Working towards a fairer music industry

In Conversation With : Ruth Wyatt

The idea of working for one of the major record labels can be a dream for many when starting out in music. The age old question is, how do you get your foot in the door in amongst so much competition? While there isn’t one definitive answer, a common theme across the industry as a whole is perseverance and Warner Music’s Creative Sync Manager Ruth Wyatt is another example of this quality paying off. After gaining experience through a university placement, her determination to cement a career in the industry turned Ruth’s initial job hunt into a full on research project. 

We spoke to Ruth to find more about her role, the skills needed to be successful in the sync and licensing world and the avenues to go down when looking for an entry level job in this area.

Firstly, how did you come to work in the music industry?

I went to University of Surrey to study music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point but I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, which is what a lot of the traditional music courses set you up to be. Going to Surrey allowed me to study aspects of event management, music politics, and African and American music. It was a four year course with a year’s work placement, so it was really diverse. Through that, I did a year’s placement at Abbey Road Studios with a company called Hot House Music, which is a film and music supervision company that works on putting music on to big films, and they’re actually now a client of mine. I was an assistant there for a year and thought it was a fun job. I really wanted a desk job that would still feel creative, and it felt like sync was that.

I also sent an email to every company I could possibly think of asking for work and after my first year at uni, I met a guy called Aiden from BMG who offered me work in his royalties department. I got paid to fill out royalty numbers, and I thought it was great. When you first come into the music industry you don’t know what to expect, and I remember arriving at the BMG office and there were plasma TVs on the wall and shiny floors, and I thought it was so cool. My idea of a work office was clearly super lame! That helped me gain more experience and then when I came out of uni I ended up working at Warner, which is where I’ve been for the last five years.

What is music sync and what does a sync manager do?

My job is to put music into films, television programmes and trailers. I work broadly in the domestic UK, which means I work across TV channels like BBC and ITV and on programmes like Love Island, Made In Chelsea, and The Only Way Is Essex and also Sky Sports and BT Sports… basically, whatever’s on TV in the UK, I’m trying to put music on it. Then the other side of my work is trying to put music on shows that are released by UK production companies on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. In my team, other people head up putting music to things like gaming, advertising, and new media like TikTok, Youtube Originals and engaging with influencers.

Sometimes it’s a creative approach, which means someone will reach out to me and say “Hi, I’m working on this film. It’s set in 1976 and I’m looking for a female vocal with this many beats per minute and these lyrics” and you’ll go “here’s the track”. Sometimes it’s a really niche request or sometimes it will be really broad. At the moment, for example, it’s been a terrible year so everyone wants lyrics that are like “we’re going to be okay” or “everything’s going to be alright”.

The other side of it is licensing. That’s where someone comes to me already knowing what they want. For example, they might say that they’re working on a documentary and want to use a Prince track or a Bowie track. They’ll need to come to us with the title of the track, the terms, the media, and the duration. Then I’ll give them a quote on how much it will cost them to use that track which also depends on how long they’ll want to use it for. E.g. one year is going to cost them much less than if they want to use it for five years or forever. If something is geo-locked then that means they can only use it in the UK, which is going to be a lot cheaper than using it worldwide. And if there’s a media spend behind it then we need to push our fee up because it means it’s going to be seen by more people.

Does it ever work the other way around – do you pitch music to programmes or films?

Nearly every artist wants a sync, so we are in touch with our artist’s managers and often it might be the case that a particular manager might reach out to me and say “hey, there’s this new orchestral version of this track we’ve made. Can you see it fitting anywhere?” and then I’ll make that a focus when thinking about tracks to push out to people. My job is brilliant and creative, but it can also be frustrating. Sometimes I know a track is perfect for a brief but ultimately I don’t make the final decision. There’s always a music supervisor who sits in the middle of the sync manager and a TV company, and the music supervisor and production manager will have the final say on which track gets used. I might think a song is the best fit ever but it doesn’t always work out.

Can you offer advice for anyone looking to work in sync? Where should they start?

I hire sync interns, and I often think about what I want from them. Ultimately, I want them to show me that they really love music. You don’t have to have a degree in music, but if you can show that you’re super genuinely interested in music and particularly in sync then that’s really important. There are internships available, and for me it did work just reaching out to companies and asking if they need an extra pair of hands. That may be difficult for the major labels but you could approach indie labels or rights holders because the moment you have one thing that you can put on your CV then new doors will open up.

I’d say working in sync is 70% being able to speak to people and be nice, and 30% knowing absolutely everything about music. Being able to make opportunities happen and be the person people want to call, then also being able to jump into a massive pool of knowledge about music and work to a brief. It’s very client facing, so personality does matter in this job but that’s not to say you can’t be an introvert and work in sync, you just have to be aware of the role. You also have to be meticulous about details. You can’t accidentally leave a 0 off of a number if you’re doing a Rod Stewart deal. That’s going to end badly! Or if you put 10 seconds instead of 1 minute then we’d suddenly be in a lot of trouble. The terms are very detail oriented in that respect.

As an intern, your job will be to support the team and learn as much as possible. But within that, you might do things like sending mailers out to our clients, and so being able to use things like Photoshop or Adobe Creative Suite is something that will help you. Extra skill sets that aren’t directly linked to the job are actually really useful to employers.

How can people find out about the different companies out there?

When I was starting out I literally went on every single music website I could find and I had everything from Ninja Tune to Cooking Vinyl to BMG opened. I literally wrote down all of the emails on their websites and spammed everyone. I sent about 200 emails that day! If you’re looking particularly for the publishing side, the MPA (Music Publishing Association) website has a list of contacts for all the publishers, and that’s open for anyone to see, so I’d really recommend looking on there. Another way of doing it is taking a track you really like and going on Spotify where you can see who owns it. Then you can google that record label and see what comes up. It’s basically just a massive research project. I didn’t know a single person in the music industry whatsoever, so my only approach was to email as many people as I possibly could until I found a way in. You only need one person to say yes to you.

Is sync and licensing something you actively encourage artists to be aware of as a revenue stream?

Music on programmes like Love Island resonates really well with people. They Shazam it, and that influences the Shazam charts which in turn influences Spotify playlisting, which means managers and labels can re-pitch to Spotify with stats and help grow their artists. So the whole ecosystem really works.

How does sync fit into the bigger picture for a company as prolific as Warner?

I’d say that the music industry is moving in a really interesting way. We’re obviously a record label and we release music, but we’re also becoming more and more a tech company. We have to think about our online content and presence constantly. Over the last few years, Warner has been buying and partnering with tech companies because that’s the direction things are moving. Everything is sort of merging. The influence of Tik Tok and Twitch – these platforms really build momentum for artists, so I think being aware of how tech influences music is important, particularly in the sync world. It’s not just TV and film anymore, there’s influencing and gaming to think about. Stormzy has been put in a game now, that kind of artist integration has never happened before and now it has.

How has COVID affected your work and do you see these effects lasting?

The advertising world ground to a halt. Bearing in mind advertising makes up a large portion of our annual revenue, we lost a lot of money during lockdown months, because brands couldn’t promote certain products in a lockdown situation. There was an advert for Strongbow which one of our emerging bands – The Snuts – had landed the sync for, but the advert was all about going to the beach and having a drink with your mates. Great ad, but there’s no way that could be put out during lockdown, so that got pulled temporarily and industries such as supermarket ads took over. Again, you have to be sensitive to the situation, so a lot of classical and piano music came through which meant advertisers didn’t need our commercial catalogue as much. 

I think in some ways there’s been a positive impact, in that because everyone is at home there’s been way more demand for TV shows. Netflix have announced that they’re investing loads of money in productions for next year, and I think that’s partly because of how much they’ve made during this time. So in that sense that’s a positive outcome for my industry.

Normally I’d go to see clients, I’d arrive at a meeting with some vinyl and have a nice chat, but not being able to do that has meant that we’ve had to come up with new ways to connect, like sending out a new music journal to our clients every week, and we’ve actually seen more engagement from that. Sometimes people are too exhausted to be going out to gigs all the time, so with this it means they can just press a button to listen. We’ve also done showcases with unreleased music, and that’s brought a new level of intimacy between the artist and our clients which you might not always get at a normal show.

Finally, what have been some of your favourite campaigns to work on?

Kojey Radical did a spot this Summer for BT Sport called Time For A New Season. They wanted to make a promo about how this has been a season like no other because of COVID, and also bring in aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement and support for the NHS into the narrative. Kojey wrote the lyrics and Swindle produced it and it’s really powerful because it captures the most unprecedented year in such a powerful way.

One of my other favourites has been the Maisie Peters syncs on Love Island for the Amy and Curtis year where the editors used her music to narrate them getting together and breaking up. She jumped into the shazam charts, got her first plays on radio 1, and was then placed on other radio playlists too, playlisting across DSPs ramped up too, apparently her manager's phone was going crazy. It was an epic moment for Maisie.

Finally, Steve Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen is currently sitting on The Crown season 4. They use the full version when Diana is really positive and getting ready to go out, and then at the end of the episode when she’s lost and lonely they use just the vocal stem to reflect her feelings of isolation and it follows the full circle of her emotions. It is class.

Finally, Steve Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen is currently sitting on The Crown season 4. They use the full version when Diana is really positive and getting ready to go out, and then at the end of the episode when she’s lost and lonely they use just the vocal stem to reflect her feelings of isolation and it follows the full circle of her emotions. It is class.