing for the same synch opportunities as their signed counterparts, but the non-contracted artists often have the advantage that comes with control of their own careers.

Marat Berenstein is founder of management company Hit Me Music, which has a roster of two independent acts, rapper Najee the 1 and producer DB2. Both have had their music used by various shows aired on ABC, MTV, VH1, ESPN and Netflix. Last month Najee the 1’s latest single, “El Uno,” produced by DB2, was placed in Apple’s newest TV ad for the iPhone 5. It took less than one week from the point of clearance to the commercial being confirmed and on the air. The quick turnaround occurred thanks to the fact that Najee the 1 owns his own publishing, his music is sample-free, and perhaps most crucial, he owns the masters to his work.

Not owning masters can make securing synchs tricky, which Chicago-based, pop-funk-leaning hip-hop artist Nikki Lynette learned the hard way when MTV unexpectedly asked to license her music. “It took me over a month to actually send them music because I went through some serious drama about the ownership of my masters that resulted in me having to write, produce and record all new music,” she says. MTV responded positively to the new material and sent her a licensing contract the next day. Lynette has since formed an agreement directly with Viacom and has had her work featured on the company’s various networks like VH1 and Logo.

Lynette has full ownership of her music and no ties to a label or publisher, yet she explains, “I am living proof that an artist can make a good living off of licensing. When you treat music licensing as part of your career instead of just a way to get bread, you get better opportunities.”

However, Los Angeles-based hip-hop artist Shane Eli points out that such independence has its downsides. “I’m independent and control my own publishing, so frankly I think a lot of places know they can squeeze a lower price out of me.” But even in a situation where a major-label artist could have commanded a higher price, Eli says his placements have ranged from a couple thousand dollars to $10,000.

This article was excerpted from the most recent issue of Billboard Magazine -- subscribe here