The Rare Use of 'Strange Fruit' in 'The Birth of  a Nation' Previews and 11 More Vital Synchs Driving Music Publishing Revenue

The Birth of a Nation
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Birth of a Nation

The song is one of the most haunting in American history. "Strange Fruit," recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, was written by New York poet-activist Abel Meeropol after seeing a ­photograph of a 1930 lynching -- "black body swinging in the Southern breeze," he wrote.

"Strange Fruit," which Time named as the song of the century in 1999, now is heard in the preview promoting the October release of the slave-revolt movie The Birth of a Nation, ­distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is a rare example of a synchronization license for use of the song, says Miles Feinberg, executive vp at Music Sales Corp., which owns rights to the work.

"The importance of the song is certainly not lost on us," says Feinberg. "It contributed to the civil rights movement, so we've been very ­protective of it."

Feinberg reports that licensing requests for "Strange Fruit" have increased in recent years. His theory? "The song captures an anger and feeling of injustice that's appearing in American culture right now," he says. But Music Sales Corp. turns down most requests, he adds, saying that few match the prestige of the tune.

One opportunity, however, that captured the song's spirit arose after director-actor Nate Parker premiered The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Music ­supervisor Maura Duval Griffin solicited songs for its trailer, seeking music that was "dark and menacing, but with elevated lyrics about race struggles and history." She referenced Kanye West's 2013 track "Blood on the Leaves," which itself had sampled Nina Simone's 1965 version of "Strange Fruit."

In fact, West's request to license "Strange Fruit" was one of the few times that Music Sales Corp. approved sampling of the song. The ­publisher suggested use of Simone's version for the film ­preview as well, since it is "a little bit darker and more menacing" than Holiday's ­original, says Feinberg.

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With few suitable licensing opportunities ­available for "Strange Fruit," the song "is not a big money earner," says Feinberg. "But it is an ­incredible one to have in your catalog."

Abel Meeropol: Courtesy of Robert Meeropol; Holiday: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Simone: Daily Mail/Rex
Portraying Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising, The Birth of a Nation is promoted by a preview featuring “Strange Fruit.” The iconic song was first recorded by Holiday (inset center) and written by Meeropol (left), with a 1965 version by Simone (right) used in the trailer.

More often, synch deals -- the use of music in films and TV, as well as advertising and video games -- drive significant revenue. The ­licensing of "Strange Fruit" is just one of the most notable recent examples of synch ­licensing, which is now a $202.9 million ­business in the United States, according to 2015 figures from global music trade ­organization IFPI. And the United States accounts for 57 ­percent of the $355 million generated by synch deals worldwide.

Music publishers don't reveal terms of ­individual deals and synch fees can vary widely, based on factors including the popularity of the song, the medium in which the music will appear, the duration of the piece and the ­geographic scope of the deal. A copyright used in a trailer may earn $30,000 to $100,000, while an ad typically may earn $50,000 to $500,000.

Courtesy Photo
The Birth of a Nation

Below, songwriters and music ­publishers ­highlight for Billboard 11 of the ­newest, buzziest synch deals in U.S. and international markets.

'I WAS HERE' GOES EVERYWHERE // Written by Grammy Award winner and eight-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren, "I Was Here" makes a key appearance in the new Susan Sarandon film The Meddler (Sony Pictures Classics) that opened in April. But the song, about leaving a personal legacy and in part inspired by the events of 9/11, has been licensed widely since Beyoncé recorded it in 2011 for her album 4. (Beyoncé's video of the track was filmed at the United Nations in New York in honor of World Humanitarian Day.) The song, published by Warren's own Realsongs, also was heard during the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final, in a Ron Howard-directed PSA for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and on an album to benefit victims of the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, among other placements. "It is one of the best songs I have ever written," says Warren, quoting her lyrics, "and hopefully will be ­'something to remember, so they won't forget, I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here.' "


FRAGRANCE WITH 'POWER' // Paco Rabanne's ongoing use of Kanye West's "Power" in spots for its Invictus fragrance is one reason the superstar rapper increasingly is focused on synch opportunities for both his catalog and current hits, according to Brian Monaco, executive vp/worldwide head of ­advertising, film and TV at Sony/ATV Music Publishing. One advertisement in the Invictus series has earned 15 million views on Facebook since it debuted in 2013. The ­partnership, says Monaco, "is a perfect fit between a real ­powerhouse in music and fashion and one of the world's most iconic and luxury brands."


A SOULFUL FAREWELL // Debuting on the ­evening of Kobe Bryant's final game for the Los Angeles Lakers on April 13, a Nike ad opens with its iconic swoosh on the leaping shoe of the ­controversial player and a crowd ­chanting "Kobe sucks!" The spot features cameos by NBA rival Paul Pierce, Lakers president Jeanie Buss and former Lakers coach Phil Jackson -- each ­affectionately and hilariously singing good ­riddance to Bryant. Titled "The Conductor," the ad ­features a rewrite of the Otis Redding classic "I've Been Loving You Too Long," licensed by Universal Music Publishing Group, which reports 6.6 ­million views of the spot. "The song is a deep cut in the Otis Redding catalog that connects people to the ­feeling of loving and letting go," says Suzanne Moss, vp creative licensing at UMPG. "We are constantly mining our song catalogs to generate new interest [in] hidden gems."


BULLYING 'HURTS // Dance artist Mika, who has credits as a songwriter for Madonna, among others, collaborated with Reservoir Music writer-producer team The Nexus (David Sneddon and James Bauer-Mein) for the track "Hurts" on his 2015 album, No Place in Heaven. The song then took on a second life after Mika saw the film Un Bacio (A Kiss) from Italian director Ivan Cotroneo with a ­depiction of teenage bullying, a theme of the song. He and Cotroneo teamed up on a video of a remix of "Hurts" that has been viewed 1.8 ­million times on YouTube. The song then was added to the trailer and credits of the movie before its release in Italy in February.


DRIVE THE JEWELS // Just a sample of the pounding, distorted beat in "Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1" from rap duo Run the Jewels was all Audi wanted to use to ­showcase its Quattro model in ads shown ­worldwide. The song, published by Royalty Network, was pitched to Audi in Germany by its subpublisher, Imagem Music. "It was a ­perfect example of how two active ­publishers could work together," says Royalty Network president Frank Liwall. "Initially the placement was for a regional spot but was expanded to the world after [Audi] realized how well the song and brand matched."


'PIRATES' ON CAMPUS // For music to accompany a spring 2016 fashion video for Swedish retailer H&M that featured David Beckham (which has notched more than 3.6 ­million YouTube views), ad agency Ohlogy reached deep into the catalog of Warner/Chappell Music to find "Pirates," a little-known work composed by Max Steiner for the soundtrack to the 1944 film The Adventures of Mark Twain. But missing was the sheet music, which was needed to rerecord the instrumental piece. A two-week search led to its discovery in a library at the University of Southern California. The Warner Bros. Archive at USC, created in 1977, contains scores and other records for the studio dating back to 1918.


THE HILLS ARE STILL ALIVE // Another vintage soundtrack, albeit far better known, has been revived to accompany ads for Toyota by the advertising agency Dentsu Japan through a deal with Imagem Music, which represents the works of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. "The story and impact of The Sound of Music is so familiar around the world that Toyota built a whole campaign around the story," says Imagem Music president Jason Jordan. "The ad was shot in Salzburg, Austria" -- the original setting for the story -- "and ­features references to key ­characters in the ­musical," ­including Maria von Trapp ­portrayed by Julie Andrews.


VIVE LE WEEZER // Weezer's song "Island in the Sun" only reached No. 57 on Billboard's Hot Digital Songs chart in 2008. But Wixen Music is extending a multiyear deal for the track's use by La Banque Postale in France, a subsidiary of the French national postal system, in a campaign created by M&C Saatchi Gad with subpublisher Strictly Confidential France. "Becoming a brand-identity song has resulted in fees paid in excess of seven figures," says Wixen president/CEO Randall Wixen. Among other users of the Weezer tune are Carnival Cruise Line and Sandals Resorts.


THE FACE OF NIKON // Radical Face, aka the Florida-raised indie artist Ben Cooper, debuted at No. 6 on the April 16 Heatseekers Albums chart with The Family Tree Presents: The Leaves. One album track, "Welcome Home," has carried Cooper's music around the world in the past six years, through its use as the theme of the "I Am Nikon" ad campaign, which features low-key, entrancing sounds set to visually ­spectacular images. First released in Germany in 2007 on the Radical Face album Ghost, "Welcome Home" was licensed in 2010 to Nikon by the Bicycle Music Company, which is part of Concord Bicycle Music. The "I Am Nikon" North American campaign is due to launch in the near future, while Cooper has just staged a sold-out tour.


DON'T WORRY, COLLABORATE // A song by a Norwegian rap duo ­featuring vocals from a Seattle R&B singer that entered the Official U.K. Singles chart has become a ­successful synch for a Korean automaker, thanks to the efforts of a German ad agency and a music ­publisher based in Los Angeles. Madcon's "Don't Worry," ­featuring Ray Dalton, became a ­modest hit in the United Kingdom (hitting No. 54 in September 2015) and was chosen by German ad agency Nitro for a Hyundai ­campaign that aired in nine European markets. Brandon Schott, director of ­synchronization and ­licensing for olé, the ­independent music ­publisher that ­represents Madcon, calls the deal "a true ­collaborative ­venture."


COLD CASE, HOT SYNC // The television police drama "Cold Case," which aired on CBS from 2003 to 2010, has continued to run in syndication, including one episode that proved a big win for music publisher Carlin America.  "The investigation involved a backstage murder at a local production of Cabaret, the legendary musical that Carlin publishes," recalls Bob Golden, vp, marketing for the company. "For the first and only time, the television producers obtained sync licenses for each and every Cabaret song.  It was certainly a unique coup for us."  The 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was adapted as the 1977 film directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minelli.

This feature was originally published in the June 18 issue of Billboard.