Tech Focus: Sports Music, Part 1 — Pandemic Spurs Greater Demand

Augmented crowd sound opens new channel for suppliers

Production music — the vast well of styles, sounds, genres, and emotions underscoring televised sports — has been both a hotbed of legal turbulence (assertions of copyright infringements and DCMA takedowns abound over licensing issues) and a generically predictable process in which NBA shows reflexively get bassy hip-hop and baseball gets crunchy rock guitars. From the leading music houses that service the major leagues to the upstart indie-music mills whose home studios churn out some of the more fashion-forward (and royalty-free) sounds favored by online and margin sports, broadcasters and venue-sound specialists have literally millions of tracks, clips, and stems to choose from.

Then COVID-19 came along, bringing with it an entirely new conduit for sports sound in the form of augmented crowd sounds, cheers, and music. The production-music industry didn’t miss a beat.

“We found that sports was using a lot more [rerecorded] effects and music, both on the air and in the venue,” says Peter Alexander, sales manager, Sound Ideas, which provides those sorts of sound bites to Georgia Tech, Wake Forest Athletics, Hofstra University, and other collegiate customers. “The sounds are being picked up by the broadcast microphones, and they help the athletes and the viewers get more of a sense of normalcy. But we don’t expect [demand for that] to last once people are back in the seats.”

Last year, Whitney Arnold, VP, music services, Stephen Arnold Music, whose production-music arm The Vault has supplied production music for ESPN, the Denver Nuggets’ Altitude Sports, and Golf Channel, told SVG, “That’s the big question right now: how do we re-engage the fanbase of sports, and how do we keep them engaged until sports does come back?”

A year on, he says that the augmented crowd sounds, the faces on the MS Teams screens, and a production-music underscore for the NBA’s Orlando “bubble” answered that question.

“I think that was really powerful,” he explains. “The tie-in to production music is that, in-game/in-arena, the vibe is the same, or trying to be. The NBA had hip-hop beats playing during game play, and, with the virtual fans as a backdrop courtside, this made at least the broadcast feel normal and like there was fan engagement.

“Baseball,” he continues, “was a little harder because there was no way to disguise the big empty ballparks. But I saw some great TV spots around the fan cardboard cutouts, and the music that was paired with these spots felt like a normal cross-channel promo. A lot of teams did fantastic work trying to keep fans involved. And, even when music isn’t the primary driver of the message, it obviously always helps to set the tone and tell a story.”

According to Matthew Gutknecht, director, sports entertainment, APM Music, the imminent lifting of pandemic restrictions on sports has unleashed pent-up demand for production music and licensed popular songs. That has been especially true of teams and leagues that have been much busier in recent years developing and distributing their own custom content, with music a common thread throughout their social-media initiatives.

“We’ve been overwhelmed in the last few weeks, but in a good way,” he says, noting demand for music from the WNBA, MLS, NHL, and other leagues. “The market indicators suggest they’re anticipating high demand for content in the next few months as everything comes together again.”

The Rights Stuff

Issues around rights management — or lack thereof — became more intense while sports was shut down and media mergers proliferated. Twitter and YouTube DCMA-based takedowns, which two years ago entangled NCAA and NBA teams, have moved increasingly from warning shots to litigation, underscoring the rising value of copyrights and concomitant costs of infringement. Most recently, the Arizona Cardinals reportedly struck a six-figure settlement with at least one record label over the issue.

Not surprisingly, Gutknecht says the solution is to look to the assurances offered by library-music firms like his for music that captures the essence of the hits the social-media clips like to use but without the potential for infringement, such as this APM clip that cleverly evokes HBO’s Game of Thrones without inviting litigious decapitation.

“The consequences [of infringement] have increased,” he says, “and now clients aren’t just looking for music. They’re seeking assurances about indemnification and about costs. This is also becoming more critical as teams and colleges move from just distributing their content locally to putting it up online globally.

“Pro teams and colleges now are content factories,” Gutknecht continues. “As they distribute more content more widely, the potential for liability increases. It has made our ability to advise and provide support and services in addition to the music more important to those clients.”

Other Trends

That goes hand in hand with another notable trend in music in general in the last year: the massive uptick in music-catalog sales. Equity funds-backed companies, such as Hipgnosis and Iconic Artists Group, have made headline-grabbing, multibillion-dollar acquisitions of catalogs by such artists as Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Neil Young, Shakira, and Fleetwood Mac. This means that stadium-ready tracks like Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” have new availability and perhaps will become more affordable, as acquiring entities make more direct deals with broadcasters.

Similarly, Audio Network Limited, a UK-based supplier of production music, including thousands of sports clips such as team chants and other sports-specific tracks, was wholly acquired in April by global media-content developer Entertainment One (eOne) for a reported $215 million.

Those songs and others are already showing up more often in sports broadcasts as rights buyers seek ROI.

“The dollar amounts are huge in these transactions,” notes Arnold, “and sports is a natural place for them to look to monetize those acquisitions.”

Esports is another area making greater use of production music and catalog tracks. In April, for instance, Warner Music’s Asia office sealed a deal, for an undisclosed amount, that makes it the exclusive music partner to Singapore-based gaming platform Esports Player League. The deal will allow ESPL, which claims to be the world’s first amateur and casual esports platform and serves more than 600 million gamers globally, to embed Warner Music songs into its platform.

Click here for Tech Focus: Sports Music, Part 2 — A Look at the Libraries.

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