In music, one sync can help make a career, so how about more than 650 of them? Over nearly a decade, singer-songwriter Kari Kimmel has had uncanny success as an independent artist pitching her own material for television, film, trailers and commercials, all while keeping a relatively low public profile. She counts 18 theme songs to her credit and placements ranging from Google to The Office to World War Z, most of which she has secured herself, retaining ownership over her masters and publishing along the way.
“Early on I did have some music licensing companies that helped me get some placement, so I wasn’t always doing it on my own from day one, but I was building these relationships and meeting people on my own and then they would come directly to me,” she tells Billboard. “And that just evolved over the years.”
Kimmel’s first visit to Los Angeles when she was just a recent high school graduate proved a fruitful one, launching her career all on a demo CD. In a scene almost out of a movie, in the early 2000s she had flown out with her mother from her hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, and they connected with one of her mother’s friends who was an employee at Arista Records in town for a Radio & Records convention. Showing a knack for networking even as a teenager, Kimmel wound up at a few conference afterparties and connected with a rep from Epic Records to whom she passed along a demo CD. A few weeks later, she started getting calls with interest from labels and says she wound up with offers from Atlantic, RCA and Island Def Jam.
Kimmel signed with Atlantic and moved to L.A., but soon the fairytale of easy success faded and the realities of the major label system set in. After a year of working on new songs, she says the label still refused to set a release date for her album and at her own request released her from her contract. Next, Kimmel signed a publishing deal with Chrysalis and then a new record contract with Virgin, but was then dropped before long after a change in leadership.
“At that point, I was definitely depressed and decided maybe I’ll just go into interior design or something completely different than music,” she says. “But I realized very quickly that I couldn’t do anything but music — that was my life. And so, that’s the point where I realized I had to get out of my publishing deal and I wanted to own everything on my own and just be in control of my destiny, in control of my career, 100 percent.
“If I was going to fail, it was going to be because of me, and if I was going to succeed, it was going to be because of me — not because someone said I could or couldn’t do something.”
With Kimmel’s commitment to strike out on her own, she says she began building relationships with music supervisors however she could, with a commitment to developing friendships that have since yielded substantial gains. For instance, early on in her career, she was recruited to sing the theme song for Disney’s 2004 live-action film Ella Enchanted, “It’s Not Just Make Believe.” From that experience she formed a connection with the then-president of motion picture music at Miramax Films and current president of motion picture music at Paramount Pictures Randy Spendlove, with whom she says she has collaborated on 20-30 film projects since. Or, later on, she was at a Pink Floyd concert and overheard the man next to her talking about a show he was working on called Six Feet Under. Her then-boyfriend and now-husband encouraged her to strike up a conversation and the man turned out to be music supervisor, Thomas Golubi?, who years later helped her land a prominent placement in a trailer for The Walking Dead with her song “Black.”
“Kari’s super talented and smart about business,” says Mike Knobloch, Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing, who licensed Kimmel’s “Gold & Glitter” for the new comedy Blockers that’s out Friday (April 6). “Sometimes she’ll have something existing that works, sometimes she’ll get a brief and create something from scratch. But she’s good people: talented, a hustler and great at what she does.”
As Kimmel increasingly established herself as a go-to source for songs to sync — racking up platinum albums for her singing on Pitch Perfect, its sequel and Dreamgirls along the way — other artists started reaching out to her for advice on how to land placements for their own tracks. She has since formulated some go-to suggestions for acts looking to break in and it has a lot to do with the type of music they make. She says “lyrically, it has to work for different scenarios” without being too distracting, because “so much of what we place is weaving in and out of dialogue.” Based on her experience subconsciously following these types of general guidelines, she says her writing has changed over the years.
“I look back at my first album that I ever did and I had song titles like ‘Little Emily’ and ‘Seattle’ and things that were specific, but those types of songs aren’t really going to get placed unless the scene is about Emily or it’s in Seattle,” she says, “And then I look at the songs that I’m writing now, which are way more universal, but I still try to keep my lyrics as interesting and not generic sounding as possible… I think unintentionally I’m writing in a certain way.”
About three years ago Kimmel decided to launch her own licensing company called Glow Music Group, souring her 200-artist catalog entirely from acts who have approached her based on her ability to land syncs for her own songs. Here, she takes the same approach with others’ material as she has her own, working solely with independent musicians so she can act as a one-stop shop for supervisors, always handling rights for both the master and publishing sides.
“I was getting so many placements on my own, I had bands and artists coming to me asking who placed my music and I would say, ‘Well, I place most of my own music,’ and so they would ask if I would rep them,” she says. “At first that was something I never thought that I would do, because I’m an artist and my life is writing and singing and producing. But around the same time I was also getting requests from music supervisors for things I didn’t have, whether that’d be hip-hop or a boy band, and so I slowly started taking on bands that were unlike me … and I started pitching those bands and I was getting placements for them.”
Now Kimmel has expanded her roster to even include acts more similar to her own sound that might be perceived as competition, but says she is getting more syncs for her own tracks than ever before. However, the growth of her company brings other challenges and Kimmel is now faced with a paradox: The more time she spends servicing others’ music, the less time she has to work on her own. She calls the challenge to find a happy medium a “balancing act” that she is addressing by hiring on more staff (she currently has a couple assistants and a couple interns) to assist in administrative duties. Still, Kimmel is the one handling all of the pitching because, she says, “They’re all my relationships and I want to be personally connected to the people that I’m pitching songs to.”
On top of everything else, Kimmel is releasing a new album called Gold & Glitter on May 25 that she says was written “a little bit backwards” from how most artists do it, constructing the collection based significantly on songs she had written for sync projects. As such, she says the public has already been abxle to hear about half the tracks in TV shows and film. As it goes with this work, they just may not have known it yet.
The best advice I’ve received is to be the absolute best at what you do, because there are about a thousand people standing in line behind you ready to go. Be on top of your game always. Always grow, always evolve, never stop learning.
I never had a big break. There was never one thing that opened up the door and “made my career.” It was hundreds of little things. Sure some were bigger than others: Doing the trailer for The Walking Dead was awesome, getting the theme song for The Fosters was also great, having songs in films like World War Z and Southpaw, singing background vocals with Ringo Starr and Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen was rad, but it was everything combined that made a difference. The over 650 placements in films and TV shows, trailers and commercials, the 18 theme songs and the eight platinum albums I was fortunate to be a part of were all a part of my “big break.”
I knew I was committed to music when I lost my record deal with Virgin, tried to quit music and that wasn’t an option. There was no way I could survive in this world and not create music. It was what kept me up at night, it was what fueled me and what made me feel alive, as corny as that sounds. I just had to do it on my terms. I needed to be in control of my own destiny. Whether I failed or succeeded, it was all on me — which was terrifying and empowering at the same time. But, I never walk away from a challenge, so here I am.
Something I never thought is that I would be repping bands. My life has always been about creating and pitching my own music. Now I’m not only writing, singing, producing and repping my own songs, I’m also repping 200 bands as well. It’s awesome!
I am learning that creating music, repping bands, pitching songs and juggling two kids is crazy hard! I’m learning that in order to grow, I must delegate and stop being such a control freak.
Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.