How a small music agency is helping indie artists sell out

By Erin Griffith , written on August 22, 2013

From The News Desk

It used to be that fans would cringe if they heard a band's song in a commercial. Selling out, or compromising one's precious art for crass commercialism, was incredibly un-rock and roll. (Spinal Tap's Rock'n'Rolls comes to mind.) 

And then the music industry died, basically, and bands have a much harder time making a living on album sales and touring. Licensing songs to commercials has become standard since 2008. Pop singer Santigold led the way, penning tracks for brands like Ford, Converse, and Bud Light Lime, and agreeing to have her music played in Target. Here's a quote from a New York Magazine profile:

Everybody wants you to sell a lot of records, but it’s not considered a failure if you don’t. The record labels know that most of the money nowadays is made in licensing. On MTV, their whole approach is to put your songs in their programming now. … So where before it might have been, ‘Oh, you’re gonna sell out?’ now it’s how we make our money.
Beyond that, a good licensing deal can translate into a hit. As Planet Money pointed out in July, the radio hit "I Love It" by Icona Pop hit No. 2 in America's Top 40 this summer, over a year after it was released. The song only became a summer anthem after it was prominently featured in an iconic scene in the HBO show "Girls."

So now up-and-coming bands are eager to sell out. It's just a matter of getting the chance to do it.

Marmoset Music is a Portland-based boutique music agency helping them live their sell-out dreams. "We joked that we should have a tagline on the site that says 'helping artists sell out,'" says co-founder Ryan Wines. That's the state of the music industry today: Jokes about selling out are barely offensive, even to pretentious music snobs.

Marmoset got its start a few years back as a composition house, providing custom scores for ad agencies and film studios. But Wines, who has an ad agency background, noticed that his clients were increasingly asking to be connected with indie artists.

"We're finding self-recorded music that's done on a budget is what consumers and people are relating to. It has heart, basically, and people are relating to it more than the traditional music model -- rather than jingles that feel slick and contrived," he says. It just so happens that the bands making this kind of music are eager for the opportunity to be featured in TV shows and commercials.

After testing a bare-bones, cobbled-together Wordpress site as a platform to connect agencies and brands, Marmoset hired digital agency Flavor to help it build a slick-looking self-serve platform. The company is in the midst of a transition from a boutique into a marketplace driven by technology.

The new site allows companies to find music and purchase licenses directly from artists. Marmoset's site has around 7,000 songs, 28,000 guest accounts, 311 of which have converted to customers. The Wordpress version of the site generated around $30,000 a month in gross sales; with the new site Marmoset predicts around $2 million in revenue this year. Marmoset doesn't disclose the breakdown of revenue sharing between it and artists or their labels.

The deals are fairly inexpensive (in $1,000 range and lower) and include limited rights. For bigger deals, Marmoset acts as a broker between artists and agencies and film-makers. Already Marmoset's site has facilitated some career-changing deals with little-known artists. A $20,000 or $40,000 check can mean the difference between starving artist and working musician; a feature on a national commercial could lead to wider recognition. A band called Fever Fever landed a large contract with a Southern California health care company, a band called Kye Kye was featured in some Samsung promotions, and a band called Purse Candy sold a big license with Toshiba.

Certainly there are other companies offering a licensing platform for indie artists. Jingle Punks, started in 2008, had paid 1000 artists $1 million as of a year ago. Pump Audio and Taxi offer similar services through painfully cheesy interfaces. Even Getty offers stock music and Vimeo and YouTube have their own music stores. (My own band signed a deal with a service like this -- can't remember which -- years ago, which led to features Vampire Diaries and Suburgatory. It did not, however, translate to untold riches.) "What we've found with the big stock music places is it's not good quality," Wine says.

Wine believes Marmoset has an advantage because of its personal connections with indie bands  its and focus on filmmakers. Aside from it's history as a composition house, the company has indie artists (members of the Fruitbats and The Shins) and filmmakers as advisors and employees. Beyond that, still has the ability to commission custom scores. That makes up around 25 percent of Marmoset's business. Now, when composers come up with five or so options for a score and the client chooses one, the leftovers can be listed on Marmoset's platform for others to license.

For every startup that sees an industry in transition and sets out to "disrupt" or "revolutionize" it, there's a humbler effort like Marmoset being built by industry insiders under the radar. The company's lack of Silicon Valley roots may end up being its biggest advantage. It's as Chris Dixon said -- if you want to disrupt an industry, you better know it well.

[Image via Stereogum]