Music Libraries Aim To Score Broadcast Sports’ Increasingly Diverse Soundtrack

The connection between music and sports has never been stronger. It’s also never been more varied.

“Every sport, every league wants something that identifies it with fans but also sets it apart,” says Wendie Colter, director of production for MegaTrax, one of more than a half dozen music libraries used by major leagues and their teams and, increasingly, the venues they perform in.

Certain sports have long been associated with specific types of music: the NFL and its gladiatorial themes combining triumphant trumpets and crunchy electric guitars, the NBA wearing its urban roots on its sleeve via hip-hop beats. But, say music-library managers, sports are looking to expand those tastes, both to enhance their brand recognition and to keep them at the edge of pop culture.

Colter points out that more sports broadcasters are requesting “hybrid” tracks, comprising bombastic, cinematic orchestral scores — “trailer music” in library parlance, a reference to movie trailers that, like sports-show intros, need to hook the viewer quickly and without ambiguity — laid over either hip-hop or rock drum tracks. Another popular mashup is a big pop sound over electronica beats, the kind of sound familiar to fans of pop divas Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Youth-oriented sports shows are pushing the envelope hardest of all, with ESPN’s X Games the holy grail of music placement, followed closely by kickboxing, mixed martial arts, and the WWE.

“The typical football-type music with trumpets is starting to sound dated now,” Colter says. “Sports shows are trying to break out of clichés, and that’s why we’re hearing crossover-type music that’s related to the pop music of the moment, like ‘rocktronica’ and dub step.”

Scoring the Backstory
But, although theme music may be less than subtle, sports shows are digging deeper into libraries, looking for music that underscores sidebar stories, such as personality profiles of athletes, between competitions, particularly for music that can follow the narrative arc of what FirstCom Music SVP/Executive Producer Ken Nelson calls “comeback stories.”

“We help them find music that fits the mood of story, as opposed to setting the stage for a game,” he says. “They need to score the backstory with music that reflects how that story unfolds.”

Custom-Music Trend
That underscores the growing use of custom music created by libraries for specific shows and teams, such as the revision of the theme song for NBC’s broadcast of Notre Dame football games done by library 5 Alarm Music. “It went from traditional horns and strings to a more contemporary sound, with some guitars and bass and drums but still with some strings,” explains 5 Alarm Executive Director Maddie Madsen. When NBC replaced its original theme for Sunday Night Football in 2008, 5 Alarm’s staff writers and producers wrote and recorded around lyrics written by NBC staffers and pitched the track to several celebrity vocalists, including Pink and Faith Hill, who ultimately put her vocal on the demo that became the final version.

Madsen notes that teams have been changing their sounds more often lately, more closely tracking changes in popular music. Her company has done themes for the Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers, and the Lakers last year toned down their hip-hop beat in favor of a more contemporary trailer-type sound, she says. The networks, she adds, occasionally tweak their own signature sounds but generally don’t stray too far from them. Fox Sports, she points out, is still characterized by “screaming guitars” while the CBS Sports Network, which evolved from the CBS College Sports Network, continues to favor music targeted toward the college-age demographic; 5 Alarm recently pitched a Skrillex-type electronica track to the network.

New Clients
Music libraries are seeing new clients for sports-themed music, including technology schools like the Art Institutes chain, now a FirstCom client and a market that Nelson says offers libraries a doorway to the next generation of broadcast-sports producers, as well as to sports venues themselves. “We have stadiums as clients now,” including the Palace at Auburn Hills (MI), he says, a development that seems natural because much of the venue infrastructure has replaced older point-source PA systems with more music-friendly line arrays and distributed systems.

“We mostly deal with post-house producers contracted by venues, and several pro sports teams who have production and media departments and interface with venues as well. It’s not a huge market yet, and it’s a very recent one, but it’s growing.” (Venues, leagues, and teams are generally also licensees of performing-rights organizations ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, allowing them to play artists’ music for such applications as incidental and walk-on music.)

5.1 Not So Much
What’s not growing is multichannel music. Even as sports broadcasts pioneered acceptance of 5.1 surround audio in broadcasting, surround music remains nearly as dormant a format in sports music as it is in the larger music industry, where formats for it, such as DVD-Audio and SACD, also have fallen by the wayside. Several library services experimented with multichannel music as surround became more prevalent on television, but few offer much more than FirstCom’s LiquidTrax service, which has music divided into stereo stems, a format used in film-sound mixing. 5 Alarm Music’s Madsen says her company has done about 45 surround versions of tracks for sports clients, and she’s upbeat about demand for it: “Especially with 3D TV coming, we think 5.1 music has more of a future.”

What viewers can likely expect to hear more of in the future is music from indie artists currently being signed by music libraries, some of which are extensions of major music-media companies, such as Warner Chappell’s production music division, which is a department of Time Warner music operations, or Killer Tracks, owned by Universal (which also owns FirstCom Music). Killer Tracks recently signed Rev Theory, whose aggressive rock tracks have been a favorite for sports themes and bumper music. Several of the 285 bands currently on 5 Alarm Music’s parent company’s roster have performed for CBS’s March Madness events and provided tracks for the network’s Alt Games extreme-sports event.

Suddenly, Hank Williams Jr. and all his “Rowdy Friends” seem quaint.

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