Tech Focus, Part 1: Sports-Music Trends

Both the production-music business and the larger music industry have the same problem: too much music. A dozen or so major music libraries sit atop massive stockpiles of music, hundreds of thousands of tracks between them, and they are surrounded by a growing cohort of smaller DIY portals like, trying to channel music to the same customers, pushing offerings into the millions of songs and snippets. Broadcast sports offers a place for much of that music, thanks to the proliferation of regional professional, collegiate, and even secondary-school sports networks, all looking to music to help establish an identity, and to mainstream shows’ diversifying and adding narratives that need to be scored.

“We’re definitely seeing more desire for differentiation on a regional basis for sports,” says Sharon Jennings, VP of music and marketing, at APM Music. She notes how one of the company’s music directors regularly visits Los Angeles-area teams and leagues, looking into what each wants individually but also what unifying factors could constitute a Southern California theme.

“Basketball is always looking for hip-hop and urban-themed music, but a California team will want something a bit more laid back than a New York team would,” she says, evoking the East-West rap rivalries of the early 1990s.

That kind of ear for nuance is critical in this business. Music producers say that the familiar verticals for sports music — the crunchy rock guitars and triumphal trumpets — have been giving way to a more diverse array of sounds.

“We’re still seeing a lot of demand for hybrid tracks — music that might put an orchestral score on top of a hip-hop beat — that cover a lot of bases,” explains Ron Mendelsohn, president/CEO of music house MegaTrax. “But, at the end of the day, what everyone is still looking for is uplifting, ‘We are the champions’ type of music.”

To the Movies
Those responsible for making the music choices for sports shows seem to taking a cue from movie trailers, say several production-music–company executives, a good choice since trailers use music to convey emotion and relate a narrative in a highly compressed amount of time. “Trailer music tends towards the epic,” says Mendelsohn, “and that’s also what sports music is usually looking for.”

Cassie Lord, president/executive producer, 5 Alarm Music, seconds that and adds that some sports clients are also layering sound effects on top of music for theme and scores. “It’s really coming closer to cinematic sound design.”

Jennings says that hybrid music may have passed its peak, with renewed emphasis on pop music as the next biomarker of sports music. Sports clients are looking for tracks that evoke current Top 40 radio hits, from such artists as Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, both with vocals and as music-minus versions to use as underscores. Songs like Perry’s “Roar” fit the bill thematically, and the big, highly compressed sounds created by the handful of producers, such as Dr. Luke and Max Martin,  that record labels depend on for sure-fire hits are becoming sports-show staples. A combination of this diversity and growing demand in general led APM to launch a dedicated sports-music Website, which went live at the end of May.

Jennings adds that another kind of hybrid, one in which genres like country and rock add hip-hop elements, is showing up on sports shows. “It’s just what we’re hearing on the radio now,” she says, noting that sports is as much an entertainment proposition as it is about competition. “Sports is simply reflecting the same trends we have in the larger entertainment culture.”

How To Find It
With millions of tracks to choose from, the real problem is finding the one you really want. All of the major production-music firms have developed online portals that use metadata, mostly in the form of highly subjective tag words, verbal emoticons — “sad,” “wistful,” “way cool,” “sk8tr” — that can sound like a primer on teenage adjectives.

But, as the haystack gets bigger and the needles smaller, these companies are offering curation services, sometimes taking those to concierge levels for their best customers.

“Curation is becoming more common,” Jennings says. “[Online] portals are fine if you have a really good idea of what it is you’re looking for. But you have a lot of noise to get through, especially with all the do-it-yourself Websites out there. I find that a lot of music decision-makers just don’t have the time to wade through it all, so we’re there to work with them.”

Short of providing actual music-supervision services and personnel (which several of the companies can do, at additional cost), the major production-music companies don’t charge for enhanced search services, and, in any event, most clients seem to be satisfied doing their own online searches.

The libraries are seeing encroachment in the field by dozens of independent music-service Websites that aim to help their members get their music in front of potential licensees and are becoming attractive to broadcast sports expands. Some feel that it helps feed the increased diversity of sports, especially collegiate and extreme sports looking for the cutting-edge indie tracks that might not yet be on the radar screens of the traditional production-music developers. Others are concerned about music overload and, in some cases, about polluting the waters with questionably cleared tracks.

“They can clog up the plumbing and confuse the landscape,” says Mendelsohn, whose company is a member of the Production Music Association, as are all the other companies SVG talked to for this article.

“As a group, we adhere to certain standards of sound quality, copyright, and clearances,” notes Mendelsohn, who is also a PMA board member. “The self-serve end of the business is open to anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection. Costs may be less for music, but the real cost is the possibility of infringement.”

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