Universal Film Music President Mike Knobloch on Licensing a Staggering 60 Songs for 'Sing'

Julian Berman
“I would love to see [more] gender and ethnic diversity,” says Knobloch, photographed Nov. 3 at Universal Pictures Film Music in Universal City. “We still have a lot of work to do on that front.”

Like many young men who played in a high school band, Long Island, N.Y.-native Mike Knobloch figured "I'd just grow up and be a rock star." And like most of them, that's not quite how it worked out for the president of film music and publishing for Universal Pictures, although his office on the Universal Studios lot in Universal City, Calif. It's filled with instruments, many of them vintage. The married father of two, who plays keyboards and drums, loves having them at his disposal and so do the artists he works with on a daily basis. "Steven Tyler came in and he was really into it," Knobloch, 46, says. "[I played] Paul McCartney's 'Maybe I'm Amazed' on the Rhodes and he stood next to me and sang. It was an out-of-body experience."

At any given moment, Knobloch, who came to Universal in 2010 following 13 years as executive vp at Fox Music, and his 25-person staff are working on more than 20 movies, including Universal's winter tentpole film, Sing. The animated feature starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson, comes out Dec. 21, and includes "Faith," Stevie Wonder's first original song (featuring Ariana Grande) for a film in more than a dozen years.

Billboard: Sing has more than 60 licensed songs. Is this the most money you've spent to license music for a movie? 

Mike Knobloch: For licensed music, probably. There's everything in there from Frank Sinatra to Kanye West.

Can you say how much? 

(Laughs) I would say it's a lot! But I think [with Sing] we are definitely at the absolute ceiling of the number of licenses, the types of licenses, and the heavily-featured uses of licensed songs as performances performed by actors.

What's the most complicated aspect to licensing so many songs?

When you create music from scratch and you own and control the intellectual property that you're creating, you have a certain amount of ownership and flexibility. When you license a song into a movie and then have another template for using songs in marketing campaigns, it's hard to know from the outset all the ways in which you're potentially going to want to use a song, so sometimes we have to circle back and make some adjustments on the business side, both with the film and the [marketing] campaign.

How do you know when you've got it right?

You want to have that proof of concept to know that something's going to really [work]. Just because you love a song or you can hear in your head the potential doesn't mean that in practice it delivers to as broad of an audience as possible. Case in point is we have what is this very special, evolving rendition in Sing, performed by Jennifer Hudson, of the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight," which you learn from making the deal is two songs.  We knew that we wanted to find a song that comes in at the very top of the film in an exhilarating, uplifting, familiar way that gives you goosebumps and tingles. We auditioned dozens of songs. This was one of the toughest ones to get right.

Given the number of songs will there be a double soundtrack for Sing?

We're doing a standard soundtrack and a deluxe album and a Target exclusive deluxe album. We're also going to do a karaoke album, which is a first for us, because  it makes so much sense for this movie that we would give people an album that they can sing along to.

How do you decide which label to partner with on a soundtrack?

Republic was a big part of the partnership on the first 50 Shades movie, so it just logically follows that we would go back to them for the second 50 Shades, the same way that we want back to Atlantic after Fast [and Furious] 6 and 7. We get to kind of be Switzerland in that there isn't a corporate-imposed synergy or that we're meant to be preferential and I think it works really well like that.

Synch departments at publishing and record companies are under tremendous pressure to bring in revenue. How do you deal with that while trying to manage your costs?

I like to think that labels and publishers see me as a partner and not just the bank. On both sides of the table, there's a mutual interest in keeping the relationship healthy, but if you get to a point on a negotiation where something is just too expensive and it's going to break the budget and nobody wants to pay for it or we don't agree that that's what the price should be, we have the prerogative to walk away or find something else. There's a lot of amazing music out there, right?

Every movie is different but, generally, what percentage of an overall budget goes towards music?

As much as I can get them to give us.It really depends on the kind of movie. I've worked on $20 million movies that have $2 million music budgets and I've worked on $80 million movies that have $1.5 mil- lion music budgets. What I've learned from doing this job for 20 years  is that the best thing you can do is get in early and be communicative and try to really foster a healthy collaboration from the outset. If we start that dialogue as early as possible with the physical production team and the line producer that's typically brought on to start working on a budget, then we can really create a music budget from a place of knowledge and experience and enlightenment, as opposed to just wait until somebody arbitrarily picks a number and hands it to us as a done deal.

The 50 Shades of Grey movie and soundtrack were huge successes in 2015. What are your music plans for next February's sequel, 50 Shades Darker?

The first Fifty Shades was lightening in a bottle, for sure.  We're certainly trying to recapture that magic again by taking the same approach with a diverse lineup of songwriters, producers and artists and by creating bespoke, original songs to music-driven sequences throughout the film… and not just taking existing songs and trying to jam them into the film.

Any artists you can confirm?

Miguel did the new cover of "Crazy In Love" for the Fifty Shades Darker trailers.  And while we won't be using that song in this film -- like we did with [Beyonce's version for] the first Fifty Shades -- Miguel is working on a new song for the new film/soundtrack.

A big part of your job is balancing the musical needs of the director, producer, and studio, which don't always line up. For example, there were people who wanted a bigger name than Charlie Puth, who was still a relative unknown then, on Fast & Furious 7's "See You Again" with Wiz Khalifa, even though Puth had written it. What did you learn from that experience?

That was such a unique [situation] for tragic reasons [following Paul Walker's death] that we hope to never have to deal with again that made every creative decision infinitely more impactful and important than it otherwise would be. But to answer your question, if there were a lesson learned, it might just be what ultimately prevailed, which is go with your gut. Charlie had written the song for the movie. We had developed the song. We had just gone so far down the road together, and there was something really special to it. [Then] there was kind of an uncomfortable moment of like, "Should we take Charlie off the song and get somebody either more commercially meaningful or somebody who seems on the surface to be more of a known thing that fits the casting of the movie better?" It didn't really have to do with not liking Charlie and his song or his performance. It really had to do with like the optics of "who are we casting" as the performer of the song, as an auxiliary cast member of Fast 7.

How disappointing is it when an artist turns down a licensing usage for a film or a trailer?

I ultimately respect it, but there are times when it just can be really heartbreaking if an artist just isn't in the mood. The worst is if you know it's a good use and there's too many intermediaries in the way or maybe it doesn't actually get to the artist.

We're headed into awards season. How involved are you in deciding what music Universal pushes for best song and score Oscar consideration?

There are people here that are much more expert than I am about the whole awards game, so I get to be part of those conversations, but I don't unilaterally decide. Sometimes it comes up [with artists]. We want to keep it in perspective so it doesn't become the tail wagging the dog, but to some artists, it's important that at least what they're doing be eligible.

After #Oscarssowhite, there's an emphasis on diversity in film now. What responsibility do you feel to make your process as diverse as possible?

It just makes sense that the people we work with and the music that we make would be a fair and accurate representation of the global community that we're a part of. I would love to see [more] gender diversity, but the most work needs to be done with ethnic and African American diversity. We have a lot more work to do, still, on that front.

A version of this article first appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard.