Sun Records' Deep Catalog Gets a Spotlight in New Sync Licensing Deal

Vintage Collection on Musicbed
Courtesy Photo

Vintage Collection on Musicbed

Wanting a larger share of the sync market, Sun is offering 1,100 tracks from its historic catalog of American music.

Sun Records has one of the most revered catalogs in American music. Now its songs, from the legendary Johnny Cash to forgotten musicians recorded decades ago in Memphis, are going to reach a new generation of fans. Needing a new way to develop its catalog, Sun has partnered with Musicbed to offer 1,100 of its tracks through the Fort Worth-based online licensing platform.

Many of the names need no introduction. Johnny Cash. Carl Perkins. Roy Orbison. Jerry Lee Lewis. Founded in 1952 by Sam Phillips, who famously sold Elvis Presley's contract to RCA Victor Records, the label captured early rock and roll, blues, rockabilly and other genres from Phillips' Memphis recording studio.

Sun Records vp Collin Brace calls the partnership "a big leap forward" in the labels efforts to reach licensees. While Musicbed does not have an exclusive on the 1,100 Sun tracks, it is the only place the tracks can be licensed online. The partnership also represents five-year-old Musicbed's first deal for a partial catalog of a label, according to founder and CEO Daniel McCarthy. "We feel like it has a second life it's about to walk into." 

Over the last 3 years, Brace has traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, pitching the label's catalog to music supervisors, ad agencies and producers. Many artists needed no introduction, but Brace took the opportunity to show Sun has more than familiar Johnny Cash tracks. With the help of agents, Sun songs have recently appeared in episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men as well as television commercials and, recently, the trailer for the motion picture "Joy."

Now Brace is hoping Musicbed will help revive parts of Sun's archives. "The heart of it was to bring back some of the music that's been sitting on the shelf for a long time," says Brace. Beyond the stars are many lesser-known artists such as gospel singer Georgie Boy, soul singer Len Wade, and Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductees Alton & Jimmy. Because the label hasn't invested in mastering its entire 8,000-song catalog, some of the 1,100 songs available through Musicbed can't even be found at online stores. "Some of it is from people that walked in off the street, recorded a few songs and got some copies. Sam never called them back," say Brace.

Sync licenses total an estimated $900 million annually but also have the ability to breathe life into an artist or song. In an era of Shazam and quick online searches, viewers can easily discover songs licensed for use in television, film and even online. "If we can get some of these unheard and long lost tracks licensed, maybe it will get some attention back to the artist and we'll have more incentive to put it on iTunes, Amazon and other places," says Brace.

But sync licensing is also a world of unknown, off-brand music with made-to-order sounds, moods or styles. The ease of licensing at Musicbed has Brace hoping licensees will pick Sun's historical music over imitations. "When they wanted that song from '50s, they had to pay a lot and it was a hassle to get 100 percent of the rights," he says. "Then they'd turn to catalog places that recreate and re-record to get that sound. We found a way to beat those catalog companies at their own game."

Musicbed's McCarthy agrees. He has seen the same demand for music that sounds like it came from the Sun era. "We're fulfilling pitches on a weekly basis where clients are sending us a Jerry Lee Lewis song and saying, 'We need something like this.'"

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article listed Musicbed as being from Dallas. It is actually based in Fort Worth.