RJD2 on Synchs and the Lessons of 'Mad Men'

(Photo: Nick Fancher)


Ramble Jon Krohn, (much) better known as the beat-maker RJD2, has seen his life change significantly  with the release of his new album Dame Fortune, which dropped last week on his own RJ's Electrical Connections label. Fourteen years past his Def Jux breakthrough Deadringer, the 39-year old musician, producer and crate-digger left Philadelphia, the soulful city of brotherly love he's long been associated with, and moved with his family back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio -- all of which has greatly impacted his life and approach to the music business.

"I have a four-year-old son who wakes me up at 7:00 a.m. every day," RJD2 tells Billboard on the phone from Columbus. "I haven't toured since I had my son. I've done gigs and spot dates, but I haven't gotten in a vehicle and gone out for three weeks at a time," he says. As his touring life cooled, RJD2 has focused on other ways to work.

 "Licensing allows me to not freak out and basically not care about doing weird things, doing side projects," he explains. "I don't care how single-oriented a record is or not, I don't have to go into making a record with what would have to be successful in that world. Since I'm running a label and represent the master recording I can get away with doing things my own way. I decided to do it this way largely because I didn't want to be gone so much,"

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He mentions an untitled record he created solely for the purpose of placements which coincided with an administration deal he has with Downtown Music Publishing. "It was a thing I never did before and wanted to try. The beauty is that I have the luxury at any point and time because I still own the masters. I could put it out as B-sides for singles, or I could release it as a lost LP or I could put it out on my label -- I still have options."

Most of the records he's put out, RJD2 says, "have landed some synchs off them." Those include deals with such brands as Saturn, Acura, ESPN, Residence Inn, Nissan, Levi's, Miller Lite and the Entourage movie, making up for some of the loss in touring revenues. Synchs, RJD2 says, can represent roughly 15 to 25 percent of his bottom line.

While RJD2's synch track record may be impressive, there is arguably at least one exception to his success. The artist's most visible and widely-known track is one forever tied to Don Draper -- but not his bank account. "A Beautiful Mine," recorded with Aceyalone for 2006's Magnificent City, was, for seven seasons, the theme song to AMC's smash series Mad Men. That deal, which should have been a semi-perpetual windfall, was instead structured as an in perpetuity buy-out. This deal meant RJD2 received a one-time lump sum for the song, despite Mad Men's massive success.

"I often get people who are like, 'You're not driving a Maserati, what's going on here?" RJD2 says. "Ultimately the way that it went down was they had a show that hadn't aired yet and AMC hadn't turned itself around into the juggernaut it is now. They needed a piece of music for the theme and they wanted to do a publishing buyout. I already realized I'd rather make less on a license and retain ownership of the publishing.  So when they first came to me I was like, 'Nah, I'll license the song but I don't want to do a buy out.' It went back-and-forth for weeks. It was [label] Decon and Aceyalone who were like, 'We really want to do this thing, they keep coming back to us.' I was like, 'If they want to chop that number down and talk license then I'm game, but otherwise I'm not trying to do it.'  Eventually it got to the point where I was the lone holdout. When two out of three parties want to do the thing, I kind of had a moral quandary."

In retrospect RJD2 is sanguine about the experience. "I'm happy with it because I know now there was only way that 'A Beautiful Mine' would have wound up in Mad Men and that was the way it did. There is no such thing -- to use a physics analogy --  as a multi-verse in this world, there are not multiple possible outcomes. They were either going to buy out the song and use that song or they were not going to use the song at all and find something else -- but there was no middle ground to be had." (It's better, at a minimum, than what happened to Beach House.)

The artistic businessman, or business-y artist, says his most successful synch to date was a Residence Inn spot last year which used "Majesty's Socialist Request" from 2013's More Is Than Isn't that the company Lip Sync Music arranged for him. This year he scored two more synchs: One features the track "Doin' It Right" by STS X R2D2 for the Neighbors 2  trailer with Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne; and another song from his latest beat-filled cinematic album Dame Fortune called "Sheboygan Left" is slated for a Justin Tipping film entitled Kicks.

Asked what advice he might give aspiring musicians who would like to connect synchs for their own music, RJD2 offers the following: "My advice would be to just make yourself available and don't push too hard. Don't get too invested, let them come to you, make the music you feel strongly about," he says. "I've seen more artists shoot for success in the type of music they make and become jaded and become disenfranchised with music altogether. But then I have also seen artists make exactly the kind of music that they want and then get really lucky with having commercial success." 

The latter, obviously, would apply to him.