Buzz: Inside the Mind of a Music Publisher: An Interview with Secret Road Music Services

Written by Anishka George Posted in: Buzz on June 19, 2012

Secret Road Music Services is a rapidly growing music licensing, management and publishing company based in Los Angeles, CA. With the increased focus on licensing and supervision in the industry, Secret Road brings a new energy and a fresh approach to the publishing field. With a “boutique style” catalog, filled with great up-and-coming artists, they have almost weekly placements in television favorites like Grey’s Anatomy, The Vampire Diaries, and Entourage, and have landed national advertisements with brands like Target, Honda and Lowe's. Their list of accomplishments continues to grow in an industry inundated with competitors, proving them to be on the up-and-up of the licensing industry. They have represented and helped break out artists like Ingrid Michaelson, The Civil Wars, Katie Herzig, Graffiti6, Cary Brothers, and many more.

Always one to look for the road less taken, Secret Road actively designs customized deals for their artists that help fulfill artist needs and support career-building initiatives. On the licensing side, they pitch their catalog to a wide contact base covering everything from film and television projects to international ads to trailers and promos and any project in between. With an artist-centric philosophy and business model, Secret Road is paving the way for a new generation of artists to take control of their own business models and grow long-lasting and fruitful careers.

I had the opportunity to talk to Michele Wernick, EVP of Music Placement and Licensing over at Secret Road. She was able to share some of her insight on the supervision, licensing, and publishing world. Ever wonder how a publisher thinks or what a music supervisor looks for in a song? What about what it takes to be a music supervisor? Continue reading to see what Michele has to say.

Indie Ambassador: Briefly describe what Secret Road does. What is the difference between SR and a standard publishing company?

Michele Wernick: We’re not really billing ourselves as a licensing company, we’re an artist partnership company. We have various divisions within that, which come together to make it an artist partnership. So we’ve got licensing, we’ve got the management, we have new media marketing, and we have publishing. We’re still boutique, but we have a number of divisions, and everything kind of interconnects. Because of our licensing skills, new media marketing, and everything we’ve done with Ingrid [Michaelson] on the independent level, we have all these connections and relationships and experience with different ways to market and promote that we’re now able to offer these services to our other artists. By having a publishing relationship with us, we are able to maximize adding value to the copyrights by promoting and marketing the artist, as well as promote record sales and basically develop their careers. We are truly there to develop their career and be an artist partner for them.

What really separates us is that we are applying this added “value” by working with them on an artist development and marketing level as well as just doing collections. Our publishing company does do traditional work, where we do ‘song, plug, song, plug,’ where we try to get cuts. It’s similar, but we’re different because it’s intertwined with a bigger model. It’s not a standalone publishing company. It’s a publishing company within another company that offers many other services.

Indie Ambassador: You guys keep a relatively small roster of talent that you constantly pitch to your contact base. Why do you keep it so small? What kind of genres do you have within your roster?

MW: We keep it small for many reasons. One, we’re definitely an artist friendly, artist development-type company. We’d rather do more with less. From a licensing standpoint, it’s manageable. We can recall songs and artists from the top of our heads when we need to, and it allows us to work in a much more efficient way. It does allow us to give our artists attention and really focus on them, and they’re not just another catalog artist. We really focus on each one that we’re working with, and that’s essentially why we keep it small. We want it to be manageable and we want to be able to do more. Quality over quantity, that’s really what it’s all about.

Our roster is really well-rounded. We’re really trying to keep it all genres because we need to meet the needs of our clients who come and ask us for music. We want to be able to service all different clients who come looking for music for their projects. If we have a little bit of everything, when we get a search in, we’ve got something to offer up. We started out very singer-songwriter heavy. I would say we still have a lot of singer-songwriters and lean that way, especially because for television it works. Television is where the “bread and butter” volume business is, so we have to have a lot of music that satisfies television. We’re adding more electronica and more soul music and more “cool” indie-rock, indie-electronic, and that kind of [music]. We’re always making sure our roster is well-rounded: a little bit of every genre.

Indie Ambassador: When finding new music to add to your roster, what specific qualities in the music are you looking for?

MW: The music first and foremost, we feel, has to be placeable and that we can have success placing the music. There’s a certain vibe, I can’t explain it, but there are certain types of  sounds we’re looking for for advertisements, for example, where we need up-tempo music that’s positive: with a chorus and a hook and generic lyrics that everyone can relate to. Like “home,” “together”, “feeling good”, “party” -- that general in spirit is what we’re looking for specifically. But on the other hand, it’s a vibe -- if the music invokes any emotions or has a mood or very distinct vibe to it, that’s what kind of gets our attention and what we want to add to the roster. We want to make sure that we’re going to have success with it.

On the flip side, on a personal standpoint, in terms of the one-on-one relationship with artist, we want to be with people of like-mind. We’re very much a family at Secret Road and we want our artists to feel like they fit in -- like they fit into the Secret Road culture.

The view from the Secret Road offices

Indie Ambassador: So how often do you actually add artists to your catalog? What’s the general process of finding new talent?

MW: There is no set process in terms of how we find music. A lot of it is referral. Most of it is people or other managers, lawyers, other artists that recommend and send stuff through. We get a lot of people randomly trying to hit us up. We definitely don’t take unsolicited [music] anymore, it pretty much has to be solicited by somebody because there’s too much to go through.

Once we get music in, the whole team listens. We make sure everyone on the team listens and has a say on whether this feels right or not. We all want to make sure the whole team is excited and passionate about the music and feel we’d have success placing it.

Indie Ambassador: For artists aspiring to get their music placed on film and TV, what advice would you give them in regards to the songwriting process?

MW: Pay attention to television, film and ads. See if there’s a pattern. Get a sense of what is working and why things get licensed in montage scenes, or why something works in an ad where there’s no voiceover, or why something works in an ad that’s filled with voiceover. What’s the music doing in that case so they’re not competing? It’s about really paying attention to the media around them and getting a sense of what’s out there and what type of music is happening in these various medias. There is a bit of a pattern sometimes that you can detect.

I wouldn’t try to copy things that you’re hearing and seeing. It’s more so you can get a sense of why it works. Go deeper than that. Why is that song working? Not, “Oh, let me just hear what that song is,” look at what it’s doing to the picture that’s making it working. Think about that in the writing process.

Indie Ambassador: How do you recommend relatively unknown artists go about trying to get their music in the hands of music publishers or libraries?

MW: If an artist is at that really beginning stage, their job is to learn, network and form relationships. The relationships are key. Getting to us on a “cold” submission is tough, but I recommend going to all the seminars and maybe working on a smaller level [with smaller companies] just to get a sense of the business and get in the mix of how things work. Try to be at functions where there’s music supervisors and you have a chance to meet them. ASCAP and BMI do really great events where they have roundtables with supervisors and you’re allowed to give supervisors your music after that. They do need to listen, that’s part of why they’re there: to give evaluations and feedback and to see whether they like something.

Get involved in things like that where they can get in front of supervisors or make relationships with lawyers, managers, other artists. Once you kind of get yourself in the mix, things organically can flow. You have to take some first steps. If you really want to get to a licensing company, you should be short and to the point in their email or solicitation. You should be super clear about what kind of music it is. Make sure that everything is legible. Keep trying without being annoying. If you submit some music, wait a while. Follow up, but don’t follow up immediately because most likely we haven’t even read the email yet.

Indie Ambassador: Can you explain Secret Road’s process of getting a placement on, say, a network television show?

MW: We basically have people contacting us.  We are fortunate enough to have strong relationships where we receive many searches per day. We don't have to spend a lot of our time asking people what they are working on or looking for. We’re getting detailed briefs sent to us with the type of music that’s needed for a specific scene or ad or film opening title or what not. We review our catalog and we pitch our best music we think works for that brief. And then we wait to see if anything works! That’s part of why we keep the roster not too big because we really want to be able to hone in on the right songs for it. That process is basically the process a music supervisor goes through. We are just basically the music supervisors to the music supervisor. It’s a weeding out process. We’re sort of at the top, and it gets weeded out from there. That’s really the process -- and then they sent out the request, and we quote fees, and we negotiate the deal, and so forth. [You can read a more detailed description of THAT process here.]

Secret Road's Ingrid Michaelson with her song "Keep Breathing" on the season 3 finale of Grey's Anatomy.

Indie Ambassador: So you’re half music publisher, half music supervisor. What advice do you have for aspiring music supervisors out there?

MW: Internships. I’m telling you, internships are the way to go! Get an internship and get inside a studio, an independent music supervisor...usually supervisors of all levels are looking for interns. Interns are valuable help to people. Three of our employees who have been hired have all been interns first. It works.

The secondary part of this is get educated. Not only try to intern with a music supervisor, but with a publishing company or a label where you’re around the process of clearance and you understand the business side and how licensing works.

Indie Ambassador: Many think music supervision is easy -- that anyone can pick a song and sync it up to a movie. What do you have to say to that?

MW: The creative part of it is literally that -- just a part of it. Sometimes, it isn’t even the bigger part of it depending on what’s happening. The important thing is that you have to learn the whole picture process. You have to really understand the music business as a whole -- how the entire music business works. You have to understand publishing, you have to understand recording, you have to understand management, you have to have a general understanding of how the music industry works and how all the different facets of the industry interconnect with another. You have to understand the nuances of the business, but the main thing is you really need to understand the process of licensing and what it means to clear a song. Rights ownership: understanding what that means and how that ties into licensing.

Pitching music is a sales job. That’s what it is at the end of the day: it’s sales. There’s a lot of disappointment. There’s a lot of putting it out there, putting in a lot of effort, and not getting a lot in return. For every 100 songs you pitch, you might get 5.

When you’re a music supervisor, you’re on the buying side. It’s not the sales, it’s the buying side, but it’s the same process of understanding the business as a whole. As a music supervisor, you’re not just hired to do the creative. Once you’ve proven that you completely have an understanding of the business, there are supervisors that are hired just for the creative and there’s somebody hired to do just the clearances. In order to be a real music supervisor and somebody that’s worthy and valuable, you’ve got to have had experience and the knowledge of how this all works.

Indie Ambassador: Most music companies in the last few years have been cutting back, yet you guys still seem to be growing and expanding. Why do you think that is?

MW: I think our success can be attributed to the fact that we’re at the right place at the right time and we’re doing things very smartly. We’re kind of paving a new way that still works. We’re signing the right music, our relationships are getting stronger, and our company is about service. We are very good at servicing our clients. We’re able to keep growing our clientele base which allows us to keep growing our company.

Indie Ambassador: Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you might want to share?

MW: I think the key thing is that artists need to be educated, they need to educate themselves about the business of music. They have to take the approach that they themselves are a business. They have to figure out how to run their business. It’s not just about going out there and writing and singing songs. You’ll only be successful if you really understand the music business. And today, it’s not about getting signed to a label or a publisher. Sure, if that’s what your goal is, great! But you still are your own business that you have to create and grow. You’re not going to be valuable to a label or publisher if you haven’t first figured out how to get a fanbase or how to get records sold, because labels aren’t picking artists who haven’t really done anything. They want to know there’s already something in place that they can just then pick up and go with. That’s the main advice I would give.


To learn more about Secret Road, explore their artist roster, and view their recent work, visit their website here.

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